How Did You Get Started as a Genealogist? Share Your Story with Us!

A Louisiana newspaper in 1853 said of family historians that “their memory is a forest planted with genealogical trees.” How true that is!
Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 25 October 1853, page 5.

After years of family history research many genealogists have had all types of “Eureka!” moments and breakthroughs, when they found a particular newspaper article or government record in their genealogical research that filled in gaps on their family trees.

My breakthrough moment as a genealogist was finding an 1811 real estate ad for my great-great-great-great-great grandfather’s farm in Maine. Aging sea captain James Garcelon (1739-1813) was selling his farm and moving in with his son William. The newspaper ad gave a terrific description of my ancestor’s property: a two-story house “very pleasantly situated” on 150 acres “with a handsome young orchard” and featuring two barns, outhouses, and “an excellent well of water.” Portland Gazette and Maine Advertiser. (Portland, Maine), 25 February 1811, page 4.

When I read this real estate ad, I could really picture my ancestor’s farm. I grew up on old farm property in New Hampshire. There were cellar holes where the homes and barns had once stood, wild apple trees, and with a little priming the well still gave ice cold water—and all around us stretched the long-idle fields. Maybe it was like my ancestor’s Garcelon Farm in the 1700s?

Thinking back on your own family history research—what first got you interested in genealogy? What was your most surprising genealogical discovery? What have you learned about your family along the way? What are your most prized genealogical discoveries? GenealogyBank wants to hear from you! Tell us your story.

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Written by Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp is the Director of Genealogy Products at GenealogyBank. Tom Kemp is an internationally known librarian and archivist – he is the author of over 35 genealogy books and hundreds of articles about genealogy and family history.

He previously served as the Chair of the National Council of Library & Information Associations (Washington, DC) and as Library Director of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

An active genealogist, he has been working on his own family history for 47 years. With the rapidly growing online archives at GenealogyBank – it is a great day for genealogy!

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17 thoughts on “How Did You Get Started as a Genealogist? Share Your Story with Us!

  1. Shortly after my mother died in 1997, I was looking through the family Bible and found a bunch of letters detailing what had happened to descendants of a Revolutionary War soldier between 1800 and 1900. I became fascinated, even more so when I realized that I, too, was descended from that soldier. That led to a genealogy addiction that I'm fairly sure is incurable.

  2. Over the years I had heard tales from both my mother and my father of ancestors I didn't know. My mother's uncle and his wife started doing genealogy and I was drawn in by what was on all the paper work they shared with my mother. I bought Family Tree Maker and started copying over what he had done by hand into FTM. I was fascinated each time something new opened up. My father had told me that we were related to Peregrine White, the 1st child born in America on the Mayflower. I started tracing that side of the family and haven't stopped yet. I have over 16,000 members on my tree. I love finding out that I am related to so many famous people and finding personal stories about a relative.

  3. My parents had a big cardboard box of old photos, all scattered and mixed up in there. I was fascinated by the old clothes and hairstyles, and getting to see my great-grandparents faces. My mom told me to take whatever pictures I wanted. But, now that I had the pictures and names, who were they really? I started digging into my family history, and now 25 years later, still addicted as ever!

  4. Hi All: You asked how I got started into Genealogy . I don't know if I would classify mysefl as a Genealogist but I always wanted to know where that the Lowell name started and with whom it started . Well throughout the passing years I has read many an article and a few books about said surname and with the help of my mother and a friend or two we have compiled a lengthy list of names and places on both side of my family but still as yet I haven't completed some of the information concerning some of the names . So one name leads me into other names and as I go on poking my nose into different sites on this computer I find little bits of information and add them to my notes and every once in a while I start putting thing into there proper place in the line of that particular side of the genealogy .
    I do wish that there was a site that didn't require money to see the results of the searches , but alas there doesn't seem to be anything like that . Just in case there is anyone out there in the land of Genealogy and Ancestry that can assist me in my search I'm looking for information on the surname of the Lowell name that would put me back into the Dark Ages of 1040AD and 1288AD.
    Thank You for Your Time
    Richard B. Lowell

  5. My father-in-law had harbored a deep fear about his health for years. His father had died very young and the cause of his death was never revealed by the family. My father-in-law was concerned that it was due to some disease he may have inherited. I searched for the obituary printed in the early 1930's. The obituary told that the cause of death was due to a failed surgery for a blocked sinus infection. His tears of relief led me to continue to search out the rest of our family which continues to this day.

  6. It was an article in Farm Women News published by Reiman Publications in 1985/6 on tracing your family tree that got me started. I have been hooked on genealogy research ever since. I was then able to ask my paternal grandparents and my maternal aunt questions about my ancestors. Now if I could just get my children interested!

  7. Shortley after I retired from teaching in 1997 I bought a computer. My cousin got me started in researching my Reeb family. Then I started researching my other surnames and i was fastcinated with the information I found about my surnames. Of course now I have hit brick walls.

    Right before my mother passed away in 2000 at the age of 95 , I was able to get her to tell me her life story .

  8. I am looking for the state where my father Thomas Lazarus and his first wife, Edna McGee were divorced. I did not know my father had a first wife until recently when I ordered and read my parents' marriage certificate. I found through Family Search Beta that my father, age 26, born 1896, son of Samuel and Celia (Goldfarb) Lazarus, married Edna, age 23, born 1899, at Mecklenburg Cty,NC March 3, 1922. I need to know what year and where they divorced, and if they had any children. There is no further information on their marriage report except for names, ages, year of birth, and where the marriage took place. They must have divorced sometime between 1922 and 1936 when Thomas married my mother Sylvia Vicstein in Los Angeles CA.
    Would so appreciate finding any information where and when my father divorced his first wife Edna McGee.
    Thank you,
    Amy Wilson
    Norwalk, CA

  9. I had a high school teacher in Ohio we called Miss K. who assigned us a class project to trace our family history. I sat down with my grandmother one Sunday and she helped me map it out. She told me things like this person was tall or short, had curly hair, what they died of, or their line of work. I worked in a drug store part time and was able to get a huge sheet of white butcher paper to chart out my ancestors. I was disappointed because Miss K never gave us a grade and I had worked hard to make mine look nice plus I had a lot of information. I held on to that chart and eventually stored it in my daughter's baby book. When she went off to college in 1989 I saw an ad in the paper for a 6 week genealogy class at the library. I took it twice. Wow! That was 32 years ago. I went from a file box with a handle on it to a 4 drawer file cabinet and a computer. I love solving mysteries.

  10. It all started as a family joke. My mother was a DAR member and proud of it even though our ancestor was a private. My dad, who knew very little about his family tree would tease her that, if someone did the research, his ancestor would surely outrank hers. Since the lack of information on one side of my tree made it look unbalanced, I decided to investigate. The joke turned out to be true, as his Revolutionary War ancestor turned out to be a lieutenant. I wish he'd been alive when I found the information. He would have enjoyed it so much. I've gone on to build an ever expanding tree, as, when you find one, their are always two more to research. It's the world's best never ending puzzle. And I'm hooked.

  11. One dreary day in the middle of a Chicago winter about 7 years ago, I was just surfing the internet and came across ancestry.com and thought I'd look into my family. I was and only child, my dad was an only child and his dad was an only child(so we thought!)I always wanted more family and after only a few hours of research I found SO much information on this side of the family, I was hooked.

    I was lucky to learn early on.. verify and don't believe everything online! Since then I have learned so much, and have also traced my mothers Scandinavian side way back as well.

    I only wish I had started this earlier so my dad could have known about his ancestors~

  12. I inherited my aunts belongings when she went into a nursing home, and found she had typewritten a genealogy of her immediate family, that and a family bible held many tantalizing names I had never heard. Before the internet, it took a lot of letters and a lot of time to find anything, but I took a variety of genealogy classes. And, off I went – now I have, with the help of many distant relatives, traced my family back to Jamestown, VA and back to a little town in Germany where a cousin lives in a house that my gr-gr-grandfather built! And, I have found numerous 'new' cousins on-line, on facebook and have a deep appreciation for my ancestors!

  13. I got interested in genealogy in 6th. grade. I started asking my grandfather about his family and I took notes. That was in 1979. Then I started researching the public libraries in the 1980's and handwriting down census lists and other notes. By the the late 1990's I was researching rootsweb and genforum. I signed up with Ancestry.com in Oct. 2001 and remember when they released the 1930 census records. I think my biggest shock was when I found out that my ancestors owned slaves before the Civil War. I've been a GenealogyBank member for over a year now and have found hundreds of articles and even pictures of my ancestors in your newspapers. I will be a subscriber for a long time.

  14. It was the bicentennial year, and I was about 14 years old. The stars must have been aligned because several things happened all that same year. First, I read the book "Roots". Second, my grandmother came to live with us for a while, and she had come through Ellis Island (I loved her stories about life in Yorkshire) Third, my Dad showed me the grave of an ancestor who had been born in Lexington, and his grave listed him as a Major in the Revolution. I wanted to know more, and he was the first ancestor I researched. I traced his family back to the 1600s that summer. The whole idea that the bicentennial re-enactments and events I was seeing (I grew up in Massachusetts) were originally seen by my family members took my breath away. I was hooked!

  15. I was bitten by the genealogy bug in 4th grade, when doing the proverbial genealogy project for school. My interest continued for years whenever my family visited my grandparents at their farm in central Iowa. There was little to do for our 5 kids when we visited. So I sat in the living room listening to my parents and grandparents talk about relatives and friends. That sitting and listening has served me well in piecing together my family tree.

  16. When I was young, I was always puzzled that I never knew my paternal grandfather. He lived until I was eleven years old, and only about 60 miles from us, not a long distance in 1946 (the year before he died). For some reason, I never asked my father directly about that, but it nagged at me.
    Several years later, after my father's death as my retirement years approached, I decided to find out more about my Granddad. I did a very modest bit of research and finally found he died in Utica, NY in 1947. My curiosity about him led me to an interest in genealogy.
    I now have pictures of him and my grandmother, as well as several of their children, but his birthplace remains a challenge.

  17. Searching through the stacks at the University of Pennsylvania Library for a book for my high school daughter, I came across a book entitled Mayflower Descendants ins Cape May County. My husband's family and mine had spent time in Cape May and his uncle once told us a story about his great grandmother who had lived there.
    I browsed the book and lo and behold, there was my husbands grandfather, a Mayflower descendant. I was hooked from that time on and have done genealogical research on both my husband's and my own families ever since.

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