EVERY “JOURNEY HOME” begins at home. The search to learn more about your family and ancestors—who they were, where they came from, what happened to them, and why—starts in conversations with relatives, in the attic or basement rifling through old photos and documents, at the local library or archives researching vital records, or online mining genealogy websites.

The payoff for all this detective work is nothing less than time traveling through your family history. You will get to know your ancestors in a more intimate and meaningful way. Genealogy expert Megan Smolenyak, the sleuth who uncovered Barack Obama’s Irish ancestry, describes visiting one’s ancestral home as one of life’s few “universally moving experiences.” Here are eight steps to get you started on your own journey home.

Get organized.

The early weeks of your search will likely bear abundant fruit, since it’s often easiest to gather facts about close relatives. To save and organize everything you find, choose an online genealogical database before you start conducting research.

Several free and fee-based online genealogical databases are available, including Ancestry.com, the world’s largest online family history resource. Since Ancestry subscribers have created more than 
60 million family trees, some of those existing branches might prove valuable in your own search.

Tip: To manage your family tree on the go, choose a software program or online database that has a companion mobile app, such RootsMagic or Ancestry.com.

Treasure hunt at home.

Professional genealogists are seasoned detectives: They look for clues, notice patterns, conduct research, and collect data to methodically solve mysteries and uncover family histories. And, like detectives, these ancestry experts know that some of the most valuable clues in any quest often are hiding in plain sight—at home.

Smolenyak suggests focusing your hunt in the attic, basement, and drawers where photos, documents, and personal correspondence may be stored. Items with dates are especially helpful. Family memorabilia to look for (and photograph if you do not have permission from the owner to take the item) include old pictures, military records, diplomas and report cards, and of course diaries, postcards, and letters.

Tip: If your hunt involves searching through artifacts in relatives’ homes, involve them in the process, if possible. Explain what you are doing and why, invite them to participate, and respect their wishes for how any item you discover will be handled, copied, or stored.

Family Tree

Talk to your elders.

“Your older relatives—even those who are just 20 minutes older than you—are living libraries,” says Smolenyak. “The family histories stored in their brains can save you so much trouble down the road.”

Even if you’ve heard family facts—and legends—
your entire life, really taking the time to interview your elders armed with a digital recorder and specific questions will refresh your memory and reveal new details. Plus, if you treasure hunt first and interview second, you will have artifacts to talk about with your relatives. Asking them to identify people or places in old photos, for example, can be a catalyst for stories and leads.

Start by asking questions about your parents, grandparents, and, if possible, great-grandparents and beyond that will reveal foundational knowledge. Basic information to ask about includes full names and names of siblings, birthplaces and birthdates, locations or even addresses of family homes, nationality and ethnic background, occupations, education, military service, and where relatives are buried.

Tip: Don’t let your eagerness to gather facts override basic courtesy and respect. If a relative appears hesitant or outright refuses to share specifics about a certain event or person, move on to another topic. By speaking with multiple relatives and following up with your own research, often you can fill in the blanks without upsetting or alienating anyone.

Go online.

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for—the chance to finally use all the information you’ve been gathering to search online. New resources, services, and options are added regularly on popular genealogy sites including FamilySearch.orgAncestry.com, and Archives.com.

Smolenyak suggests starting with the Mormon Church’s free, nonprofit FamilySearch, the world’s largest genealogical organization. “They have been collecting records from around the world for about 100 years and are digitizing their collection at a pace of tens of millions of records a week,” Smolenyak says.

Browse the FamilySearch catalog of genealogical materials (including books, online materials, microfilm, microfiche, and publications), and request a free loan to the closest Family History Center (typically at a public library) where you can view the items in person.

Many libraries offer the Ancestry Library Edition, providing free access to the bulk of the site’s Immigration and Travel collection of six databases: Border Crossings and Passports, Citizenship and Naturalization Records, Crew Lists, Immigration and Emigration Books, Passenger Lists, and Ship Pictures and Descriptions.

Tip: Subscribe to the free, standard Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter, curated by professional genealogist Dick Eastman, or purchase 
an annual Plus Edition subscription to receive daily genealogy-related tips, articles, book and website reviews, and industry updates.

Get a DNA test.

Cutting-edge DNA ancestry testing kits like National Geographic’s Geno 2.0 Kit can lead you to places and people you may never have found simply by following a paper trail. Geno 2.0 scientists work to determine deep ancestry. Although not primarily a genealogy testing service, participants will discover the migration paths their ancient ancestors followed thousands of years ago and will learn the details of their ancestral roots—their branch on the family tree.

When choosing a DNA testing service specifically 
for ancestry research, look for one with a large database of people tested, as well as free DNA sample storage (in case you want to order a different test at a later date), and online support and tutorials.

Tip: Although DNA results can be helpful in your research, the decision to get tested shouldn’t be taken lightly. Tests can reveal family paternity and maternity secrets kept hidden by your ancestors or immediate family members.

Be social.

Don’t forget to use your favorite social networking and social media sites, such as TwitterFacebook, and Pinterest. In addition to searching for and connecting with people who share your ancestral surnames, look for local organizations, public libraries and archives, tour guides, and genealogy-related services in your ancestor’s hometown.

“When I started researching family history, I had to correspond via snail mail letters and get them translated,” Smolenyak says. “But now…you can find people who are from the region where you think your ancestors came from. Even if they aren’t related to you, often they will be helpful and go talk to the local priest or officials and ask if they can see the records for you.”

Tip: You’re more likely to get free, local help from strangers who share your surname if they haven’t been bombarded with requests from people tracing their family histories. For instance, Smolenyak, who is half Irish, half eastern European, says that while inquiries like this are common with ancestors from Ireland, roots research remains somewhat of a novelty in much of the world.

Manage your expectations.

TV shows about celebrity genealogy searches unduly raise expectations that every quest will uncover some famous (or infamous) ancestor, such as actor Sarah Jessica Parker’s tenth great-grandmother who escaped death at the Salem witch trials. For most people, including celebrities, cautions Szucs, the ancestors discovered and the lives they led will be more mundane.

“Most of us came from ordinary people—people who made a difference in the kind of life we are able to enjoy today,” she explains. “There is a wonderful satisfaction in working out our own family stories. Each record we find represents something seemingly insignificant, but sometimes these events were life-changing experiences for our ancestors and therefore for us.”

Tip: Use the historical information you’ve collected to write an engaging page-turner version of your genealogical story. Guides such as You Can Write Your Family History by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack and For All Time: A Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History by Charles Kempthorne include techniques, helpful tips, and sample formats designed to help nonwriters bring their ancestors’ stories to life.

Keep going.

In many ways, traveling to the place where your ancestors came from will be the reward for all of your hard work. By putting in the time and research, persevering through roadblocks and detours, and being open to accepting whatever you discover, you’ve earned this trip like no other you’ve ever taken before.

“One of the questions I often get in regard to tracing one’s family history is, ‘How long is it going to take?’” Smolenyak says. “Well, the farther back you go, the more ancestors you have, so it could be a never-ending game. This is your own personal history mystery. You don’t want
 the book to ever end. You can quit at your great-great-grandparents, but I bet you won’t. There’s always another ancestor to chase and another home place to see.”

This article was adapted from the National Geographic book Journeys Home: Inspiring Stories, Plus Tips & Strategies to Find Your Family History.

This article National Geographic Staff was originally published on National Geographic.com

Featured Image Credits: Pixabay

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As part of a series of articles on iGeneration teens, the Listener talks to four teens about risk-taking, social media and their online lives.


Northland school prefect Storm, 17, will be the first person in her whanau to go to university. She’s worked so hard in her senior years that she’s won a $20,000 scholarship that will enable her to study arts and law in Auckland.

She has never had a boyfriend, doesn’t get drunk when she goes to parties, and doesn’t smoke cigarettes or take drugs. She says she’s in a minority, but she’s typical of a growing group of teenagers who are doing fewer risky things than their parents did at the same age – though she does buck the trends by working part-time and getting her learner driver license at 16.

Storm has grown up surrounded by people who smoke, and the idea of smoking puts her off. “I’m the person who has to inhale it when I’m in the car. Even my mum tells me we could have gone on holiday if she hadn’t been smoking, or you see people who are grumpy because they’re trying to give up.”

Her parents drop her off at parties and buy her a bottle of lower-alcohol wine to take. Friends organise a sober driver to take them home. She says many of her peers tend to drink Vodka Cruisers and some dabble in shots. “We went to a ­massive back-to-school party this year and one girl – it was her first time drinking – drank so much she was taken to hospital. I don’t like to binge-drink; I like to be aware of what’s ­happening around me.”

Storm spends about four hours a day on her ­smartphone. She has Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Spotify accounts but spends much of her time online researching ­assignments, playing music or texting friends.

She says she sometimes sees things online that make her yearn for what others have – a new dress or an overseas ­holiday, for example – but she’s been inspired and empowered, too, watching speeches by former US first lady Michelle Obama and singer Pink talking about their daughters, or by graduate students who’ve achieved their goals. “It makes you think, ‘If they can do it, so can I.’”

Storm is looking at life beyond Northland. “I want to make an impact on a national and global level. I can see myself being part of the United Nations.”


“When my phone dies, it’s like my life has gone.” Year 12 student Siale, who attends a decile-one school in Auckland, says the only time she’s ­without her smartphone is when her family won’t let her take it to church on Sundays.

Online, Siale reckons she knows where to draw the line with her posts, and rolls her eyes at the friends who post increasingly explicit selfies on Instagram to get more likes. “If a normal photo doesn’t get enough likes, they need to show more of their body.” It’s odd, she says, how they might get hundreds of likes on Instagram, but never seem to have many friends in real life. She talks about an app called Melon that pairs you on video feeds with people based on your age and gender. Men use it to send girls dick pics, she says.

Most of Siale’s friends are sexually active and smoke weed. “I smoke weed. I’m just bored and get stoned. I’m not addicted to it; if there are more important things to buy, I’ll buy them. It’s the last option for me. It turns off everything going on around me and makes me feel like I’m in another dimension and I don’t have to worry about anything. Then the buzz goes away and it’s back to reality.”

Family dysfunction is her biggest stress, says Siale, who lives with her sister, brother-in-law and cousins. “Some teen girls tend to run away from home, but for me, running away would hurt my family more and it’s not going to help anything.”

She occasionally drinks alone, taking wine out of her sister’s cupboard. “I don’t get drunk and want to walk on the road. If I’m out and I get drunk, I know I need to be home at a specific time, so I can pass out in the house.”

She’s experienced cyberbullying first-hand, when she put a post on Facebook about a boy she was dating and discovered he hadn’t broken up with his ex. “They started to put mean ­comments on it. I couldn’t think properly. The only thing I could think of was giving them a hiding, but I knew if I were to touch them I’d get kicked out of school and it would hurt my family.” She talked to the school counsellor and the issue was resolved.

Siale says if she’s at a party where her friends get drunk, she does her best to look after them. “When they vomit and stuff, and it stays on their face, I make sure I clean it up. I talk to them when they’re sober; don’t shame them. I tell them about the outcomes of stupid decisions – what could happen to their safety, with viruses and stuff, and their reputation.”

Image Credits: Pixabay


At 16, Siale’s classmate Iosefa has his future mapped out – he wants to leave school next year and start studying to be an accountant. He doesn’t drink, or smoke cigarettes or weed. His attitude when his friends do it? “Disgust,” he says, wrinkling his nose.

Iosefa says he’s on his smartphone “the whole day” – it’s a distraction when classes get boring. “I use it 24/7: Messenger, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram – anything to cure the boredom.” But he says if he lost his phone, he’d miss the music and videos, rather than social media.

He says friends invite him to parties so he can look after them. “I’m like the sober safety man. I’m there to stop them having sex with randoms or getting too drunk. They know I’m there for them. They don’t like me stopping them at the time, but they do when they sober up. One time, a mate tried to hit me when I tried to stop him drinking more.”

Iosefa’s from a strongly religious, conservative family and doesn’t tell his mum if he’s going to a party, even if it’s just to look after his mates, because he says she’d never let him. Instead, he tells her he’s going to a friend’s place.

His teacher reckons most parents don’t know the half of what their teenagers post online, but Iosefa says that doesn’t apply to him – there’s nothing he puts online that his mum and dad shouldn’t see. “No, my parents are my friends.”


Fifteen-year-old Natalie attends a high-decile co-ed school in central Auckland. She doesn’t drink, smoke or take drugs and has never had sex. She comes from a solid, Pakeha, middle-class nuclear family and lives with her high-achieving parents in a suburb where the average house price is around $1.5 million. “I’ve got friends who party and are in that crowd, and I also have a lot of innocent friends. I’m somewhere in the middle and wouldn’t want to be in one or the other.”

Natalie’s closest friends, though, are more like her, so she doesn’t feel pressured to grow up too fast or get a boyfriend. “I don’t think you need to do that. For me, there’s being mature, and then there’s being mature because you’re drinking and having sex. But I think that’s being immature. We can see what everyone is doing [online] and how it’s affecting them … we know what’s going on and what it involves, which is part of the reason we don’t indulge in that.”

She always keeps her parents in the loop by text as to her whereabouts, and parties are rare. Socialising more often involves watching films at a friend’s house, going out for lunch, to the movies, or shopping.

She and her friends worry about exams and schoolwork, but Natalie admits that’s pretty superficial stress. Deeper down, body image and comparisons with others cause the most anxiety. “You put exceedingly high expectations on yourself that are ­impossible to meet. It can really knock your confidence, which lets in all sorts of other stresses and makes school exhausting and living in general exhausting because you have all these doubts and concerns that amplify everything else.”

Natalie uses Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest for a couple of hours a day, but usually while watching TV or doing other things, and doesn’t post much herself. In the school holidays, she found herself in a messaging conversation with a friend for several hours after midnight, but that’s unusual. “I’m probably on Instagram more than the others, but only to look.”

She posts few selfies, because she’s afraid of being judged. “I care a lot about what other people think. I’m prone to comparing myself to others. I like to show I’m styley, because at school I look younger and I’m quite different when I’m wearing make-up and the clothes I like. I like people seeing that side of me more, but I don’t put it on social media. If there was a nice photo of me and my cat I would, because that isn’t me trying to look gorgeous. I get my self-validation in other ways.”

*Names have been changed.

This article was first published in the November 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. And published on noted.co.nz on 4 January 2018

Featured Image Credits: Pixabay

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