While DNA tests and genealogy sites are essential for researching your family’s past, there’s no reason to stop there. History, after all, is a rich and variegated tapestry of facts, legends, photos, statistics, personal stories, and physical artifacts waiting to be uncovered.
So if you want to research your family’s history, it helps to get creative. Here are 10 ideas to help you out. Some of them are research-based, some are fun, and some are, well, a bit out of the box. But they all have the potential to yield discoveries that shed new light on your roots, and, by extension, yourself.
1. Take a DNA Test
There’s a reason millions of people around the world have been spitting into a tube and sending their saliva through the mail. Top DNA tests are one of the quickest and easiest ways to peek into your genealogical past. Companies like MyHeritage and Ancestry.com offer affordable test kits that can yield revelations spanning ancient roots to still-living relatives. And as DNA testing continues to evolve, companies are offering more and more features that can, for example, track your ancient family’s migratory paths, or predict, based on genetic proclivities, whether you’ll go grey or not.
2. Build a Family Tree
Family trees are the best way to organize your findings and find new links between relatives. Many of the above-mentioned DNA test companies allow you to upload your results into their own family-tree-building programs. Otherwise, you can use genealogy sites like Ancestry.com, which boasts millions of users and acts as a sort of social network for other armchair genealogists. The great (and addictive) thing about genealogy sites is that the more you use them, the more the branches on your tree will connect with new people and yield exciting discoveries.
3. Join a Genealogy Forum
If your passion for family research has been sparked but you’re finding your tree to be a little bare, a good next step is to join one of the many genealogy forums online. RootsWeb, and the message board on Ancestry.com, are two very active boards where you can pick up tips and resources from fellow genealogists of both the professional and armchair varieties.
4. Research Your Last Name
Sometimes the answer is closer than you think. In many cases, your last name can tell you a good deal of information about your background. In some cultures, surnames were adopted from a family’s place of origin, occupation, or even temperament. A surname like “Smith,” for example, oftentimes points to the position of a blacksmith or similar artisan. Names like “Dale” or “Wood” may point to the landscape your relatives hailed from, and a name like “Goodman” can even clue you in to how your ancestors’ were viewed by their peers.
5. Check Your Attic
With so many genealogy websites and archives online, it’s easy to forget about good old-fashioned paper. But old letters, photo albums, yearbooks--and even the most mundane materials, like old receipts--can give you a more intimate view of your family’s lives than any website could manage. While accessing these may take some digging and sorting, the details you’ll find in your family’s own documents can tell a story you can’t find anywhere else.
6. Interview Your Relatives
Sick of going to Thanksgiving and having to rehash the same details of your life to relatives you haven’t seen in a year? Take advantage of family gatherings to rack the brains of your grandparents, aunts, uncles, and others for information about your family. Chances are they’ll have stories and tidbits you’ve never heard, and will be excited to share them. Pro-tip: bring a notebook, or better-yet, a voice-recording app, and capture it all for posterity.
7. Take a Paleography Course
A what course? Paleography. In technical terms, paleography is the study of ancient manuscripts, written forms, historical records, and other textual barriers that can be an obstacle to deciphering the past. In practical terms, it can help you make sense of materials from the old country. You don’t need to become an expert in paleography, but an introductory class or book could help steer you through uncharted waters once your search leads you through other countries, eras, and languages.
8. Book a Trip to the “Old Country”
There are some things you simply can’t learn from an old document. If you have the time and means, a trip to the village, town, or city that your family came from can provide wondrous insights that can’t be replicated over a computer screen. For one thing, you may find smaller libraries with almanacs, town censures, and other arcane documents that aren’t available online (this is where those paleography courses can pay off). And even if you don’t find any physical treasures, taking a stroll through the very streets your family walked through can bring them to life in a way that, while not tangible, is far more rewarding.
9. Consult a Medium or Past-Life Psychic
Hey, we warned you some of these would be offbeat, didn’t we? Although, to some people mediums and past-life psychics aren’t offbeat at all, but rather legitimate sources for revealing details and dimensions of our lives that are unknown to us. Whether you’re a believer, curious, or simply looking for a break from the tedium of searching immigration records, consulting a top online psychic or medium can give you some good fodder to think about as you return to your usual scientific methods.
10. Think About the Future!
This is not a contradiction. Genealogy may be focused on the past, but history is a continuum, and whether you realize it or not, you’re part of the genealogical past of your own children, their children, and all the future generations that will carry your name or DNA. Everything you uncover will be of interest to your descendants, which is why it’s good to keep them in mind as you collect and record your findings. Try to organize everything you find, make it accessible to them, and add as many of your own stories, anecdotes, and personal tidbits as you can. This way, your descendants will be more likely to engage with your own genealogical efforts and build on them to create an ever-expanding portrait of your family through time.
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