Discovering Your Family History: a practical guide

family history

You might think that spending time with your family means that you know all about them. The truth is your family history includes older generations and distant members you have never met but whose experiences are priceless. Each of your relatives has contributed, in one way or another, to your existence. Therefore, I believe we must discover everything about our family history – both as a token of gratitude to our ancestors and for our good.

Why you should learn about your family history

Firstly, the contemporary family focuses on the present and the future, with little regard for the past. The world has changed tremendously in the last fifty years, and so has the mentality. People chase their dream jobs hundreds of miles away, and they seldom keep in touch with their families. As a consequence, they become isolated even though they start families of their own. For some, that’s no big deal, but others yearn for their lost family bounds.

Secondly, knowing your family history is a crucial step in your self-discovery journey. If you are patient enough, you will find patterns of behaviors, medical conditions, and personality traits that you also have. While I might sound like Dirk Gently, everything is connected. You can find inspiration in your ancestors’ deeds, or you will find the power to break the unhealthy habits they couldn’t shake off. To sum it up, I’d like to add an eloquent quote from one of my favorite writers:

“If you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably going wrong.” (Sir Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight)

Now, some things you will find out might disturb you or might change the way you look at dear old aunt Millie, and that’s perfectly fine. People did what they thought was best for them, but that doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. My point is that you don’t have to love or respect every relative, but you should know your roots nevertheless.


How to discover your Family History

From my point of view, stories are the easiest way to do that. Ask your elders to speak about their childhood and about how life was back in the day. You could start the discussion by looking at old family photos and let the memories flow from there. You can take notes or record the stories and try to sketch a genealogical tree later. It is a long process, but it’s worth it. You will discover many funny stories that border on legend, and you will bond with your family members. You can even turn this into a new tradition at family reunions.

I loved looking at old black and white pictures when I was little. I asked many questions about my great-grandparents because I wanted to know them as people rather than just names on a gravestone.

But what if you don’t have access to the primary sources anymore?

It might be harder to learn about your family history, but there are a few ideas you can try.

For instance, go on My Heritage and register for free. Type in basic info about your family, like the name and geographic area, and you will find family branches related or not to yours. This website uses data from multiple sources, such as census records, hospital records, etc. You can even order a DNA kit to find out about your ethnic roots.

Another way to do that is the old-fashioned way, which means you must visit your hometown or the city your relatives have lived in and start from there. Go to public institutions such as libraries and the city hall and search for any relevant documents. I know it can be frustrating, but it’s the best shot you’ve got for discovering your past. And after you’ve found out the relative’s address, you can visit the neighborhood. Maybe you’ll meet another resident who remembers them or some descendant that still lives there.

I hope you’ll give this idea a try, no matter what you have previously thought about this subject. Learning about your family history can help your family become cohesive, but it can also help you see yourself in the bigger picture your ancestors have created.


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