Easy Tips for How to Discover Your Family’s History

Tracking your family’s genealogy is a fun and intriguing hobby. Follow these tips from Kristyn Balog, executive director of the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society (HSAHS), and start unraveling your own history!

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Kristyn Balog, executive director of the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society (HSAHS), loves helping people explore their family’s story. Prior to the pandemic, the historical society regularly hosted genealogy events, welcoming guests to drop in to learn the basics of ancestry.com. Kristyn plans to bring back these events in the future, also adding structured workshops focused on specific topics, like how to use census records to help people dig deeper into their research.

Here, Kristyn shares tips on how to begin mapping your family’s history at home.

What’s the very first information to collect?

I recommend getting started by collecting all the information you already have about your family. Ask your parents/grandparents about a family tree, look through a family Bible or scrapbook, search out vital records in your attic, etc. Building a family tree can be helpful, especially as a way to organize all the facts and material you gather.

Building from a solid foundation makes the rest of the research process easier. Start with an ancestor you know a lot about; I recommend a grandparent. You need to know approximately what year they were born in, where they’ve lived and other details like the names of their siblings. Once you’ve managed to find enough facts about that person, you can work backward in time from that solid base.

What tools/resources are available online?

Ancestry.com is great and it’s free to have an account, but you have to pay for advanced features like the family tree builder and access to international records. Ancestry.com also has a lot of free content and resources for getting started with family history research, reading certain types of records, etc. FamilySearch is another free website that uses the same archival databases as Ancestry but they have a free family tree builder. I find ancestry.com to be easier to work in and worth the monthly membership for their family tree builder.

I also recommend searching the online databases of local historical societies, county and state governments, libraries, etc. Often the only cost associated with these searches is for copies of records or research assistance from employees.

What are common problems people run into?

The most common problem beginners run into is starting their search with a relative they don’t know enough about. Many people want to know about their great-grandparents, but only have a name or a location to search by. Most beginners think there couldn’t possibly be another “Mabel Agnes Smith” in Ohio in 1860, but quickly find that either they are getting hundreds of results to sift through (with 15 “Mabel Agnes”) or nothing comes up at all. Working back in time from a firmer foundation usually helps keep things clearer. If you know the names of all of Mabel Agnes’ children, you can more easily decipher which Mabel Agnes out of the 15 possibilities is “your” Mabel.

I’ve also discovered that beginners often don’t know how ancestry.com works. The site is a database; it pulls digital records from thousands of sources into a searchable archive. Because it’s built from digitized sources, it changes all the time. When a state decides to scan and post old vital records online, those can become part of Ancestry’s collection. There are new databases added every day and it’s worth re-running a search that didn’t work in the past after some time has gone by, in case a new and relevant source has been added.

You do eventually hit roadblocks and the “information well” does begin to run dry. But new sources and records are being digitized all the time so there’s almost always something more to discover.

What’s something cool an HSAHS genealogy event participant has discovered?

One woman was looking for information about her birth family. She had names and dates but not much else. We were able to find a scanned high school yearbook with several pictures of her father. She actually started crying when she saw the photographs and said she’d never seen a picture of him before. That was very special to be a part of.

Any advice you want to add?

Once you’ve discovered as much as you can about an ancestor or hit a roadblock in your research, I recommend learning more about the history of the town or the era they’re from. Learning what life was like for your ancestor helps forge a connection with them and makes that history even more personal.

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