TreeEvery genealogy geek wants that Roots moment like Alex Haley allegedly had where he was sitting in a small village in Africa listening to people drum and tell stories about his ancestors going back several generations. Most of us African-Americans will never get such a specific and tangible connection to our African roots, but we can get answers to some other lingering family questions and maybe have a little fun in the process.

I’ve been immersed in genealogy research of my own family for the past few years and I love it. It’s become my passion project and I am always spreading the gospel of Ancestry.com to anyone who will listen. Love that site. Love it.

But, where do YOU start? Below is a handy guide to how to prep for your genealogy search. These tips, garnered from my own experiences as a passionate amateur genealogist, are presented in a seven-day process. These days need not be consecutive, but hopefully this guide for the seven days will give you tangible goals to check off and then move forward to the next task.

Day 1: Buy a journal.
Here’s a hard truth: Nobody and I mean nobody will be as excited as you are about your genealogical “finds.”  Once you finally discover the birth year of Great Uncle Jimmy after stumbling upon it in a census record while looking for someone else? Yeah, nobody will care about that but you.  Save yourself the pain of no one being on your level of joy and get a journal that is specifically for documenting your process and finds as you journey deeper into your family tree. You will find that it is much-needed release for your thoughts, feelings and ideas.

Day 2:  First journal entry: What are your ultimate goal(s) with this genealogy search?
Is your ultimate goal to create a glorious and thorough family tree to share with your family? Do you have a more immediate ultimate goal of finding living distant relatives? It’s important to figure out your where you’re headed (or where you think you’re headed) with this genealogy search.  Write it out. You might have to go back and forth with yourself a little bit to get to your ultimate goal.

Day 3: Second journal entry:  Who or what draws you in the most?     
Is there a specific story in your family that you want to determine if it’s true? Is there a person that seems to “speak” to you? Whatever “it” is, choose that as your starting point.  That story/person will be your first focus. Pour your energy into that. My genealogy search was sparked by the stories I heard about my great-grandmother and her numerous husbands.  I was excited about learning her real story and that passion drove me to find out more about her and eventually others.  Like everything else in life,  passion is key.

Day 4: Third journal entry: Write down everything you know about that story/person.
You have the story/person that will be the focus of your initial search, now you’ll need to write down everything you know (or more accurately, think you know) about that story/person. Include family stories, documents you’ve come across and the like.  It might be a good idea to put it in list form as a way to check off what checks out and what doesn’t once you start digging.

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  • camille

    Would love to do this but the elders ate either dead or don’t wanna talk to give clues to the past lol

    • If there is enough interest in a part two, that would cover how to get info from reluctant sources. It takes a little skill and creativity sometimes, but it can be done. :) I went through that myself.

      -Demetria Irwin

  • Keshia

    I would love to trace back my roots but people don’t remember names or documents loss. Ugh this is be so cool though.

    • Go to the oldest person in your family. Look that person up in the census records (as long as he/she was born in 1940 or earlier) and go backwards from there.

  • K

    i have been doing this for the past few years as well, its difficult, very difficult and slow going but dont give up is my first thing, i have been stalled but just pick it back up when I can. I also cant afford ancestry.com (yes its reasonably priced but i simply cant do it right now) anyway for anyone else like myself who can go that route or simply want to casually search. Try the mormon database (www.familysearch.org) it gets better every year and while if you want to see some of the actually census records it will take u back to ancestry which of course you would have to pay for, but it has all the information listed you just wont be able to view the image. the social security death index is also great free place to do a casual search dip toe in the water.

    my grandfather is the only person left, his general memory is great, like stories and stuff, but key information like birthdays birth places he doesnt remember. the thing that kills my search is all the nicknames, other names. for example, my grandfather always told me his grandfathers name was Zeke, for years, i had been in these databases searching for zeke last year he decided to dig up his mothers funeral program for me (he knows ive been doing this search for years) and it says the mans name was Sylvester, mannnnn i was about to do some elder abuse (i kid) it was infuriating though lol ..

    • LOL @ elder abuse! I understand. I had the opposite issue. A lot of my relatives were in the census records with their nicknames. Minnie, Sweetie, etc. I had to try to find their real names to look them up in other official documents. Ancestry.com offers up its databases for free a few times a year, so it’s worth it to keep an eye on that when you have something in particular to search for and you can hop in and get what you need.

    • K

      oh yes i signed up for ancestry emails so I know when they set certain records free and for a few days and always look :) and I feel on the name thing, I have also found that a lot of names are misspelled in my experience so people have to be on the look out for that too. Dawson is listed as Darson etc.. that has also been a grrrrr experience in that regard Ancestry.com is great since you can search phonetically as well.

  • BeanBean

    My great-grandma is will be 101 this year. I spent this past weekend with a tape recorder and pen/paper. Finding out about my family history is so much easier when I have someone who can tell me which plantation my family belonged to. Her grandparents were both slaves. I plan on speaking to my grandparents next. I’ve even started keeping my own journal, that way my descendents know things about my family in 2013.

    • Awesome! That’s great that your grandmother has the type of information. A lot of former slaves didn’t want to talk about slavery, so many of those stories never got passed down through the family.

  • JN

    I had to do this for my class assignment (construct a genogram for the purposes of not only finding out family culture, but implicit biases, values, forms of expression, forms of isms such as sexism, classism, racism, colorist, homophobia etc that might exist in our families) to determine how this might affect us as future clinicians. I downloaded a program from the Apple store because I’m not visually savvy like that. I can trace my family origins 4 generations back on my dad’s side and 3 on my mothers. My parents are Nigerian immigrants. Polygamy was a trend, as well as the valuing of education (and sexism; men were favored to go to school over women). Since Nigeria became a country before my dad was even born, it makes sense that tribalism (I hate that word, it’s more like tribal pride) still exists. My dad grew up identifying as one thing and was forced to conform to another.