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What's Your Family Story?

Oral history is the first step in tracing your ancestry

En español | When I was a girl, my grandmother often talked of her maternal grandmother, Grandma Luff. But she never mentioned Grandpa Luff, my great-great grandfather. When I asked about him, she said that he died "in the war." I assumed she meant the Civil War, which would explain why he wasn't buried with his wife. So I let it go at that.

See also: Bring Your Family Stories to Life

Once I began to research my family history, however, I quickly realized that given his children's ages, Grandpa Luff couldn't have died in the Civil War. So I asked my great-uncle, and he told me Grandpa Luff, a blacksmith, had gone to Nebraska to sell horses and was killed on the open prairie. The family believed he'd been robbed and killed. My youngest great-aunt said he went to Alaska in the gold rush and never returned.

Why You Should Trace Your Roots Now

— Andrew Bret Wallis/Getty Images

So we have three versions of a story. None is completely true, but none is completely false, either. Grandpa Luff fought in the Civil War, he was a blacksmith, and he left home and never returned. It took several years of research to put together a timeline of Grandpa Luff's rather colorful life. But I would never have known where to start if it weren't for the stories I'd been told — true or not.

Once you begin researching your own family, the most important work you'll do will be tracking down relatives and asking them to share their knowledge. Every family has a historian buried among the shirt-tail cousins and great-uncles. And those people are the reason not to put off working on your family tree for one more minute. By the time I found the truth about Grandpa Luff, all his grandchildren had passed away.

Every day, more and more records are available online, making research easier — although not always more accurate. But every day we lose the one resource we can't replace — people. If I had a nickel for every lament of "Why didn't I ask Grandma?" or "Why didn't I record Great-Aunt Ethel's stories?" I'd be retired already.

But if Grandma is gone, don't despair. There are always aunts, uncles and cousins — including distant cousins you might not even know. Some of my biggest genealogical "finds" have come from people I'd never met; living, breathing relatives with whom I share DNA and a common history.

These discoveries will be the most meaningful you'll make. After one distant cousin laid eyes on me for the first time, she exclaimed, "You look just like Mamie!" That meant a lot of me — I hadn't known my great-aunt Mamie as a girl, but she had. A distant cousin in Maryland had photos of my great-grandfather and his brothers, whom I knew came over from Ireland together — and of five sisters I knew nothing about! She let me take them home and have them copied. What a priceless gift!

5 tips for researching your family stories »

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