The American Historian

20th Century American History

How to Series: Research Genealogy

Let’s talk genealogy!

According to George Mason, author of How to Do Everything: Genealogy we must understand the difference between the following:

•   Genealogy is the scholarly study of a family’s line of descent from its ancestors, during which one develops an understanding of the family’s historical context and documents its history and traditions.

•   Family history is the study of a family’s history and traditions over an extended period of time and may involve documenting some or all of the facts.

Genealogy is important. We owe the past for our present. Remembering them is how I honor my parents, their parents, and so-on. From the joy of raising a family to the travesty of death, the human experience is truly amazing. Their story is a story worth remembering. It is a story worth telling to future generations. I am not talking about some existential crisis here, rather the joy of what it means to have existed and take part in life. Millions of American’s don’t make it out of the womb, let alone see old age to come. So let us today learn how to research genealogy effectively.

History may be a boring subject for some, but when asked about someone’s own history, it guarantees a conversation. Whether a family came from Europe, Africa, or Asia, people want to know about thier own lineage. People care about where their parents came from, what boat their great-great grandparents arrived on, what languages they spoke, and what activities they took part. History is selfish in this manner, we sometimes only concern ourselves with what matters to us. But we can also see this self-serving need simultaneously serves others, including generations to come.

To begin, let us use an example of my research method for building a family tree. A family tree is an infographic that provides an easy-to-read format for genealogy in a flow chart. You’ll want to use either create your own using Microsoft Word ( or use the included software with something like

My family tree!

Now that you see what the family tree infographic looks like, we can begin our endeavor. The first thing you’ll want to do is write everything you know about your family. In her book, Genealogy Online, Elizabeth Crowe advises to pick a family line a run with it. Start with yourself and create a basic information outline that you’ll apply to everyone whom you research. You should aim for information such as date of birth, date of death, location of birth/death, graduation dates, military dates and honors, spouse information, etc… Write this information for everyone you know so far and begin filling in your tree. Talk to your parents and any other family and write what they say. It’s important! You should have a good start!

Now let’s talk about databases and repositories. As you can see, I have documented 14 members of my family preceding me. Each one of these people has an extensive array of information available about them I found in many online databases. We’ll talk about how draft records, census records, entrance logs, and other articles are beneficial to your research later, but first we’ll talk about the different places one can find this information. Record collection databases are at an all-time high level of access. Some companies have found viable business models in the distribution of this data and have monetized access to these records. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! It takes skilled employees, computer equipment, access to records, and many other overhead costs for this information maintenance on computer servers. Let’s talk about a few paid companies that can help you

These companies charge a monthly or yearly fee for access. I use and have had good luck working with my other extended family as we collaborate on work together. The advantage of these paid sites is that they have advanced search engines and use your searches to suggest pertinent information valuable to your search.

However, there is no need to pay for these unless you are looking solely for convenience. There are many free websites worth looking into such as

The US Gen Web Project

Cyndi’s List

Which ever option you choose, you will find access to census records, military records, newspaper articles, immigration and travel documents, marriage, birth, and death certificates, and voter lists that will help you construct your history. It is easy to get bogged down with too much data at one moment then have too much information the next. Remember what your goal is and don’t be afraid to save documents for later use or examination.

Passenger list when my great-great-great grandfather got off the boat in New York!

Collect all of your information and stay organized. If you get stuck, consider your methodology and changing as needed. Consider something besides a family tree to display the research you have discovered. Paula Nicholson, in her book, Genealogy, Psychology, and Identity, suggests using maps data to display your work. Considered a collage, a short video compiling the oral interviews discovered, or even a recorded talk about the work you’ve done.

Most importantly, preserve your work and make it public for your extended family and future generations to find. Putting in countless hours into a project to discover one’s lineage is worthless if it’s kept private and out of the hands of those to come. Imagine finding a complete genealogy that was kept in pristine condition document the last 15 generations of your ancestry. You’d be dumbfounded! There are always new databases being scanned into repositories each year. If you get stuck, don’t be afraid to come back at a later date and search again. New information is always just one dusty old box away from being rediscovered!

Crowe, Elizabeth Powell. Genealogy Online . Tenth edition., McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.

Fisette, Jonathan. “Jonathan Fisette’s Family Tree.” Accessed September 27, 2019.

Morgan, George G. How to Do Everything. Fourth ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.

Nicolson, Paula. Genealogy, Psychology, and Identity: Tales from a Family Tree. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

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