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Gene Rebeck

The Stories of Your Life

Researching your family tree isn't only a fascinating hobby. It can lead to a deeper understanding of who you are.

About 10 years ago, I found myself wondering: Whatever happened to my father's cousins? When my dad was alive, he talked about three of them he played with as a boy. But I'd never met them. Long story short: I decided to track down those cousins. After some online sleuthing, I found their families, and we had a great time sharing memories. The experience has given me a deeper understanding of myself and a richer appreciation of my family.

Thanks to the internet, researching your genealogy is easier than ever. And the fact is, researching your family isn't only a fun hobby — it can be a profoundly enriching one.

Learning and sharing stories

There's evidence that researching your roots can keep you sharp. A study in the European Journal of Social Psychology revealed that thinking about one's origins gives people a positive way to research and think about the past. But that's not the only benefit. Searching also can help you strengthen your own family bonds. And I can speak from experience: Family research also can help you form new connections with others. These connections can extend beyond long-lost family members. You can join genealogical groups that focus on specific regions, for instance, or particular cultures. Connecting and sharing with these groups can provide an additional depth of understanding.

Digging your roots

So how do you get started? Begin by talking with your extended family. You'll probably learn things for the first time. From there, you can find tools to uncover more of your history. Here are some to get you started:

Online resources

These are online genealogical record networks that can study your background via your DNA and help you find relatives. They all work in a similar way, and they all have something else in common: You have to pay to get information.

National Archives

Gives you free access to census, military service, immigration, naturalization, and land records.
Check it out at: Archives.gov/research/genealogy/start-research

Ellis Island Foundation

The foundation offers free access (although you have to register) to the records of the thousands of passenger ships that brought immigrants to the U.S.
Start here: Libertyellisfoundation.org/passenger

Cyndi's List

A free site with links to a wealth of genealogical resources:

National Genealogical Society

Another site that compiles links to free genealogy research websites:

USGenWeb Project

A volunteer-run site with links to free online resources, including individual state and county websites:

Based on my experience, I'd say such efforts are well worth it. I only wish I'd looked for those cousins before my father passed away. He would have loved sharing their stories — and sharing a few of his own. I would have liked to have heard them myself too.