Generation Gap: Uncover Your Family History with Genealogy

If you love a good mystery and have the determination to solve the knottiest puzzles, then genealogy – researching your family history – just may appeal to your inner Sherlock Holmes.

Perhaps because we live in such a transient society, searching for one’s roots has never been so popular. Just ask Cyndi Howells, plus-size owner and webmaster of the award-winning Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet (, a categorized index to more than a quarter million online resources for people working on their family tree.

Howells’ quest for her roots began as a high school project, when she filled in a chart using information her grandmother had found. “Through the years, I worked on my family tree off and on, doing what I could,” she recalls. “When my dad got a computer, I entered the information I had gathered on his program.”

When she decided to give up her job in international banking to stay home and have a baby, Howells delved more deeply into genealogy. She and her husband, Mark, who live in the Tacoma, Wash. Area, bought a computer and went online. “When I made up a list of computer genealogy bookmarks for my fellow members of the Tacoma-Pierce County Genealogical Society, they asked for more,” Howells says. “Mark said we needed to have a website, so I taught myself HTML programming and began Cyndi’s List on March 4, 1996.”

Although Howells has the best-known site for online resources, she cautions that the Web isn’t necessarily the best place to start in your search for your ancestors. “You can’t find everything online,” she says. “Every family is unique. Start with yourself and talk to parents, aunts, and uncles about your family history. Then come back to the computer.”

Howells, who spends eight to 12 hours each day working on her site and doesn’t do research for individuals, chuckles at the requests she receives from people who don’t understand the time commitment that family history research requires.

“One woman sent this e-mail to me [which said], ‘I have a family reunion next weekend. Can you send my family history?’ Then a man asked me to send an alphabetical list to him of all the people living in the United States!” Howells exclaims.

Courtney Cannon Scott didn’t initially realize what was involved in genealogical research. “My dad died five years ago, but he always wanted to know more about his family. I thought I could do this for him, thinking it wouldn’t take long.” Now, the Atlanta-based Scott is a syndicated columnist whose genealogical tips and advice appear in 215 African-American newspapers across the U.S. “I love crossword puzzles and genealogy is a giant puzzle,” she reveals.

Scott has traced her dad’s family back to 1860 and her mother’s family to 1900. When working on family history before the Civil War, Scott explains that locating African-American ancestors can be a challenge. But, she advises, “In 1850 and 1860, some Southern states had slave censuses. Slaves were listed by household under their owner’s name. Look for the family group you need. Go to local records to check owners’ wills because slaves were property and were accounted for.”

Scott, a plus-size mother of four and grandmother of two, says, “I tell people that if they don’t do anything else, write names on the backs of photos. We have to remember who we are and pay more attention to family. Your individual history is an integral part of our comprehensive history as a people.”

“I wish every day that I had started genealogy earlier and talked to aunts and uncles that are now gone,” Scott concludes. “Now, I’m trying to make the best use of my time.”

Delve Deeper: Getting Started

Your family history is likely to be a fascinating story of life, love and dreams. It’s also an integral part of who you are. Here are some tips to start you on your journey of tracing your own roots:

  1. Start with yourself and your immediate family. Write down all of the birth, marriage, and death dates and locations that you know for each person. Then go back to the previous generation and do the same.
  2. Document your work. Never accept someone else’s word as the truth unless you see documentation that proves their claims. Anyone can make a mistake or a wrong assumption. Relatives sometimes don’t remember things as clearly as they think, so look for proof to back up the facts they provide.
  3. Before beginning your research at the library, ask the reference librarian to list the materials available for your use.
  4. Be flexible when researching your surname. Census-takers in the past were usually not well educated and sometimes spelled names the way they sounded. Often, the people interviewed by the census-takers did not know how to spell their names. For example, the name Scifres is found in old records as Cypher, Sifers, Scifers, Ciphers, Syphers and other variations. Immigrants to America may have landed with one surname and then Americanized it to something else, either by choice or because of the way they were listed by immigration officials.
  5. Keep your family files organized and note where you located each piece of information. For example: The Jeffersonville Evening News, March 2, 1900, page 2, column 4. Jeffersonville Township Public Library, June 10, 2000.
  6. Carry supplies with you when you do research: coins for the copy machine, a lighted magnifying glass for hard-to-read print, pens, pencils, paper, and family group sheets with the information about your ancestors.
  7. Keep photos and papers in clear, archival-safe sleeves or pages to slow the deterioration process. Identify all photos with names, dates and places, using a pen with acid-free ink.
  8. Talk to your children and grandchildren about your family history. Write or tape record all of the information that you can. Don’t forget to tell them about your life, especially your childhood memories. Each generation has different experiences, and your descendants will be interested in how you lived as a child.


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