The Fifth Commandment tells us to honor our fathers and our mothers. We are often told to remember the wonderful works of God in history. What better idea, then, for a history project for our homeschoolers than a family history project? When carried out for these reasons, rather than a false sense of family pride, family history research can be an interesting and edifying experience for rhetoric stage students. It can introduce them to the tools of the historian in an interesting way, give them the joy of discovery and a real sense of their place in history.
There are several reasons that make this type of project ideal for homeschoolers. First, the information is, in most cases, not available by simply reading another person’s work. Perhaps your family has some lines that have already been researched and published, but there are other lines that are waiting for your budding historian to discover them. This forces the student to go to primary and secondary sources to piece together a history.
Researching your family history will give your student experience with the tools of the historian, including conducting interviews, examining documents, keeping records, making timelines and charts, and carefully recording sources. It will also give him or her the experience with organizing the information and presenting it in an interesting way. If you happen to live near the area where your ancestors lived, the project can also include visiting and photographing tombstones, family home sites, and churches. It will also give your student a lot of experience with using search engines, including overcoming obstacles such as variously spelled or misspelled names, misread handwriting, use of nicknames, changing county and state borders, and the like.
Perhaps the most important lesson will be learning to evaluate the weight of evidence obtained.
Great Aunt Tillie tells the story of the family’s immigration. How can the information be verified? Does she remember this herself or is this a second- or third-hand account? If information is learned from a published genealogy or a family tree found online, is it well-sourced? Can the records cited be found and verified? If a birth certificate and a death certificate give conflicting information, which one is most likely to be correct? Why? How can clues on one piece of evidence be used to find other records? What clues might tell you when a family Bible record was written and by whom? Does the record you have found prove your conclusion or just make it likely?
If you find researching your own family tree to be too difficult because it involves records in a different area, country, or language, you may be able to do a similar project researching the family of a notable person from your area’s local history. (Choose someone whose family has not already been well researched.) In either case, your local historical society would probably be pleased to accept a copy of the finished research project. (What great motivation to produce a professional quality report!)
There are many books and online sources that can be consulted for genealogy know-how, so I won’t attempt to give you a primer here. I will, however, recommend a database program to use. I have tried several and Legacy Family Tree is both the best, in my opinion, and also one of the least expensive. In fact, the standard version is free and can be downloaded here. The deluxe version, which unlocks some very useful features, is only $19.95. Programs that sell for well over $100.00 do less than Legacy. I also recommend the training materials, especially the CD on sourcing your database, because this will help your student learn to record sources properly. (I’ll be forthright here and tell you I get a commission if you click on these links and order Legacy materials. I could sign up for similar commission plans for other software programs, however, but I do not, because I sincerely think this one is the best.)
Family history research is a growing hobby trend, so the demand has caused many resources to be available online, at local libraries, and through family history societies. In my state, (Maryland), anyone with a library card can access from home the entire collection of U.S. Census images from 1790 to 1930. (1890 was almost entirely destroyed in a fire.) All years can be browsed by district, and several years are fully indexed. Other state library systems subscribe to similar database collections. (Look for HeritageQuest or Ancestry.) Local histories and published genealogies are also available through these online services.
Volunteers are also transcribing records and making them available online. The U.S. GenWeb project maintains web sites in each U.S. state and county. The Mormons have transcribed records from all over the world and make them available for free at their site. You can also borrow microfilmed original records at their local Family History Centers. (N.B. The Mormon site also includes unsourced information submitted by other researchers. Be sure to click on the source information for anything you find on this site so you can evaluate its trustworthiness.)
There are also subscription sites that require membership dues or pay-per-view fees. I think the best for U.S. and British family research is Ancestry.com . Records at sites like Ancestry.com include immigration records, church baptism records, historic newspaper images, obituaries, census images, birth records, marriage licenses, and a myriad of others.
For a wealth of information on what is available online, or in your local area, check out Cyndi’s List, a web site dedicated to indexing genealogy resource information.
The biggest drawbacks to this project are: 1) It’s so much fun you get addicted to it, 2) If you don’t set up a good filing system, the papers soon take over your life, and 3) If you’re not careful, you can spend a lot of money without realizing it. All in all, though, I think that finding out how God has worked through the generations of your family will be a very satisfying adventure for your high school students, and a heritage to pass on to future generations.