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Why Do We Do Genealogy?

A friend asked an interesting question. "Why do you do genealogy?" The answer should be simple. One would think it would be something along the lines of:

"I do genealogy because I want to know who my ancestors were."

Why do we do Genealogy?
But guess what? Like most questions in life, the answer is not that simple. There are a myriad of reasons why we delve into genealogy research. Wanting to find out who our ancestors were is just the tip of the genealogy iceberg.

The reasons I currently "do genealogy" are not the same reasons I had twenty or thirty years ago. When I began my genealogy quest it was because my father had repeatedly expressed curiousity about our Irish origins. He died when I was 14 years old, and after his death I vowed to find out about our Irish McGinnis ancestors.

So my answer to that question, had it been asked those many years ago, would have been. "I do genealogy because I want to remember and honour my father."

It was a specific reason, very narrow in scope, but it sparked a broader interest in history. In fact, that is not my main reason anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time. I've grown. Genealogy has been a journey, and as on any journey, my needs and desires and goals along the way have changed.

For example I’m extremely curious. Some would say nosy. I think most of us who love genealogy would make great detectives. My personality is such that I can't let a mystery lie without digging into it. I need to find answers.

So my current answer to the original question of why I do genealogy is now much more complex.

"I do genealogy for many reasons. One is my curiousity about my ancestors - who were they, what were they like, what experiences did they live through. My love of history is part of the reason I do genealogy. My desire to solve mysteries is a huge part of my passion for genealogy. And I do genealogy because I want my children and grandchildren to know and recognize the individuals over the centuries whose lives helped make us who we are today."

Born Died written in sand

Genealogy isn't a pursuit well suited for those who require instant gratification. It's a long-term process and to those who are not like-minded it seems an incomprehensible pursuit. I've spent more hours scrolling through microfilm searching for that one entry with an ancestor's name, then I care to remember. Many people would consider those wasted hours. I don't.

Some of my family are not the least bit interested in our ancestors. Some are interested to a degree. Tell them stories of the more interesting or outrageous ancestors such as our daredevil Peer ancestor who walked Niagara Falls on a tightrope and they listen. Tell them about great great grandpa, the farmer in England, and their eyes glaze over. 

I once had a friend say to me "But why do you care? They're all dead!" I care because they made me who I am. Without them I would not be here. They are part of me, part of my genetic makeup. They also deserve to be remembered, and to continue to be part of our lives. Our children and grandchildren need to hear about those ancestors. They need to speak of them to their children, and to carry on the stories they hear from me.

Some of my relatives are not interested in my treasured photos of our ancestors. To me those are the icing on the cake! Photos make my ancestor come alive. One of my relatives told me she wasn't interested in seeing a photo of our 2nd great-grandfather. Why wasn't she interested? Because, she said "Why do I care what he looked like? I never knew him."

Why do we do genealogy?
That absolute lack of curiousity is incomprehensible to me, just as my desire to know more is incomprehensible to her. A photo allows us to know our ancestors. With a photo in my hand I can study a face then ponder over whether or not great-grandma's nose is just like my granddaughter’s.  I can visualize the ancestors in those photos living their daily lives, just as we do today. With a photo I feel a connection I can’t quite feel with only a name and a date.

I’ve been asked when my research will be done. Many family members want to know why I am still looking when I know the names of ancestors back several generations. Non-genealogists rarely understand that genealogists want to find as many details and as much information about each ancestor as they possibly can.

Even though my answer to the original question is complex and multi-faceted, I can sum my reasons up in one sentence:

Without the past there is no present, nor can we build a future.

How would you answer my friend's question, "Why do you do genealogy?"


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.



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All your reasons, plus I like to solve word puzzles and jigsaw puzzles and I like to create forms and make lists (i.e., use databases).

I was curious about family history in middle school, and it's never gotten old. I never wondered why it was interesting.

After about forty years, the general apathy about our ancestors made me pause and re-direct.

Other than pounding on a couple of brick walls, I refocused on identifying my living relatives.

I decided the best approach to preserve and spread my family history would be to place the collective work in the hands of as many 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th cousins as possible. I thought that this would either stir someone's curiosity or be available when someone started asking question.

I share hard copies or PDFs via email and facebook.

I feel the same. Its a lonely pursuit, I feel like my family resents it because I spend so much time on it and every time I start to talk about a discovery their eyes also glaze over. My daughter is the only one halfway interested so Im trying to do everything properly and organized so she can take it up after Im gone. I have never had a hobby that brings me joy until now, and its more than a hobby to me. I originally started because I wanted to know if my ancestors were really French just like all my family boasts about. One night I started by looking up the origins of my surname which led me to the ancestry site. Since that night, something woke up inside me and I cant even explain it but I cant help my pursuit. Then the more I learned, the more I feel like my ancestors, at the very least deserve to be honored and remembered for all their hardships in getting their family to America and trying to start a life. They were all farmers and unlike other people in my family, I am proud of that. They worked their butts off just for us.I want to be able to hand that legacy down to my descendants, I don't have many posessions but that legacy is more important than all our worldly goods, I love history and am a curious sort also. I also cant let mysteries go without getting the truth. My only regret as far as genealogy goes is that I didn't start earlier in life when my mom was alive and had all kinds of historical items that got lost or trashed after she died, I have since realized what a genealogical gold mine all that stuff was, not to mention she knew knew everything about everybody and she would have been a wonderful treasure trove of information. Like you, its not a cut and dry answer for me.

Well said, Lorine! Keep up your excellent work.

Thank you Lorine McGinnis Schulze, you have just echoed the sentiments of my very own heart in almost precise detail. I cherish what you have written and will keep it as a reminder that there is at least one such GD (genealogy detective) after my own heart. All the Blessings of Easter to you and yours from this GD, John Winters from Mayfield, New South Wales, Australia

thank you for listing everything i can't come up with when someone asks the question. i try to figure out unique ways to share some of the info, like hanging photos on the tree at christmas or participating in some of the writing memes that bloggers come up with. so many times family members really don't get it unless they have fallen down the genie rabbit hole.
thanks again

My story is a bit different. After my first marriage people kept asking about my unusual surname. The quest set off over 40 years of puzzle solving. Now my quest has turned to genealogy for DNA.

I didn't start doing genealogy until I was 60. My sister had been working on the family history for at least 20 years, doing it the hard way. After she passed away, I took all her work and digitized it all on my computer. That was 20 years ago and I have never stopped. There is always another cousin or aunt or uncle of some level removed, but still interesting. I start a family, then the daughters, which takes me off on another family and that makes me curious about them too. And so it goes on. Yes, my family thinks I am a little strange too, including my wife, but I know more about her family then she does. She asked me once when I would get done, and I said never, it never ends. There is always another record somewhere, another relative I didn't know about. And yes, I am insatiably curious.

I'm so glad this article appeared on my Timeline. Exactly two months from today, my husband and I will be gathering with several distant cousins who are all descended from the siblings (born 1829 - 1851) of my Great Great Grandmother.

We will meet on the tiny Isle of Tiree, the most westerly of the Inner Hebrides islands. Several of us are bringing (or sending) meaningful stones and stories from where we live to Tiree. Our stones will be incorporated, with many others, into a memorial cairn to honour 9 men and boys, all fishermen, who died during Tiree's Great Fishing Disaster of 1856.

My Great Great Great Grandfather was one of the nine who died. More than 20 fishermen survived the terrible storm that blew them far out to sea. All of these families must have told heart-wrenching stories about that terrible day. But after two years of research and reaching out to living descendants via and Facebook, I have been saddened to learn that none of the fishermen's' living descendants seem to have any knowledge about the Balephuil Fishing Tragedy. Because of Facebook and email, we some of us have formed electronic friendships. Several of us will meet face-to-face on May 26, 2016 at Tiree's Balephuil Bay, where the fishermen launched their boats on 7 July 1856. Without genealogy, none of us would have known anything about this amazing story!

FAMILY MATTERS: Our Family History For my son and my nieces and nephews and their descendants when they become interested and ask.

A few years ago, Niece Gabrielle was thinking of writing a novel based on our family's history and memories. She even brought a tape recorder to her sister Kristin's house, where we were spending Christmas, to interview her mother and me. So we all sat on the steps in Kristin's greenhouse drinking and smoking and trying to be coherent. But the tape recorder broke and as the wine in the bottles disappeared, the meeting degenerated into a giggling fest. Then Gabrielle got busy with other things and nothing came of it. But it nagged at me. If the family's story was going to be told and written down, I was the one to do it, because I knew more than anyone else alive, though Sister Louise and Cousin Sonja in Holland could confirm and sometimes correct and add to my memories. If I did not know, I was equipped to do the research and would know what I was looking at if it was in French or Dutch or German or Latin or even Spanish or Italian. And since I was retired, I would have plenty of time to do it. And so about six months ago, I decided to bite the bullet and start the project. As I got further into it, I realized how much I did not know and should have known. I cannot tell you how often I have kicked and sworn at myself for not asking my parents. But I only listened with half an ear to the stories my father did tell me. I was too busy and who wants to know all that old stuff anyway. I'll tell you. YOU do, when your children start asking you questions you don't know the answer to. It's a shame. I am sure Papa would have gladly written down what he knew, if I had asked him. I also blame myself and my sister both for not asking our mother about the concentration camp years during the War and not breaking through that wall of silence that most Word War II survivors built. Only recently have these people started to share their memories of that time, because they were being asked to before it was too late. But Papa and Mama have been gone for almost twenty years. My own memories of those years are almost non-existent and Louise's even less. You never know when it is the last time. By the way, when I refer to 'the War', I mean World War II (1939-1945).

There are a lot of names and dates in this narrative. I hope you won't let that put you off. This is, after all, a family history. Our family is complicated and has long histories, one going back to before God himself was born, or at least made his appearance in Northern Europe. The names are what the story is about and are very important. Many times I have been steered onto the right track by the repetition of a given name. The dates give perspective to what happens in between them. But just glide over them--you won't have to take a test. The dates are recorded the European way (day/month/year), because that is how I found them and it saves on commas. If there were any warts on the corpus familiae, I left them as I found them--not doctored or glossed over.
The nursery rhymes that open some sections were going through my head as I was doing this work. I have used them to jog my memory, to provide a theme, or to set a mood. All but one have lovely melodies. My sister has a very good singing voice. Perhaps we can prevail upon her to make a recording for the children, so that they can learn them. Dutch is close enough to English, so it should not be too hard. There are also a good many Dutch, Malay and other foreign words in the text. Where necessary, I have provided phonetic spellings and translations. There are some maps on the following pages to place all this history in geographical context. Well, here it is: the story of how you came to be on your de Monch/ Munch side. I was even able to pinpoint where your non-European genes came from and what proportion they are of your genetic heritage. The other fifty percent comes from your other parent, which in the case of my sister's children is Yugoslavian. So enjoy already and learn things. Oh--and Gabrielle, there is enough material in this narrative for a dozen novels!

Ingrid Frank née Münch--Pasadena, California, 24 February 2008


This was written eight years ago and I am still turning up gold nuggets!

Thank you for sharing such heartfelt answers on searching for our families. I agree with you and others. You can't help be proud of some of those that came before us. My family was farmers and soldiers, they were there to help their neighbors in time of trials. Looks like we all share in the excitement of finding the treasures of our ancestors . It would be wonderful for our families to feel what we carry close to our hearts. My grandmother did family research and shared her passion with my sister and me...and our search continues .

My mother had eleven siblings, and seven of them were almost a generation older. They mostly had large families, so there were a lot of people for me to "place" in the family when I was a youngster, and we didn't live near most of them. I needed something on paper that I could use to ask Mom more explicitly how we were related to the many cousins.

I also visited at an older cousin's home and was shown pictures of my great-grandparents, their gravestones, their farmland, and my great-grandfather's own work on family history. I needed to do some of that.

As years passed, I've found that knowing some of my relatives' endurance through sad times and hard times has been helpful to me when I faced them myself. They picked themselves up somehow and pressed on, and I should expect the same of myself. And I still want to know more of my cousins.

In my teens my grandmother gave me a book written by a member of her family about his family. That got me started. Then when I learned that my grandfather, her husband, who died when I was about 5, was always going to do a history of his family "after he finished the Kansas history textbook that he was working on" that really made me more interested. I always imagined that he had to have something somewhere but evidently didn't or it got tossed along with a lot of other papers. He never finished the last textbook he was working on. His son finished it for him.

I've been doing genealogy off and on (more "on" now that I'm retired) for over 40 years having initially started when I obtained a copy of my 3X grandfather's journal that he kept during his early years when his family migrated from New Brunswick to NY to Southern IL - the latter in the mid 1840s. Reading the journal, I recognized many of the families in the county that I grew up in and mentioned in the journal and even more so after reading a genealogy chart added by a descendant, I was curious to know just how I fit into this line. I've always been a history buff so it was only natural that once exposed, I would take up the quest. Initially my goal was to try and identify all the families on both my father's & mother's side but later on it came to be more a quest to understand their lives, e.g. why move from NY to IL or VA to IL; why would a 20 year old only in America 10 years join the Confederate Army. So now the big question for which I have no answer is "What are you going to do with all the 'stuff' you have collected?" Like many reading this, very few in my family are interested in taking up the quest but if they do so after I've gone to join my ancestors, I hope I've left them some guide posts to go by which too many before me did not leave.

I do genealogy because it's both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. Intellectually because it's a vast puzzle that takes a lot of brainpower to sort out and understand; emotionally because these are my people-I exist because they existed-if they did not survive and did not reproduce, I would not be here. All that together is both entertaining and critical.

Why do I do genealogy? Because I am a glutton for punishment from all of those brick walls! :)

Why I do genealogy.... my curiosity of my ancestors, my love of a mystery, finding documentation of facts others have missed, and helping others research and find their roots. It's a never ending trail of clues that can go on forever all depending on how far you want to dig, how expansive you want your research to cover and how much time and energy you want to feed it.

I do genealogy because soon after I learned to read, I was curious why my grandparents and father were listed in a genealogy of my surname ancestor, but my youngest aunt was written in and I wasn't even in the book. Five decades on, I have found nearly 40,000 more descendants and their family members. I have uncovered amazing stories about their roles in history, acquired thousands of photographs or copies, collected hundreds of books and poems they wrote, musical pieces they composed or performed, copies of movies and art they created. I have mapped the migrations they took from east to west (and sometimes from west to east) and researched their military histories. In addition to the thrill of the discoveries I've made as a "genealogical detective" I've also been able to provide folks with information and photos of their ancestors, and more recently been able to help them find their ancestors through DNA testing. Frequently folks young and old who previously haven't been interested in genealogy listen when I share some of the fascinating things I have discovered (roller derby star, first pioneers to Oregon, died in a bear rug, member of a President's cabinet) and express an interest in finding out more about their own families.

I started Family History Research because my husband had gone to work in China and I needed something to do while he was gone. Not long after I started, I found that my dad's side of the family died young due to body illness such as heart failure and cancer. I had lost two cousins and an uncle to heart attacks so I decided to start the quest in earnest. I also went to the Doctor to see about my own health and sure enough I had high blood pressure and high chlorestral. I was well on my way to joining my cousins who died at age 35. Genealogy actually saved my life. However, I was bitten by the genealogy bug and I just can't get over it. By the way, that was in 1984.

I am also hooked into this. Little did I know four years ago, that when I started looking for information about my maternal grandfather, that I would love doing the research so much. I have contacted and talked with so many people and even hired a lady in Zagreb, Croatia to help me build out my family tree. I am also going to meet some distant cousins in May, when I go to Croatia. I am looking forward to going, and so many people are asking me to share pictures.
I also have family that are not as interested as I am, but that is okay. I at least have a picture in my mind of all the family I have added to my tree, and the places they have come from and lived.

Great article! And very similar to my own reasons for doing genealogy. Another cool thing about it is it's a never ending hobby that can last for a lifetime. And you never know what you'll discover. Personally, I was able to obtain Irish citizenship thanks to the family research I'd done. It wasn't my goal to do so, just a fortunate added benefit. I plan to move to Europe to live at some point, and having Irish citizenship will give me all sorts of advantages that other ex-pats don't have. Yay for genealogy!

I never had any interest in family history until one of my relations gave me an A3 sheet of paper with a heap of families and children but no dates "maybe you can do something with this on your computer" I was told. Not really knowing what to do I started searching various web sites and came across Leicester Family History Society they helped me find my G Grandad's family....there was no stopping me now I had been bitten by the Genealogy bug.

I was thinking of this very question when I stayed up until 1:00 am the other night researching for another family member. I have "done genealogy" for more than 20 years, and what I love about it is this...when I read the census, it isn't just a document to me. It is the fact that someone stood on my family member's front porch or came into their home and asked all these questions of them. It is my family member providing information about their life. I imagine that some of them never dreamed that anyone would be interested in the very information I am thrilled to find. I see them in my mind's eye, and I thank them every time I find something.

It is the trips to meet cousins in other states that you never knew you had. It's sharing information and finding connections and forging friendships.

It is magic. That's why I "do genealogy."

My interest in genealogy first started when my father told me that people would come from all around Strasburg, ND to have my great grandfather (Peter Kraft, Sr.) address envelopes for them. They needed to be in English, German and Russian to get back to Strassburg, (Ukraine) Russia. He had been a judge (or something like a county clerk) in Russia and was educated. That was the start.

I love doing research and I also like checking out relationships (of any kind). Human relationships are one of the more intriguing to me for many reasons including the social science as well as the genetics involved.
I also like knowing where my family was during various points in history like wars, disasters, immigrations, etc. Unfortunately, many of these seem deleterious, but they also created opportunities and forced life-changing decisions.
I've found it extremely interesting how many of my ancestors ended up in the Pacific Northwest (about 40 back to several sets of 3 and 4ggrandparents). I didn't know that until a few years ago despite having been doing genealogy for over 40 years. I knew about a couple branches being in Idaho early, but I didn't know they were in Oregon well before that
I also like to solve issues and answer questions. One had to do with my mother's father's family. Since her mother died just before turning two and her father was in the Navy, she was eventually given up for adoption to her mother's parents. I grew up around them but they had a lot of animosity for my grandfather. So I learned very little about him until about 15 years ago when I found out he had died from the SSDI. I was able to get a hold of the local paper's obit on him and started figuring out other family members who eventually got in contact with me. I've since learned his family was the earliest Oregon pioneer in my tree coming in 1845. Not only that, they were involved with the Meek Terrible Trail affair which is quite the story.
I've also been told of "Indian blood" stories, but so far, DNA and records have pretty much proven these to be false. However, many features of my grandfather and other relatives do have me curious because they are unusual for one of pretty much exclusively European descent. Also about supposed famous relatives. These didn't pan out either, but I did find some pretty famous fairly distant cousins. =_)
As others have mentioned, I am pretty alone in my research except for a little interaction with a few distant cousins. I have one cousin I grew up around that has expressed a little more interest. However, more recently, a couple of nephews from different siblings are showing "promise". =_) And that brings up the notion that I am doing it for following generations. I preserve what I can and scrutinize and sift through data to set up as accurately as I can information for them.

I agree with many of the reasons stated above by the author and in comments, but no one has mentioned my main reason for doing genealogy. That is, that I am the "link" between past generations and present and future generations. If I don't do it, much will be unknown and forgotten. We need to remember to tell the stories of our own life, as well as the lives of our ancestors.

Beautifully written Lorene. My interest of Geneology came at a young age, probably about 8 yrs old. My grandparents lived with us and my grandfather died when I was three. One of his sisters would come and visit grandmother. Pearl lived in Toronto and worked at Simpsons, she was beautiful, porcelain skin, high cheeks bones, heart shaped lips and a lovely voice. I knew my grandfather had several siblings (17 to be exact) and that they lived in Pittsburgh for a few yrs. Irish Catholics. I love history and often read about others, thinking to myself "why not read about my own?". For the past two years i've been on an amazing journey, beyond anything I could imagine. The best is finding family, even a performer at Woodstock!!! is my cousin. Pearl Nevins, died last May at the age of 98, she leaves behind one remaining brother from the group of seventeen.

A quotation from Pliny the younger, the Roman historian from whom we have the only first-hand account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. His father, Pliny the elder, died leading a naval squadron in an attempt to rescue Pompeians from the harbour.
"I hold it a noble task to rescue from oblivion those who deserve to be eternally remembered"

100 years ago, when Europe was a divided continent, my great Uncle Frank was sent from his small village to the Dardanelles and Egypt to shoot people. After seeing most of his colleagues killed there, he returned to find half of his family were no longer around. He had little support, suffered with delusions and eventually shot two people which resulted in him spending his final years in Broadmoor. The closest that younger family members go to knowing why they sent food parcels to him was, "We don't talk about Uncle Frank". So my interest in Genealogy stemmed from answering three questions: What happened to Uncle Frank?, How did our family get here? and How do we learn from our mistakes? Good news - After many years I have succeeded with the first two questions!

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