Genealogy is the most wonderful of pastimes. I love it, and you should, too. There are endless reasons why. Genealogy is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the western world, as more and more people discover the exhilarating and slightly addictive nature of ancestor hunting. It’s like an ongoing mystery with clues you have to discover and then put together to come to conclusions about your family’s past. The mystery never ends, because there is no end to the amount of time you can potentially go back in history with your family research. Yet, the more you can discover, the more complete picture of your family you can put together. It’s insanely rewarding, and the more you do it, the more you will want to do it. That’s a given.
Like I said, there are plenty of reasons to love genealogy. Here are some of the best reasons. You shouldn’t need any more motivation to get you started, or re-commit you to your ancestor hunt, than these reasons here.
1. The Thrill of the Hunt
If you love a good mystery, you will love genealogy. If you love scavenger hunts, word find puzzles, mystery novels, or even video games with epic quests where you have to search for clues and piece them all together to reveal the solution, you will adore genealogy. It is like all of those things and more.
There is nothing quite like tracking down an unknown ancestor. You may have traced a particular family line back as far as you think you possibly can, and it may have been easy. Then you get to a certain point where you can’t trace it back any farther… at first. There are a lack of records, no one in your family knows anything, and the parents of your great-great grandfather suddenly seem like they will never make themselves known to you. To a genealogist, that isn’t defeat. That’s just motivation for digging up those roots, even if it takes years.
You may spend a long time analyzing census records, digging around in courthouses and archive buildings, walking the land where your great-great-grandfather lived as an adult or where you heard he lived as a child. You will search military records, land patent records, tax records, and research his neighbors. You will look at the names of his children for clues as to his parentage, and you will visit old family cemeteries to look for clues.
Eventually, a name will appear, just when you thought the name was forever lost to history. You will get a name for a father or mother or even both for your great-great grandfather, and it will be one of the most euphoric feelings in the world. You will have achieved victory over the infamous genealogy “brick wall,” and rescued an ancestor or two from the mists of history, bringing them into the light and back to virtual life once more. You now know more about your great-great grandfather, and have the names of the parents to go on to research even further into your family history than you ever imagined you could.
Soon, you’ll be zooming down that family line, and eventually, you’ll start another line, and will go on the hunt for another ancestor. Even with ancestors you already know about, anything new you find on them in old newspaper records or anywhere else will seem like a victory to you, as it will place another piece in the puzzle of their lives, making them a more whole person to you and to future generations. Doing this for people you never met, but who contributed to making you is the most wonderful, fulfilling thing in the world.
2. The Adventure
Who says genealogy is a passive pastime? It is a thrilling adventure if you let it be. You don’t have to do it all from home, writing away for vital records and researching on the genealogy websites on your computer. You can take it on the road, into the field, and discover some amazing things you would never know about if you didn’t get out there and in the thick of it. Whether you go on your own or take the whole family, real genealogy is an adventure you will want to go on again and again. Soon, you’ll find that all of your vacations revolve around what kinds of genealogy research you can do in a particular place. Vacations without genealogy will start to seem boring. Once you’ve had a genealogy adventure “in the field,” you will want to do it every time you go somewhere away from home.
When you travel to where your ancestors lived, you can find things you just can’t find online. You can get burial maps of cemeteries at city halls or local historical societies that will alert you to any previously unknown relatives, such as the unmarked graves of children who died as babies or very young. You might also discover some new in-laws, aunts, uncles, and even great-grandparents.
You might also discover some very ancient and enlightening things. For example, I went on a genealogy road trip once and discovered a large cache of ancient papers relating to my family. That particular branch of my family had a long history in this tiny Virginia town going back to the late 1600’s. In the town archives, I did a search of the family surname on the computer and came up with a hit that the historian went to get for me. It turns out this particular hit was located in a box in the basement, and people hardly ever looked at it. Inside was a treasure trove I never imagined would still exist. There were original papers regarding this branch of my family going back to their very beginnings in this town, some with remnants of old red wax seals still on them. I held 200-plus-year-old papers in my hands and traced my ancestors’ signatures with my fingertips.
There were land deeds, personal letters from their friends and relatives, old account books for weaving one of the female ancestors did, and the original copy of a will of a 9x great-grandfather. I knew a later will existed, but the original was unknown, and because the original will mentioned this ancestor’s wife, and the later will (written four years later) did not, it allowed me to place her death within a four year period, when her date of death had previously been unknown to any degree. These are the types of things you cannot find online. You must experience them in person, and getting out there and having genealogical adventures is the only way to do it.
3. Getting in Touch With Your Ancestors
When you’re out in the field doing genealogy, you can get in touch with your ancestors in a way you never would imagine. You actually start to see them as real, once living people, not just names on a sheet of paper or computer program. It is actually possible to develop relationships with your ancestors the more you get to know them, and you get a better idea of who you are, where you came from, and why (and how) by getting close to the ancestors who are responsible for making you. It’s like making new friends or getting to know a reclusive aunt. The more you discover about them, the more people you have in your life to love. You really can start to love those ancestors, and you will be surprised at the close relationships you develop with some of them (you will be naturally drawn to some more than others, and that’s okay and normal).
Out in the field, you really get an idea of how your ancestors lived. You will go to the towns (often still very small and rural) where they lived, look at old maps to discover where their homesteads were (and sometimes discover they are still there), visit the cemeteries where they and their immediate relatives are buried (which puts you as close to them as you can possibly get on this planet), and discover old documents they signed (and be amazed that you’re touching something they touched). It is an amazing journey and one you will take many times for lots of ancestors once you get into it. Do it once and you’ll be hooked, for sure.
4. Meeting New, Living Relatives
You will naturally meet some living relatives in the course of your research who you never knew existed before you started your search. The process of seeing just how you are connected is exciting in itself, as you see the generations tangle as they move out from your common ancestor and into the present day. Many of these people will have (or will know people who have) information, documents, and even photos to help and add to your ancestor research that you couldn’t have found any other way. These are the artifacts that stay in families and don’t go into archive buildings or historical societies. They are the hidden artifacts of genealogy.
Sometimes, you will be the one with the hidden artifacts. Giving this information is just as rewarding as getting it. I once met a 72-year-old woman who was related to me by marriage. My great-aunt’s husband (my great-uncle by marriage) had an older brother who died at age 22, leaving behind a 1 1/2-year-old daughter. She disappeared out of the family with her mother. I’d been looking for her for years and found her when a letter she sent to the church our family attended, inquiring about her relatives, was forwarded to me. It turns out she’d never seen so much as a photo of her father.
I not only had photos of her father (inherited after my great-uncle died at age 87), I had a wallet and a Bible that had belonged to him. I sent these things to her, as I felt they belonged with her, to hand down to her seven children. She called me crying with happiness when she received these things, telling me how much they meant to her, to finally “meet” a father she didn’t remember. She also sent me flowers. We became good friends after that, despite the many decades of age difference between us, and we stay in touch to this day. That’s another benefit of meeting new relatives. You may make deep, lasting friendships with them.
5. Honoring Your Ancestors
As you can see, genealogy has a lot to recommend it as a hobby. It can also become more than just a hobby. It can become somewhat of a calling. When you do genealogy of the real, very thorough, exhaustive kind where you dig up every piece of information on an ancestor you can find, you are bringing these people back into the memory of the world (or at least, a select few people who are interested). These are people who may have been lost to history and forgotten by their descendants for generations. You are honoring them by bringing them back into the light and putting the details of their lives back together. Remember, these were living people once, real people who actually walked the earth. They deserve to be remembered by their descendants, just as you would want to be remembered. In a very real way, you are doing a service to them by pulling them out of the obscurity of time and back into the present to re-introduce them to the many descendants they produced.
The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement of getting to know your ancestors and living relatives you’ve never met are all wonderful reasons to love genealogy. You’ll never know just how much you will love genealogy until you try it. Just get out there and get started. You will soon be a genealogy enthusiast. It is fun, exciting, interesting, and one of the most rewarding things you will ever do.