Wednesday, November 6, 2019

How Genealogy Has Changed My Life

I was honored to be invited to submit an article to the Minnesota Genealogical Society for its magazine commemorating the Society's 50th Anniversary. The gist was how genealogy has changed over the last half-century. I want to share my article in the hopes that it will make everyone recall their beginnings.



In the Beginning

I am living proof that genealogy can change a person’s life. It began for me in January 1962 in my small hometown of Madison, North Carolina, when it snowed. While snow is not unusual there, an accumulation of 6 to 8 inches from one snowstorm is extraordinarily rare.

My parents and I lived in that small town. My older brother, who is 12 years my senior, had enlisted in the United States Air Force and was already gone. Also living in the town were my paternal grandmother and my father’s sister.

My Grandmother Morgan was born into an affluent family and was accustomed to wealth and privilege. She was descended from a long line of Scotch-Irish immigrants who arrived in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, in the early 1700s and a number of whom were patriots during the American Revolution. She and my grandfather had lost everything during the Great Depression. My grandmother was a very proud woman, sensitive about the loss of her fortune and social position but still possessing a keen sense of family heritage.

I was nine years old in January 1962. My grandmother had been born in late January of 1873 and my almost 89. My aunt was born in 1905 and was then 57 years old. My grandmother often talked about what it was like to grow up in the late 19th century and about her family and social life. She also reminisced about when she and my grandfather were in good financial shape before the Depression. My aunt also shared stories of her childhood and young womanhood before and during the Depression.

It was customary for me to spend time at my aunt and grandmother’s home after school while my parents worked. I would also sometimes spend the night at my aunt and grandmother’s house, much to my delight. While they had no television, it was typical after supper to move into the living room with the lights off and listen to my aunt and grandmother share stories. I would ask, “Tell me about when you were a little girl.” Both women shared their recollections while I listened raptly and my imagination painted the pictures in my mind.

On the occasion of the January 1962 snowstorm, I had stayed over the night before and woke in the morning to a deep blanket of snow outside. Unaccustomed to so much snowfall, the traffic, work, school, and almost everything else in town came to a halt. My aunt and grandmother allowed me to play for a while in the snow that morning, but I soon became cold and bored. The ladies then tried to figure a way to keep a nine-year-old occupied for the day. Finally, my grandmother sat me down and said, “You know, you are the last grandchild in this line of the family. It’s time that you learn about your Revolutionary War ancestors.” And learn I did!

We began by opening a leaf of the antique dropleaf table in the living room. It was then that I learned that the table had been handmade by my fifth great-grandfather in Maryland in the early 1700s and passed down through the family. We then gathered a large sheet of brown parcel paper, a ruler, and pens and pencils, and proceeded to construct my grandmother’s family tree. We started with her personal Bible into which she had entered birth, marriages, and deaths since she received it in the 1890s. As we drew a chart of her family, we added names, dates, and the locations that she remembered. She and my aunt shared stories about the individuals along the way and those stories brought those people to life for me.

Although my grandparents lost everything during the Depression, my grandmother was a great packrat. She kept all manner of papers and mementos throughout the house. She actually had a drawer in the chifforobe that held a box filled with very old papers and several old Bibles. She had me bring the box to the table and we proceeded to go through each and every item. This was my first exposure to deeds, tax documents, a few original wills, letters, and many, many more documents. One fascinating scrap of paper was a receipt dating from 1852 for my great-grandmother’s annual room, board, and tuition at the Salem Female Academy. We added more information to our brown parcel paper chart and made notations in the margins to reference many of these unique documents. The oldest of the Bibles was published in “Edinburg” in 1692, and two others bore publication dates in the 1700s in Boston. The latter two included birth, marriage, and death dates, and these add to our tree chart and evoked more stories from my grandmother.

The three of us continued working on this family history/family tree for the remainder of that day and continued into the next. By that time, we had added names and other details about nine generations. My grandmother had in her possession a book titled The History of Mecklenburg County from 1740 to 1900 by J. B. Alexander which contained detailed biographical sketches of our ancestors going back before the American Revolution. My grandmother spoke proudly of these patriots and taught me how important a sense of family is. By the end of the second day, I had discovered the joy of learning about my antecedents and their lives. My grandmother gave me that book and I have re-read and studied its contents many times over the years.

My Change in Perspective

Life changed for me after that because I had been imbued with the sense of family and pride in its history. School immediately became much more interesting to me, especially history, geography, and social studies. No longer was I simply memorizing dates, places, and factoids for school tests and then promptly forgetting them. Now I was considering in each of these subjects such questions as, “Who where my ancestors who lived at this time and in this place?”, “What were they doing at the time?”, “What influence did the events and people of their time have on their lives, their thoughts, and their actions?”, and “What actions did my ancestors take to influence people and events around them, including building lives for themselves and their families and contributing to their communities?” Suddenly placing my ancestors into context with their environment and times became very important to me and it truly brought my academic studies to life. I also became more aware of events going on around me, both in my hometown and around the world.

We had a very small library in my hometown but with a dedicated librarian. The librarian was one of our neighbors and a lovely, friendly lady. As I became more interested in history, I spent more time at the library. I checked out books about the places where my ancestors had lived and about the events affecting their times. Our librarian took notice of my reading interests and casually asked if I was working on school assignments. When I told her that I was researching my family history, she was excited and became enthusiastic to help me. I learned that she was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and she explained what that was. She began guiding me to more resources and introduced me to censuses, land and property records, probate documents, cemeteries, newspapers, and many more sources of genealogical and historical evidence. I shared the family tree that my grandmother, my aunt, and I had constructed. She taught me about the genealogical conventions of recording data and source information. Our relationship became a close one and she continued to mentor me and share the excitement of my discoveries. And thus began my lifelong research journey.

Genealogy Then and Now

Genealogy and family history research in the 1960s was much slower than it is today. I spent a lot of time writing letters requesting copies of documents from courthouses, libraries, archives, churches, and other places. My hometown library had very little in the way of a genealogical reference collection. The nearest such library was in Greensboro, North Carolina. Before long, I would spend time in the Greensboro library whenever my parents and I went to that city for shopping or other business. It was there that staff introduced me to microform materials and taught me how to use microfilm readers. I delved into Soundex microfilm and printed index books to locate census records on film. I transcribed materials from these records onto forms and copied information from books and magazines in the early days because there were no photocopy machines available. Nearly everything was done by hand and it was a tedious process. I discovered later that government offices and courthouses also used microfilm and was soon clamoring to spin those reels of discovery.

It has been more than 57 years since the time I spent with my grandmother and aunt in 1962 and so much has changed. The availability of digitized images at,,,, and a vast number of other online resources websites have greatly accelerated the pace of our research. Libraries and archives have aggressively digitized materials in their special collections and made them available online. The availability of digitized historical maps, atlases, gazetteers, newspapers, and other essential materials is greatly complementary to our other research resources.

Collaboration with other researchers was made easier beginning in the 1980s with the availability of online services such as Genie, America Online, and other bulletin board and text-based chat services. These evolved into message boards and mailing lists, both of which are still viable research resources. The modern Internet was born and webpages began appearing by the hundreds of thousands and millions. Technological advances in computers, cellular phones, and other equipment, as well as the introduction of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, have revolutionized our ability to communicate with one another. Blogs, tweets, all of the electronic tools cannot be overemphasized.

Scientific advances in genetics and large-scale development of affordable personal tests have made DNA an Integral part of our genealogical toolkit. More recent developments have given us opportunities to evaluate our own DNA for health purposes. Innovations are being developed and tested to facilitate the use of DNA from envelopes and stamps and from hair samples without attached follicles. While DNA has been used in criminal forensics for decades, technological advances have help genetic genealogy be used forensically to solve open and cold case crimes. We can certainly expect advances in the use of DNA in genealogical research and improved accuracy in the test results and matching algorithms over time.

Genealogy Was and Is Exciting

As I reflect on the many years that I’ve been researching my genealogy, I recall many, many exciting finds. I always revel in the thrill of the chase, and I cherish the friendships I have made over all the years. Genealogy has opened many doors for me and has allowed me to share my experiences and expertise in presentations and in the writing of books, magazine articles, blogs, and webpages. It has allowed me to produce podcasts since September of 2005, to be an administrator of The Genealogy Squad Facebook group, and to plan for new offerings for the community coming later this year.

Genealogy is a great adventure. It provides a perspective into the past and the opportunity to build context for our ancestors, their families, and their communities. Our research provides endless opportunities to learn and to share with others, whether it be with other researchers or with our families. And the people we have met are wonderful!

Genealogy has changed my life in many ways. How has it changed yours? And what else will the future bring that will enhance our family research? We’ll have to wait and see.

© Aha! Seminars, Inc. ®

and George G.Morgan


  1. George, I absolutely love this! What a nice job recapping how genealogy has changed, and how it changed you.

  2. Thank you for sharing this wonderful article. It is very thought provoking. We are so blessed to have the help and directions from so many people over the years.