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How to trace your roots

Knowing your past can offer a broader perspective on life and spur a greater compassion for other people. Ready to give it a try? Here are some tips.

People walk over a world map engraved in marble in Lisbon in 2011.
People walk over a world map engraved in marble in Lisbon in 2011.REUTERS

When Sarah Murphy was interested in tracing her family roots in Ireland, she gathered as much family history as she could, then consulted a professional genealogist.

“Sarah had some family stories which proved useful in our quest for her Irish roots,” says Lorna Maloney, the in-house genealogist for Dromoland Castle, a historic hotel and country estate in Dromoland, Ireland.

One story involved her ancestor running away from home to escape an arranged marriage, during pre-famine Ireland when matches were common to unify land rights. Maloney, through a deep dive into various records, discovered that Sarah’s ancestor went to America, worked in New Orleans, and strangely, married the same person he fled to avoid! She had also immigrated to the United States, and the couple went on to have five children, who all prospered in America.


Murphy plans to travel to Ireland when it’s safe, to meet up with Maloney face-to-face at Dromoland Castle, and to visit her ancestor’s home. “We show clients the townland and village of their origin, which is always an emotional journey,” Maloney says. “Many like to take some soil back with them and know that they walked in the footsteps of their ancestors.”

That connection to the past and window into our heritage are powerful factors driving interest in tracing our roots. “We’ve seen a big jump in family history research in 2020 and I think it’s because people are looking for connection,” says Janet Hovorka, Association of Professional Genealogists marketing committee chair. “Knowing the forces that have come together to create the life you lead gives you a sense of belonging and clarity.”

Hovorka also believes that knowing your past can offer a broader perspective on life and help spur a greater compassion for other people. “I honestly believe that if everyone knew more about their family history, many of society’s problems would disappear,” she says. “Family history teaches you that we all struggle, we all have triumphs, and eventually you find out that we really are all related.”


Ready to give it a try? Here are some tips.

Start with what you know

“Building a family tree starts simply with the facts about yourself, parents, and grandparents,” says Jennifer Utley, director of research at Ancestry, a family history company with the world’s largest collection of online records and DNA network.

Jot down any dates and locations you can remember (even close guesses can help) and collect items of family history that you already own, such as marriage and birth certificates, funeral programs, photos, graduation announcements, yearbooks, and the like, “Anything that gives dates and places or describes relationships,” Hovorka says.

One good source: yearbooks. “You’re likely well acquainted with your grandparents’ wedding photo or that extended family group that hangs over the mantel, but have you checked out yearbooks?” asks Utley. “Those candid photos are probably gems you won’t find elsewhere. Check out your great-grandparents’ teenage style, the athletic teams and clubs they belonged to, and the quote they chose to be remembered by. You might be in for a surprise.

Once you’ve exhausted everything you know, start talking to others in the family and record the results. “Sometimes these conversations may not be factual, but they’ll usually give you good hints and send you in the right direction,” Hovorka says.

Most experts advise starting with the eldest living relative. “Talk to the oldest family member about their lives when they were young, the people they remember, and the lessons they learned along the way,” says Utley.


Narrow the search

Do you want to find out where your great-grandmother lived, where she worked? Is there a family story you want to confirm? Is there a branch missing in your family tree? “Start by identifying your family ancestry goals,” advises Maloney. The more specific and narrow your search, the easier it will be to home in on information and results.

Experts also advise focusing on one family branch at a time, and then moving on to others. Tackling multiple branches of your family can result in thousands of ancestors and an overload of information (and perhaps frustration!) Decide which family tree you’ll be tracing first; you can always change your mind or expand the search in the future.

“Once you’ve gathered all the information you can from living relatives, target your search, picking a project or family member to focus on,” says Utley. “Gather all available records about that person, their immediate family, and their contemporaries. Learn more about the area they lived in, even down to weather reports on the day of their birth.”

Use your resources

There are some terrific online resources, including land and property records, school records, marriage and baptismal registers, death certificates, Census records, and more. “Census records give you a snapshot of a family at a particular place and time,” says Utley. “And some of my favorite records are draft cards from World War I and World War II, which have descriptions of physical traits and distinguishing characteristics. And don’t forget newspapers; they are great sources to find stories that add more color to our family tree.”


You can research online records yourself, but also consider consulting one of the major genealogy sites like FamilySearch.com, Ancestry, MyHeritage, and 23andMe. Most have huge DNA databases, and billions of historical and immigration records. Think of it as a Google search for your family heritage, searching records electronically, as you build your family tree. Most offer a variety of refined searches as you move further into the process.

Family heritage websites also allow you to create family trees, and upload and store documents, archival materials, and photos.

DNA testing is another popular tool for family tree chasers. A 2018 MIT study revealed that some 26 million Americans had already taken an at-home DNA ancestry test. The consumer genetic testing market is expected to reach a value of $340 million by 2022, according to numbers by Credence Research.

At its simplest level, such a test provides a geographic chart of where your genes come from. But more advanced tests can include health testing analysis and lifestyle traits.

Hire a pro

“Sometimes brick walls can be created when you haven’t interpreted a record correctly, or have missed part of the information it contains,” says Hovorka.

Professional genealogists have the training to dig deeper and have often spent years helping clients tackle problems or dead ends. “Professional genealogists spend their days, months, years, even decades dealing with record sets and become very proficient at seeing not only what is there, but what is missing,” says Hovorka. “They know how to find records about your family history and how to flesh out the stories behind the records as well.”


Thinking of hiring a pro? Make sure you have a written contract that spells out exactly what you need help with and the scope of work. “A typical research project might be $2,500 for 20 hours of work,” says Hovorka. But prices can be all over the board.

“Often you get what you pay for in genealogy research work,” she says. “A more expensive researcher will usually be able to find more in the amount of time they work because they know where to look and have experience in interpreting the records.”

For a list of genealogists and their geographic specialties, visit www.apgen.org. Many online heritage sites also offer genealogist recommendations.

Travel to the homeland

Now that you’ve traced your roots, are you curious to see where your ancestors once lived?

“We’ve seen a steady increase in people interested in visiting where they ‘came’ from,” says Kathy Wurth, with Family Tree Tours, specializing in genealogy tours to Europe.

Wurth recommends connecting with someone from the town or area you’ll be visiting who can point you in the right direction of your search and help you with the language. You can do this on your own, or work with a travel adviser.

The Association of Professional Genealogists lists genealogists who offer travel and tour services. The American Society of Travel Advisors also allows you to search for member advisers who specialize in genealogy travel.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com