Who are you? For most people, this is an easy question. They classify themselves as mothers or fathers, sons or daughters, painters, teachers or doctors. But for others, it raises a burning question that runs deeper than occupation or social position. It raises a question of the past, of roots and ancestry. And questions are meant to be answered. Getting started in the quest to discover your family tree can seem like a daunting task. But by following a few easy steps and using all the resources available to you in the community and on the Internet, discovering the past can turn into a real adventure.
Of all the free resources available, local libraries have plenty of information. A small but powerful genealogy section in the downtown library carries the history of Alachua County and its residents.
Bobby Powell, a librarian at the Alachua County Library and a genealogical expert, suggests starting your search by filling out a pedigree chart. This allows you to trace back your biological family, including facts like when and where they were born and died and to whom they were married. Anything you can’t fill out becomes a question that will fuel the discovery process.
After filling out the pedigree chart, you can also fill out a family group sheet. Both forms can be found at your local library or through an internet search. This will help focus the questions you’ve already come up with. This sheet also allows you to trace non-biological family members.
Powell stresses the importance of knowing the history of the period as well. History affects the decisions people made about where to live, when to resettle, and even how to deal with illnesses. You can’t separate history from family history.
Online recourses like Ancestry.com or Familysearch.org can help you as well! Although limited in the amount of free information you can receive, these databases can still provide many different types of records, including voter lists, newspaper publications, wills and existing family trees. Ancestry.com also offers a free 14-day trial period if you prefer to work from home.
Powell suggests looking up different kinds of records as well. Things like baptismal records, church records and even slave schedules can provide information.
Search Your Family Tree, a resource guide published by the Alachua County Library District, encourages budding genealogists to conduct research on surnames. Surnames could indicate one of four things: occupation, place of residence within a region or town, father’s name or nicknames. Discovery of a family name, although difficult because of changes in spelling in some cases, can lead to greater knowledge of the region you came from.
Other important resources include immigration and ethnic records. Historical entry points like Ellis Island
can help trace back families of millions of immigrants who entered the country. In 1907 alone there were 1.3 million immigrants, and the numbers have grown immensely since then. Ships’ passenger lists may provide information on the country they set sail from and the demographics of the passengers. There are also many searchable records through ethnic groups, including African American, Hispanic, Jewish and Native American groups.
In recent years, the popularity of DNA testing has grown. These tests won’t necessarily tell you who you are related to, but it will give you insight on what part of the world your ancestors come from. It can also tell you certain things about yourself by looking at your DNA like if you are likely to contract certain illnesses or if you think cilantro tastes like soap.
“You’d be surprised how many interesting people can be in your past. And that’s what most people want, to know the great variety of people you come from,” Powell said.
Most importantly, you’ll finally know who you really are.