By Elizabeth Wasserman
Several years and two children later, the Norwalk, Conn. mother has found enough information through online databases and genealogy web sites to trace the DeLozier side of her family all the way back to the first settler who came over from France. “Daniel DeLozier was a big deal at the time of the Revolutionary War,” she says. “He was the guy who did the original survey on the harbor in Baltimore and was very tight with the founding fathers. I’ve found paintings of him online — complete with a powdered wig.”
There can be any number of reasons to get started: Your child might have a heritage project at school. You could have questions about genetics and disease. A death or birth in the family or the quest to verify some family lore could inspire you. But sleuthing out ancestral roots is an activity that you can share with young and old alike in your family. Here’s how to explore:
Step 1: Check out the tools
A growing number of web sites can help you start documenting your family tree:
- Ancestry.com lets you build a family tree for free by inputting information about various relatives, such as their birth dates and locations or if they are deceased. You can choose to keep your family tree private. Or you can share it with others so you might be reunited with other branches of your extended family. You can also pay for access to more in-depth tools, such as searchable databases of U.S. Census data, immigration information, or Social Security records. Genealogy.com offers similar features.
- Family Tree Maker (familytreemaker.com) is a $29.95 software program that helps you draw up a family tree with step-by-step instructions, after it lets you automatically search records on ancestry.com, for instance.
- Familysearch.org is one of the most helpful free sites with tons of tips and searchable databases. Sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the site is a great tool no matter what your background is, because the founders have been preserving their family histories worldwide for the last century. On familysearch.org, for example, you can search a database of surnames to see if someone else has already found your ancestors.
- Genealogytoday.com has a large archive of articles about everything from using church records or wills as research tools to tracing Native American roots.
- Specialized resources such the National Archives (archives.gov/genealogy) or the USGenWeb Project (usgenweb.com) offer more resources — even links to state or country records. Or you can visit the New England Historical Genealogical Society (newenglandancestors.org), which has free access to the U.S. Social Security Administration’s Death Index, a database containing the names of most people who died after 1965.
Step 2: Get Researching
You actually might want to start your research offline by assembling the family records you have on hand, such as birth and death records or dates, Social Security numbers, marriage certificates, or mortgage and land deeds.
A good way to involve your children is to recruit them to interview relatives, such as grandparents, either in person or via the computer with email or IM. Even the most resistant relatives will open up if you show them old photo albums and ask where the pictures were taken and when. Don’t forget to ask for specifics, though, like the year certain relatives immigrated to the United States or what towns they hailed from in the old country.
Once armed with some facts, it’s time to input your relatives’ information into some of the searchable online databases. What pops up might surprise you. If you’re not having any luck tracing your roots on the basic sites, you can dig deeper. Was your relative a Civil War vet? On the National Parks Service web site www.itd.nps.gov/cwss, you can find such gems as all the soldiers and sailors who participated in the Civil War. Did your family come through New York’s Ellis Island? You can sift through passenger manifests from Ellis Island that have been digitized and are available online (ellisisland.org).
To ensure success, Matthew Helm, co-author of the book Genealogy Online for Dummies, (who also runs a genealogy site familytoolbox.com) recommends that you start your search with less common surnames. “Your level of success is directly related to the names you pick,” Helms says. “It’s hard to tell two John Smiths apart.”
Step 3: Create and share
Next you can use a site like ancestry.com to actually build and maintain your family tree online. If you want it to grow, use free sites like rootsweb.com where you can add your family tree to a global database so that long-lost relatives may find you. Once your family tree is online, you can send the link to other family members so they can add branches, too.
You can also preserve all your hard work with a custom-made genealogical chart — from the standard pedigree type to one actually in the shape of a tree. Check out Misbach Enterprises (misbach.org) to print a free chart from its web site, or order one for around ten dollars.
Either way, experts say you should document all your research, noting your sources, so that it can help your children or your grandchildren when they get a yearning to know more about their roots. Plus, you might want to entice your tech-savvy kids to actually maintain your online family tree. Still, for some budding genealogists, just knowing that you have put together pieces of a family puzzle is satisfaction enough.
Elizabeth Wasserman is a freelance writer and editor based in Fairfax, Va. She writes for a variety of publications including Congressional Quarterly, Inc magazine, and she edits the online publication CIO Strategy Center.