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Digging Up Your Roots on the Internet
I've spent the past 23 years doing genealogy research on my family and, after starting with nothing more than my parents, grandparents, and one set of greatgrandparents, I've been able to trace parts of my direct ancestors back to around 230 A.D.
With programs like Family Tree Maker and the endless amounts of data on the internet, doing genealogy research these days is amazingly easy. The biggest problem you might run into is being able to determine if information you've uncovered is authentic or just "research" based on someone else's "research" that is based on someone else's "research."
Many people, when attempting to discover where they've come from, will stumble upon one snippet of data and assume it's authentic without obtaining a second opinion. Or a third or fourth or even tenth. The flaw in this is that, for example, I could compile a family tree for George Washington. He did not have any biological children but did have stepchildren. I could state in my family tree that he actually had biological child "Sarah" with mistress "Rebecca Smith" and some people would assume that's correct, trace "Sarah" to their own family tree, and claim they are direct descendants of George Washington. Sorry, but NO ONE is a direct descendant of George Washington.
The most important thing to remember when doing genealogy research is to always keep track of your sources. Be it a newspaper clipping, obituary, personal letter from family member to family member, military enrollment record, or someone else's personal genealogy research, keep track of where your data came from. That way, if it ever comes into question, you can refer back to where you originally obtained your data and can either verify or challenge what you've found and correct it if necessary.
The best research resource I've found on the internet is FamilySearch, a website maintained by the Latter Day Saints and based in Utah. (www.familysearch.org) It is truly unequaled in the amount of data they've compiled...but it IS data that is provided by individuals who may or may not verify the "facts" they submit.
Some other popular research and resource sites are:
You can also use official US Census records for certain states and time periods to verify names, ages, children's names, and other general information. The ultimate census resource is Census Online (www.census-online.com). Another one is Census Finder (www.censusfinder.com). The US government's census bureau does not provide individual details for census records, so don't even bother searching their data.
Note: Many people recommend Cyndi's List for census research, but I do not. After doing my own research for over two decades, I believe I'm qualified to render an educated opinion on that subject and my opinion is that Cyndi's List really provides absolutely NOTHING that you wouldn't be able to find on your own using a basic search engine such as Yahoo! or Google. The results you'd get from a search engine would actually be germane to your search and you wouldn't have to wade through pages of useless information (if you're using a specific keyword search).
Start small. Work with what you know. Ask family members what they know or what they remember. Look at old family bibles to see if names and dates were recorded. After you get as much information as you can from conversations with family members, start digging. Make sure you get a software program that retains the information for you, like Family Tree Maker. I've been using that program for over 20 years and I absolutely love it. Before long, you'll be the family genealogist and will be amazed at what you discover.
Some of the things I've discovered...
Pedro the First (aka: Pedro the Cruel), King of Castile, is my 21st greatgrandfather.
Henry the First, King of England, is my 26th greatgrandfather.
Olaf the Third, King of Sweden, is my 30th greatgrandfather.
George Herbert Walker Bush, President of the United States, is my 15th cousin twice removed.
Malcolm (the Third) Canmore, King of Scotland, is my 27th greatgrandfather.
Louis the Eighth, King of France, is my 23rd greatgrandfather.
General George Rogers Clark (of the Lewis & Clark Expedition) is my 2nd cousin seven times removed.
Robert (VIII) De Bruce, King of Scotland, who was popularized in the film Braveheart, is my 23rd greatgrandfather.
General Hiram Ulysses Simpson (U.S.) Grant is my 17th cousin six times removed.
Former President William Henry Harrison, Sr. is my 12th cousin six times removed.
General Robert Edward Lee, Sr. is my 13th cousin five times removed.
Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne is my 34th greatgrandfather.
William the Conqueror, King of England, is my 27th greatgrandfather.
The Plantagenet Dynasty of England are my direct ancestors (Kings Edward I, II, and III are among greatgrandfathers of various numeric designations.)
The Tudor and Stuart (Stewart) Dynasties of England are distant cousins.
Former President George Washington is my 10th cousin nine times removed.
Elizabeth the Second, Queen of England, is my half 16th cousin twice removed.
Lady/Princess Diana Spencer was my 17th cousin.
Aside from those mentioned here, there are also dukes, earls, barons, knights, bishops, and other prominent individuals in my family tree, including people who are noteworthy within the borders of my own state and in the United States.
Once you get started digging into your family roots and actually come up with some interesting information, you'll find that being an amateur genealogist is incredibly addictive and fun.
Enjoy and happy hunting!