The Large Manila Envelope

I opened the large manila envelope, and pulled out the few papers inside.  One page was a partially filled-out chart with the names of a father, a mother, and her parents.  A few dates were listed with the names, but they appeared to be approximations, and one place mentioned “of” indicating uncertainty.  A single page letter read: “This is all I know… about my family.  Is it enough for you to help me discover my ancestry?” 

This could have been any one of hundreds of letters that I see each year from people who want to know their genealogy, their heritage, their link to humanity and history.  At some point in most peoples’ lives they begin to wonder about their connection to the universe, to mankind, and whether there is meaning to life.  One of those life-defining questions is “Who Am I?”  For some people this may be the start of religious awakening, or the first step in searching for a purpose and goal in existence.  But for a number of us, it is much more basic than that…”who am I in relation to other people around me.”

Start Searching “Who Am I?”

“Who am I” requires searching inner feelings, and coming to grips with desires, and motivations.  On a basic level we begin exploring our relationships with other people around us… a spouse, or parents, brothers and sisters, and then we begin to reach out beyond that inner circle of association. 

A gentleman in one of these letters once expressed his concern that the people with whom he associated and worked could all seemingly reach back in historical time and identify ancestors who had been active in the military in his state, or in the settlement of their town.  It gave them an anchor to the community that he didn’t have because he didn’t know who his ancestors were.  Each of us has ancestors who played a role in history.  He wanted to know his.

People too often worry about the social status or position of their ancestors, and make the mistake of tying their own self-worth to these ancestors they seek to emulate. When we unfetter our worth from the past, and open ourselves up to those who actually came before, we can learn how every person in our past played a role in our Heavenly Father’s theatre of life, and every role has value.  To learn about those ancestors and their roles we just need to start searching. 

The Easiest Route

The easiest route to learning and evaluating our relative past is to work back in time and history, beginning with you.  You know your own life; seek to document it.  Compile a list of events or accomplishments in your history, and find items that illustrate that information… a birth record, a school graduation, newspaper articles, church accomplishments. Now move on to the next generation.

Most people know their parents, and knew their grandparents well enough to tie together names, places, and dates.  Uncles and aunts, and cousins can easily come to mind.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions of others.  The worst they can say is “I don’t know”.  However, people often fail to learn how to remember, and a few rote names, dates, and places make up the summary I hear most often… “This is all that I know about my family”, when in reality they have only forgotten memories of the past. When you ask questions of others, provide information you have found, because it will prompt them to remember things they have forgotten.  

Remembering the past is largely a simple matter of connecting personal events with history, and extrapolating from there.  You may not remember when your grandfather was born, which is a rote memory, but you probably recall attending his funeral.  How old were you at the time of the funeral?  That gives you an ending date.  And approximately how old was Grandpa when he died?  Where was the funeral held?  Where was the cemetery?  Knowing this, go to the cemetery and you will likely find his tombstone and grave markers for other relatives, including his wife, or possibly his parents and grandparents.  Each of their gravestones will provide family information that can expand your family history knowledge.

Beyond the Tombstone

Where does this lead us?  Now you can search for an obituary in the local newspaper, which might be on-line, or on microfilm at the local public library.  A death certificate is likely available at the State Department of Health, which will provide birth information about Grandpa, and probably give his parents’ names.  If Grandpa was born before 1940, then you may be able to find him with his family in the 1940 or earlier census records, which are accessible on-line. 

There are genealogical and historical and public record and family tree websites that provide many records either freely or for a small subscription fee.  Computers at the public library, or at a nearby family history center at the LDS Church Meeting House, are generally free for public use.  If you want to use your own computer, FamilySearch.org is the free site from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; but other commercial sites will charge between $30 to $400 for membership fees.  Don’t let these fees scare you away.  These sites will open a new world to you with a treasure trove of genealogical knowledge, and will literally save you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in document fees, travel time and expense and other benefits. 

The Thrill of Discovery

A funny thing happens when you start to search for your identity in family genealogy research.  Finding seemingly mundane information like names, dates, and occupations, will absolutely thrill you, unlike anything you have ever experienced!  This is because you aren’t just finding information; you are finding details about your connection to history and mankind! You aren’t just finding a list of names on the 1860 Census, you are finding your ancestor, an extension of yourself, in a place and time in history.  A commercial for a popular genealogy website portrays a reader who discovered his Grandfather’s family on the 1880 Census, living next door to the Wright Brothers (Wilbur and Orville who invented the first working airplane)!  You could hear the excitement in his voice as he expressed his thrill of discovery.  Now ask yourself “Who were my family’s neighbors?”

When someone writes and says “This is all I know about my family… Is it enough to start discovering my ancestry?” I just smile, because I know we are about to embark on a wonderful new experience with that person where history becomes family.     


James W. Petty, AG, CG, is the Board-Certified and Accredited Professional Genealogist, “Climbing the Family Tree Professionally, Since 1969”.  He is President of HEIRLINES Family History & Genealogy, Inc. (www.Heirlines.com), the “Salt Lake City, Utah BBB Accredited Business” trusted professional genealogy research services firm, providing US and International genealogical and historical research for a world-wide clientele.

For Heirlines-Quality professional genealogy services, resources, and products including expert family tree research, LDS family history assistance, and answers to genealogy questions, please see Jim’s website <a href="https://www.


<hr class=’system-pagebreak’ />heirlines.com/”>www.Heirlines.com and his blog ProfessionalGenealogy.com.  Heirlines: We professionally identify and document ancestry and kinship relationships and verify and certify the family tree with Certified Family Trees and Certified Forensic Genealogy Solutions.  We’re ready when you’re ready!