Motivations for Tracing Your Ancestors (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Why Would You Want to Trace Your Ancestors…

You’ll be asked by many, “Why do you want to trace your ancestors?” Well, there are a number of good reasons, but let’s face it, most people trace their ancestors for curiosity’s sake. They hope to find a relative that was famous or important. Others trace their ancestors because they want to know about their different ethnic backgrounds. Others want to trace their roots simply for an increased understanding of just who they are and where they came from.

Someone else may need proof of their heritage to gain special benefits from their government. Some associations require members to have had ancestors linked to that organization. And some who offer scholarships may also require an ancestral link.

Recently I met a doctor whose interest in his genealogy dealt with the medical side of his ancestors, what illnesses they had and what they passed away from. Genetic counseling of families suffering from an inherited disease have led some to genealogy. And lawyers have turned to genealogy for legal purposes, finding heirs to settle probate cases.

Teachers have introduced ancestor-hunting to make the study of history more interesting. And finally, some will want to leave a legacy to their children and their grandchildren, what could be nicer than to give them their past as well as their future.

This hobby of ancestor-hunting, shared by millions of people, has become extremely popular. Alex Haley’s Roots in 1977, greatly assisted in the awareness of genealogy.

Just about every society has kept records, but keep in mind that up until recently it was only the nobility and rulers that had the ability to pursue an interest in their lineage. Greek and Roman rulers used their lineage to prove that their ancestors were gods. I read that Julius Caesar ordered his genealogists to link him to an illustrious heritage. When they ‘found’ that he was a direct descendant from a god, he used this as a fact to promote his own rule.

Not everyone within your family will applaud you for your new project, some may oppose your research, afraid you may open a closet door on some family skeletons.

Tracing your ancestors should not be considered a tedious task. Do not think it’s an overnight project either. You may want to consider involving other members of your family. It could be a worthwhile hobby that you, as well as your spouse and children, will find interesting and fulfilling.

There are many reasons why you may want to research your roots, but whatever your reasons are you will find that, as time moves on, what started out as an interesting little hobby will become a passion and you will enjoy every minute of it.

How Far Back Can You Go...

The most frequently asked question is “How far back can you go?” This is a very difficult question to answer. First of all, although all research is the same, everyone’s background has different twists and turns. You may all use the same methods to unravel or complete the puzzle but no one can predict where your research will take you and therefore how long it’s going to take.

There are just so many factors involved. Some will deal with your own family’s history and other factors will deal with world events. For example, if your ancestors were from India, you may be able to go back 1000 years, but if your ancestors were from Indo-China you may only be able to go back 200 years. People of European roots can sometimes go beyond the 3rd and 4th centuries, but usually this applies to royal lines.

How far back can you go? This often depends on your persistence and on your luck. If a sufficient amount of information on your family has survived through the years, then your chances of filling in the family branches are greater.

Keep in mind, that most societies have only recently begun keeping accurate records. Our descendants will find it easier to trace their roots because of all the lists and files and computer printouts that are available to our modern society.

You will find that, as you get involved in your new hobby, your parameters may change. You should initially be concerned about tracing your roots to your first ancestor that came to North America. You may be satisfied with your North American genealogy and you may wish to go no further. This may be satisfying enough to allow you to know who you are and where your ancestors came from.

Keep in mind that some of you may only be able to complete six or seven generations. This doesn’t mean you’re a failure in your project. At times records will have been destroyed and as long as you feel you have checked every possible avenue, then you should be congratulated for what you have found.

Some will want to go further back than their first immigrant ancestor and this is certainly possible. You will use the same methods to research but naturally what is available and where to find it will be different. Let’s start, though, by concentrating on your search of ancestors in our own country, finding that man who first arrived on our shores.

It won’t take long for you to notice that both the study of genealogy and the study of history are very closely related. If you were told that your ancestors came from Ireland because of the potato famine, then you will probably wish to read about this historical event. You will then discover the year the potato famine started and therefore approximately the year your ancestors migrated. You will also learn more about the life your ancestor had and what caused his migration.

You may put a different meaning to historical events like the Klondike Days, the Gold Rush, the expansion of the nation and the advance of the railways since your own ancestors may have participated.

How far back can you go? This will also be determined by how much time you can dedicate to your research. Some find it to be a lifelong pursuit and the challenge is, no matter how far back you go, you can always attempt to go further.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.