Becoming a Genealogist at Age 10

Me standing outside NEHGS headquarters on September 24, 2011

You could be 10, 43, or 85. You could be a beginner or an expert. But if you love genealogy as much as I do, you know how special a visit to the headquarters of New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), now known as the American Ancestors Research Center, can be. When my dad took me there for the first time at age 10, I was a total beginner. The only thing I could have been an expert at back then was watching SpongeBob SquarePants.

A few months earlier, I had asked my grandmother about our family history for the first time. I had no idea her answer would kickstart my passion for genealogy. She told me to wait, went upstairs, and came back with a small blue book about the Mayflowerpassengers who sailed to Plymouth in 1620. In the back was a record of two direct lines connecting my grandmother to the families of passengers John Alden and Francis Cooke. I had always felt drawn to history—I especially loved sitting in libraries all day, and watching the History Channel—but something about seeing connections between my family and historical legends on the page excited me more than anything else.

I spent the next few months asking my grandparents countless questions about our genealogy. Fortunately, they were happy to entertain them, especially my grandfather. He sat with me for a couple of hours one summer afternoon and sketched out what he knew about his family tree on a big poster board. I couldn’t take my eyes off the enormous tree as it took shape, and for weeks afterward, I spent large chunks of time studying it. Thirteen years later, I redrew that tree, including all the new people we have found ever since, on my college dorm room wall!

My family tree mural, drawn on my college dorm room wall at Duke University

But back in 2011, our family tree had a lot of holes. Without any hobby genealogists in the family, nobody knew what the next step was.

In September 2011, my dad had the idea to take me on a father-son weekend trip to Boston. My mother passed away in 2007, and he was often busy working during the week to support me and my sister. He was always very intentional about making sure that he spent all his free time with us. We shared evening dinners, trips to grandma’s house, and weekend adventures. A weekend of fun in Boston was one of his latest ideas. Little did he know that our adventure would turn into one of his favorite stories, which he would tell over and over for the next decade.

Always encouraging my interests, my dad found out that the oldest and most storied genealogy library in the country, belonging to the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), was in Boston. He thought it would be fun to kickstart our long weekend by taking me there to check it out. We arrived around 2:00 PM on Friday, signed in, and jumped on the elevator. The staff genealogists immediately recognized my excitement and guided me through the library. Rhonda McClure—a skilled genealogist and frequent contributor to this blog —showed me how to use microfilm readers and look up records online. Before I knew it, it was 5 p.m. Already closing time?!

The next part is my dad’s favorite part of the story. Walking out of the research center that Friday afternoon, he said, “So, what do you want to do tomorrow, Jack? There’s a Red Sox game, we can go walk around the city, there are some shows, we can go on a duck boat tour…” Apparently, I looked up at him and said with complete sincerity, “Dad. The genealogy library opens at 8 a.m.” It wasn’t even a consideration that we would do anything other than spend every hour we could at NEHGS.

I spent the next three days working on my family’s genealogy, both with Rhonda and by myself. By noon the next day, my dad actually asked the staff if they would keep an eye on me, and left the building! Remembering that moment makes me laugh every time. Always the most supportive parent, after watching me research for three hours, he tapped out. He went off to have a nice afternoon walking around Boston, having a delicious lunch, and enjoying the beautiful day, while I stayed glued to the microfilm machines and computers. I was in heaven, and so was he, even if our father-son weekend took an unexpected turn!

Looking at birth records on microfilm at NEHGS in 2011. My dad took this picture on Saturday, right before heading off to lunch and for a walk around Boston on his own!

I loved spending all day talking to other people fascinated by genealogy. I remember a moment when I was sitting at a computer, looking up records. On my left was a man—about 45—doing the same. On my right was a woman who said she was a grandmother and 85, building her family tree on Ancestry. We were each deep in thought, trying to crack our mysteries. I felt like I had found my people! It is one of the earliest experiences of losing time I can remember—I blinked, and six hours had passed.

Rhonda showed me how to read census records. I had never seen census, birth, or death records. World War draft cards were completely new to me. I went from not knowing what microfilm was on Friday at 3 p.m., to whizzing through reel after reel on Saturday. I printed out dozens of records and kept them in a metal box.

Rhonda helped me find one of my favorite discoveries to date: the story of my great-great-grandparents , who were next-door neighbors in rural Maine, went their separate ways, and then found each other and married later in life. We also were able to find a mysterious ancestor, who had disappeared from Connecticut in the 1920s, living in Los Angeles and working for movie studios. I remember the overwhelming thrill, after almost two hours scrolling through microfilm, of finally seeing my elusive great-great-grandfather’s name on a death record from 1933. The thrill of the hunt and the ecstatic feeling when you finally find the ancestor you are looking for is unlike any other. Now a senior in college, I still get that same feeling whenever I come across a new genealogical discovery.

A picture my dad took of me walking back to our hotel after a whole day at NEHGS. The locked box I’m carrying contained all my record printouts.

My dad picked me up at closing time that Saturday and practically had to drag me out. I spent the whole evening on the floor of our hotel room, organizing all my record printouts and talking his ear off about all the new people, discoveries, trials, and thoughts I had about our genealogy. I am thankful to have such a patient father!

Your visit to the American Ancestors Research Center will completely transform your genealogy game. You will meet incredible people and experts excited to help you. You will have access to collections of records you would not have otherwise. NEHGS's microfilm collections gave me invaluable documents unavailable on any online databases. You will find yourself surrounded by fellow genealogists of all levels and ages.

Today, I am a recent college graduate, with degrees in History and Psychology from Duke University. I dabbled in other subjects during my first two years at Duke like economics, statistics, English, mathematics, natural sciences, Italian, and biology. But I always knew nothing could overpower my love for history and genealogy. My visit to NEHGS when I was 10 kicked off over a decade of research. I do personal projects every day, interview family members all the time, and write about it for fun on my biweekly blog, Genealogy Jack .

Editor’s Note: The American Ancestors Research Center is currently closed for renovations. We are excited to reopen in 2024 and introduce our new Discovery Center, which will feature an expanded building, state-of-the-art facilities, and brand new exhibits designed to engage people of all ages in family history and heritage. Stay tuned!