Every parent knows one day they will have to answer the dreaded question: “Where do babies come from?” Luckily, biology has made that answer cut-and-dried and fairly easy to relay. The more complicated question comes minutes, days, or years later when the child looks around and asks, “Ok, but where do I come from?” This is history and genealogy. Wrapped up in your family tree will be people you’ve never heard of who spent their days helping the world get from where it was then to where it is now.
I’m going to pause here and insert a couple of notes:
1) This project will look differently to every family, and that is a beautiful thing. If nothing else, this is the perfect launchpad for starting that conversation with your children.
2) If you choose to dig back far enough, you will undoubtedly encounter a tragedy of one kind of another. Human history is laced with premature deaths, natural disasters, wars, genocide, slavery, and epidemics. These are amazing teaching moments. Your emotions will rise up and you will be moved by people whom you’ve never met but without whom you would not exist. Digging deeper and learning more will aid your understanding for why people made the decisions they did, and will help everyone forgive and heal. In addition to the emotional stumbling blocks, these can result in a genealogical brick wall; often a little digging and sometimes a little travel will help chisel through it to the other side.
And so we begin.
Step one: Start at home. Start with yourself or your child. Decide how many lines you want to follow and how many generations back you want to go. For the preschooler, starting with immediate family, or family that is interacted with regularly is often enough. For my son, that looks like: “Mommy, Daddy, two aunts, one uncle, two cousins, two grandmothers, and two grandfathers.”
There are many projects you can do to illustrate your family – everything from a simple drawing or painting of the people in your life, to the more traditional tree with the names on branches or leaves. Sometimes a simple photo album is ideal (this has the added bonus of keeping the faces of loved ones familiar even when they’re far away.)
Step Two: Interview your family elders. The tradition of passing down culture through stories and memories is one that, while not happening on the formal scale that it once did, is luckily something that will live on as long as there are lingering meals at family tables. Older children can write out formal interview questions/conversation starters and then use their preferred method of recording to capture the stories. (Video, audio, good ol’ fashioned paper and pencil. I prefer the latter, as it allows me to record my own reactions to the stories.)
1) Where and when were you born?
2) What was the world like? (Were we at war? Was it during or just before The Depression?)
3) What is your earliest memory? What is your favorite memory?
4) What did your parents/grandparents do? (And when and where were they born?)
5) How many siblings did you have, and were they older or younger than you?
These will get the ball rolling, and you will be surprised at how the mention of a soap-box derby or a brother’s new bike will spark other memories – of favorite meals, or holidays, or just small moments that seem like nothing until you unwrap them and realize that this is, in fact, where you come from.
You can also seek out family bibles and journals to uncover clues. If you are lucky enough to come from a long line of archivists, writers, and educators, you may very well stumble upon an abundance of ephemera from the lives that came before you.
Step Three: Hit the internet. These days, the internet is just lousy with search engines and communities of enthusiasts eager to help you out on your journey (particularly if your journey overlaps with theirs.) There’s a list of resource links at the bottom of this article, most are free (the exception being Ancestry, which has a basic complimentary level, but requires a paid membership for you to be able to dig deeper.) I have found that sometimes the easiest thing to do is to put as much information into the google search box as you have and see what gets returned. That has led me to family pages that I otherwise might not have found.
For example, several years ago I decided that I needed to know if we were descended from Patriots (the common term for those who fought in the American Revolution.) My maternal grandmother always claimed she was, so I typed her grandmother’s name into the Google search bar, along with the words “American Revolution” and the second hit was a site called “grandmother’smaidenname.org.” The webmaster was kind enough to align me with my line, in return for my updating his information on what my living family statistics were.
Step Four: DNA. There are several companies out there that are mapping DNA. They can be costly (often they start out over $100) but if you have hit a wall, they can be what gets you through (or around) it—particularly if your interest is the tribe/area of Africa from whence your family came. I suggest doing thorough research into the company you choose if you feel that DNA testing is right for you.
Step Five: Travel. Oftentimes, the best thing to help your research (not to mention your soul) is to buy a ticket and go there. The church on the right is in the town in Switzerland from which my ancestors traveled. Even though it was closed the day we were there, and even though I could not find a family headstone in their graveyard, just knowing that I was sitting on a bench outside the place where my family worshipped and socialized and lived…there really aren’t words to describe it.
But you don’t have to cross an ocean, some trips are road trips. I have a plan, when my sons are old enough to handle the trip, that we will start in Charleston at their historical society/county records archive, and then make our way up to Germantown, PA to stand on the farmland our family worked when they arrived. Your journey could take you to Ellis Island, or San Francisco, or border towns along Mexico or Canada, or any number of port towns where people came to make new lives for themselves. (Think of the geography lessons you could incorporate!)
Following is a list of websites that will serve as a jumping-off point to dive into your research. Part two will publish tomorrow with a collection of projects that incorporate and build on what you uncover and how to tie the lessons into any other subjects that may need covering in your curriculum.
Ancestry.com (they have basic free services and for a fee have very in-depth services)
The Olden Times (Historical Newspapers)
RootsTech (annual conference)
RootsWeb (a community-based offshoot of Ancestry.com
You can also do a simple search for the city/town in question + historical society and see what pops up. (I found scanned family lineage from a bible that a Great-Great Aunt had donated!)