Who Are You Really? A Guide to Researching Your Roots

By Luana M. Graves Sellars

My father at 6 years old

So, Who Are You Really? Be able to answer all of those nagging questions about who we really are, seem to follow us throughout life. Why we do what we do or where did I come from are just some of the things that help ground us as individuals. Simple answers to family roots can literally open you up to a world of connections and family legacies. The journey’s that you will follow through documentation can be exciting and provide you with rich experiences that have made you into, well, you.

Geneology research is like completing the family’s puzzle. You’re sure to have some missing pieces, but the more time that you put into your search, the more you will discover the stories and evolution from your family’s past.

Whether your a Lowcountry Gullah or not, here’s a list of genealogy websites that I use that can help get you started on your own ancestral journey. Good luck! I hope that your search uncovers some incredible family stories!!

To read about my story and the fascinating stories that I discovered, read the article I AM Gullah and my connection to the US Colored Troops who fought in the Civil War.

If you’re doing African American genealogy research, be prepared to hit why I call the 1870s Slave Wall. Read all about the wall here.

Not sure of where or how to start? The Heritage Library Foundation on Hilton Head Island, SC has a wealth of information and experts who can help get you started.

If you are confident enough to do the research on your own, here’s a few tips and sites that can get you started.

Research Tips

1 Make a list of the oldest relatives that you can find. You will need their name, estimated birth date or year, where they lived (state, county or city).


When searching, start with census records which are every ten years. I like to use Ancestry.com for that. If you find a relative, especially in older records, check other pages (forward and back) to see if other similar surnames pop up. A lot of times people lived within blocks of each other.

3 Death Certificates are a great source of information! Often parents and children can be found there.

4 If you are aware of any military service, great! If not, check Fold3.com during any wars that may have happened that were age-appropriate.

5 Create a tree from yourself back. Several sites will enable you to create one using their software. I recommend making the tree public, so that you can cross reference your tree with others who might have done more research than you. Great finds come from sharing!

6 Information might pop up fast and furious. Try to support your connections with documents. There might be others with similar information!

7 If you hit a road block, don’t give up!!! Documents are being added all of the time. So walk away from it for awhile. When you come back, even several months later, you might have a pleasant surprise waiting for you!!

Great Sites To Use

The most popular and top site for research and software for building a family tree is Ancestry.com

Another tree building site with software is Family Tree Maker.

A document search through US Vital Records can uncover a lot of details.

The National Archives and Records Administration is a great source for federal information, census data, and military pensions records and images.

Complied by the Mormon Church, FamilySearch.org has a tremendous database.

Want to know what your DNA story is? Genealogy Junkie is the one stop site for anything related to DNA.

Looking for Military Records? Fold3.com can show you service records and in some cases family information listed on draft cards.

AfriGeneas is one of the largest compilations of African American data.

The Freedman’s Bureau is a great resource that has family lineage information. This video explains more about what the Freedman’s Bureau is and the project behind compiling the information.

My Heritage is a free family tree builder and software that is the home to over 10 billion global historical records.

USGenWeb provides access to a lot of county and state records.  

Searching the newspaper is another great source for information that might have been published regarding stories that made the news, as well as from obituaries. One of the best sources for news archives is at newspaper.com.

Searching grave sites can be an excellent source of birth and death dates and information as well as tombstone images at two different sites, billiongraves.com and findagrave.com 

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