Becoming an Explorer of Your Family History

Download MP3  (Right-click or option-click the link.)

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Shirley Griffith.

Our subject this week is an area of study that interests millions of people -- genealogy, researching family history.

People study their family history for different reasons. For some, genealogy is important to their religion. This is especially true for Mormons. Genealogy is also important for membership in some historical or cultural organizations. These include the General Society of Mayflower Descendents and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Candidates for membership may be asked for evidence about when their families came to America.

Other people who get involved in genealogy may want to confirm stories they heard about a family member. Or they may just want to learn more about the strange-looking people in old family pictures.

For two days in April, more than two thousand people came to the National Archives in Washington for the Sixth Annual Genealogy Fair. This is a free event. Many experts offer advice to Americans researching their family history.

Constance Potter works at the National Archives. She specializes in documents of interest to genealogists. Ms. Potter says the fair gets more visitors every year, which shows the increasing interest in family history.

It was the fifth genealogy fair for Shirley Jones. She says she researches her family history because she wants to know where she came from, who her ancestors were.

Lisa Roy said having children got her interested in genealogy.

LISA ROY: “When they were born, especially my oldest, I thought I really want my kids to understand their heritage. I knew some of it, but it has been interesting to do the background on it.”

Some people say their interest in genealogy came from watching an eight-part series on American television called "Roots." "Roots" was first broadcast in nineteen seventy-seven. It was extremely popular.

“Roots” was based on a book by the writer Alex Haley. He described how the story of his family began long ago in Africa when slave traders captured one of his ancestors. The television series followed the story from Africa, through slavery in America, to freedom. After watching "Roots," many Americans wanted to investigate their own roots.

Family history has become popular on television again. In February, a four-part series was broadcast on public television in America. Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates explored the family histories of twelve famous Americans. They included musician Yo-Yo Ma, figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi and Queen Noor of Jordan.

Professional genealogist Megan Smolenyak is an adviser on another new American television series about genealogy.

PROMO: “This season on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ seven of the world’s most beloved celebrities will embark on life-altering journeys into their family history.”

“Who Do You Think You Are?” started as a show in Britain. It will be back next year for a second season on American television. Ms. Smolenyak hopes the show will increase interest in family history. But she says the current increase in interest has more to do with the Internet.

Megan Smolenyak says many people start by searching for information online. For example, the website Ancestry.com has over four billion records. She says people spend millions of hours on that website every month.

Ms. Smolenyak is chief family historian for Ancestry.com. She has researched the family histories of President Obama and Michelle Obama, among others. But she says you cannot find everything online. This is why people often end up at the National Archives in Washington. The Archives has digitized more than one hundred thousand records. But, as archivist Constance Potter points out, that is only a fraction of the ten billion records the Archives holds.

Ms. Potter says the Archives has public land records if a family owned land many years ago. It also has passenger arrival records if a family member arrived in America by ship. And there are military records and federal pension records.

Many of those documents are on spools of microfilm. They are stored in drawers of metal filing cabinets in a long hallway.

Carol Ann Summer is doing research at the National Archives. She is looking for military records dating back to the eighteenth century. She finds the right spool of microfilm, takes it to a darkened room and threads it on a viewer. Ms. Summer said she wanted to find the earliest relative from her father’s family. She found him -- a soldier from the Revolutionary War.

Archivist Constance Potter says genealogy can be addictive: once you start, it is hard to stop.

CONSTANCE POTTER: “It’s like a detective story. It really is. And you just keep adding on the clues.”

So how exactly does someone start a genealogical investigation? Experts say you should start with yourself. Write down your own history. Then, work back to your parents and grandparents. You can ask your parents what they can remember about their parents and grandparents. Where did they live? What kind of work did they do?

Many people make video or sound recordings as they talk to family members. That way they create a permanent record of family memories.

You can often find a lot of information in family pictures, letters and other documents. Some of these things may be hidden inside old books.

Resources on local history may also provide useful information. Large libraries may have hundreds of helpful books. In the United States, several groups have large collections of genealogical materials. These include the New England Historic Genealogical Society and the Family History Library of the Mormon Church. These collections are open to the public.

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, has thousands of visitors each day. The library has information from almost every area of the world. Most records are from the years fifteen fifty through nineteen twenty.

Some people travel to Utah to use the library. But the Mormon Church has established more than four thousand Family History Centers around the world. The church also has a website to help people look for information about their family history. The address is familysearch.com.

Records kept by religious groups are among the most dependable for family research projects. Also, local governments usually keep official copies of birth, marriage and death records.

Records of marriages and deaths are often the most helpful documents. Death records, for example, tell where the person lived. They also list the names of the person’s parents. And they list a cause of death.

Useful information might also be found in local court and tax records. And local governments may have copies of wills. These statements of final wishes often contain details about a person's life and possessions.

The United States government has many helpful records for genealogists. It has collected population records every ten years since the end of the seventeen hundreds. Early census records had few details. They gave the name of the head of the family. They listed the number of people in the family.

Recent census records provide more information. They show the value of a family’s property. They also tell where a person’s parents were born. For privacy reasons, Census Bureau information on individuals is not made public for seventy-two years. Copies of old census records are kept on microfilm at centers around the country.

Many people use the Internet to research their family history. There are thousands of websites related to genealogy. These can help guide people to historical records. But the information that people get from genealogy sites is often limited or incorrect.

Also keep in mind that websites may be operated by businesses and groups that are trying to sell products and services.

These days, people can also search for living relatives through social networking sites.

People who want to search for their roots say it is a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. Genealogy can help people learn more about history. The search brings history to life by making it more personal. It also gives people a better understanding of their family’s place in history. And it gives them a better understanding of themselves.

Our program was written by George Grow with reporting by Susan Koster. It was produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Shirley Griffith.And I’m Steve Ember