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Tracking Your Ancestry

Data Blocks
Data Blocks

By Sid Nair


Researching your family history can be an extremely rewarding experience, but it can sometimes be difficult to know where to start. You may even have started a genealogy project before and hit a wall, running out of clues to follow in your research. Luckily, important records and historical documents are moving online and are now more accessible than ever. Likewise, new technologies and techniques are making tracking family history easier. Online resources allow records stored in archives around the world to be accessed from home, and the emerging art of combining geographical data, historic maps, and geographic information systems can show the paths ancestors traveled long after the roads they walked and the buildings they lived in are gone.

Getting Started

Tackling a project as big as tracking a family's history through the generations might be daunting, but the best place to start this journey is at home. You might be surprised how much you already know or have packed away in boxes and photo albums. From there, it's best to ask your extended family what they know and what records they might have. It's not unusual to encounter at least one other family historian who's happy to share their knowledge. When oral histories and family records have been exhausted, it's time to expand the search. Vital statistics on family members may be preserved in birth, marriage, and death records that are still stored in state or county records offices. Stories of ancestors' lives can be recovered from newspaper archives, immigration records, and military service documents. There will be ancestors who just don't seem to have been documented, but with a little creative researching and some tricks of the trade, they, too, can find their place on your family tree. Once, accessing these records might have meant mailing formal requests or even traveling to visit libraries and archival sites. Fortunately, many of these documents are now often available on the Internet for free or in online archival collections that may charge a fee to access them. That doesn't mean you shouldn't journey to all of the places your ancestors lived if that's where your research takes you, but it does give you the freedom to stay home and still get a lot done.

Geography and Genealogy

The development of GIS technologies, also known as geographic information systems, provides a way to look at family history beyond family trees and group charts. These programs are specialized for generating maps and displaying geographic data. Free programs like Google Earth allow people with any level of skill with computers to see where their ancestors lived, the places they worked, and where they may have been laid to rest. These programs are also a great way to solve the questions that arise when a building or a street name no longer seems to exist. Many historical maps are freely available online and can be laid over modern maps to show how towns and cities have changed over the centuries. GIS technology can also be used to plot migration paths ancestors took and show patterns in where they settled and where they began their journeys.