Climbing the family tree with kids

February 28th, 2014

Another fantastic giveaway sponsored by

The other night, my fourth grader got out his homework, and handed me a worksheet.  “Can you help me with this?”

I looked. “Discover Your Roots” was printed above a family tree chart. He had already filled in his immediate family, but the upper branches were still blank. This was it, my moment. I was being called up from the bench.

Could I help with this? Oh, I DON’T KNOW, how much extra paper do we have?

Except I didn’t say that, because I didn’t want to scare him with my enthusiasm. His older brothers had already sensed the intensity, and were keeping their heads down.


I opened up the computer and went to our family tree, so he could copy the names of his grandparents and great-grandparents onto his worksheet. As we looked, he was able to see the photographs I’ve saved to their profiles. Like these ones of my grandmothers:

mary and ferne

As he copied their names, I told him how much his great-grandmother Mary loved fly fishing, how good she was at it, and how delicious those trout were. I told him about his great-grandmother Ferne’s gift with animals—what a great horsewoman she was, and how I saw her coax a trapped bee out of our car one time, cupping it in her hand without it stinging her.

After he had all the grands and the first set of greats copied over to his sheet, I zoomed out on the tree, with his name and birth date at the base. We counted exponents. Two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and all sixteen of his great-great grandparents had names and dates. Then some branches stopped, while others scrolled on and on.

I was able to show him things like an obituary for his 5th X great-grandmother, who was born in Germany, and died in South Carolina, “a friend to all mankind.” A few months ago, we didn’t know her name, much less her reputation. But Patrick’s Ancestry DNA matches turned up a distant cousin who was able to extend his branch back many more generations. She, and several other Ancestry members with whom my boys share roots, have been so generous and helpful. Community is one of the greatest resources in online genealogy. Nobody walks the ancestral trail alone for very long.


Photo Jan 26, 6 42 30 PM

One of the homework questions was to find out if anyone in the family tree fought in the Civil War, and on which side. I told my son what I learned from a telephone interview with family historian Lisa Elzey: if your tree has an American male born in the 1830s, chances are good that he fought in the Civil War (and that one great place to look is the National Park Service database of soldiers). We went across the American side of his tree laterally, looking at candidates. I had already located records for three soldiers – two for the Confederacy, and one for the Union.

“What about him?” my son asked, pointing to a 3rd X great-grandfather who was born in 1845.

I clicked “search records,” and found a pension application by his widow, which told us he enlisted from Missouri, but not which side. We had the name of his regiment, though, so we started googling. By this time, my older boys were fully engaged, looking over my shoulder and scanning through wikipedia entries to see if we could find a mention. I confess I was hoping we would turn up another Union man to even things out, but it turned out that great-great-great grandpappy PJ wore gray.


Photo taken and kindly shared by another of PJ’s great-great-great grandsons, Guy Choate, who I met on, and who, like his fourth cousins, is a pretty cool fellow.*

“But look,” I pointed out on the next row. “His daughter married a man whose dad fought on the other side.” In just one generation, enemies had become a family.

I printed out the longest branches of his tree to bring to class –one of Patrick’s that goes back to 1666, and one of mine that goes back to 1614. “I know one fourth grade teacher who is going to deeply regret sending home a family tree worksheet,” I quipped to my Facebook friends, who are probably so tired of my genealogy updates, they’ve all got me on mute.

He brought the appended branches home in his backpack the next day. “She only wanted the first sheet,” he reported.

Considering all the history we covered in one night, I think I should have at least gotten a happy face stamp.

“That’s alright,” I told him. “it’s for you to have, anyway.” Which sums up one of the most satisfying things about researching our family tree – the sense of assembling something for the ages, a record that our kids and future generations can look back to, and build on. So that when my 5th X great grandchild comes to his mother with the same damn worksheet that teachers have been xeroxing for 500 years, they can have as much fun climbing the family tree as we did.


*And a writer, whose lovely memoir of his grandparents is published here. is kindly sponsoring a series of posts on my incredible Ancestry journey. Leave a comment below to win a free 1-year World Explorer membership, valued at $299 (international entries welcome). Winner will be randomly selected on Friday, March 7 at noon CST (and congratulations to Brad, who won the DNA test from in January’s giveaway)!

31 Responses to “Climbing the family tree with kids”

  1. Melissa says:

    My husband has a bare-bones membership and we have stayed up WAY too many nights already looking at our family tree!

  2. Julianna says:

    Researching our family tree would be a great family project!

  3. Vickie Getty says:

    Awesome giveaway. I too get caught up in the research and can’t stop once I get started!

  4. Amie Gray says:

    I have been given a few photocopied articles and things and I have done “interviews” with my maternal grandmother about her childhood.
    I have not been to, yet, but it looks intriguing!

  5. Christine says:

    Going to check and see if my ancestors fought in the Civil War now.

  6. ashley says:

    I know next to nothing about either side of my family. This would be a wonderful thing to win.

  7. shawn says:

    i would love to dig deeper.

  8. Amy B. says:

    “Which sums up one of the most satisfying things about researching our family tree – the sense of assembling something for the ages, a record that our kids and future generations can look back to, and build on.”

    You already know my challenges with tracking one part of our family tree. This sentence sums up perfectly why I keep working on it, despite the frustrations!

    I already have the World Explorer Membership, and it’s well worth the cost. I’m now considering upgrading to World Explorer Plus.

  9. Adena says:

    My husband, Matthew, gets equally enthusiastic about genealogy research. The part about your oldest sons sensing your intensity after your youngest asked for help is hilarious. That’s my reaction when someone gives Matt an opportunity to talk family history: “Do you realize what you’ve done?! Save yourself!”

    While I don’t tell him often, I appreciate that he has collected this information for our future children and has shared stories with me and my family about our ancestors. He’d enjoy a membership upgrade.

  10. steph says:

    Neat giveaway!

  11. Michelle says:

    Hands down, family tree research is the most addictive and rewarding pursuit that you can imagine.

  12. Viviane says:

    My father spent years researching his (and my) ancestors and drawing beautiful family trees. Now I am interested in finding cousins and sharing information, pictures, life stories. I am glad this has become everybody’s thing, not only old people’s.

  13. As an American expat living in the UK, I now have an opportunity to search physically (graves and villages) for the ancestors I might identify online. I think I’ve discovered a ‘rellie’ as my Brit husband refers to them, who was at Jamestown in 1611 and I would love to win the World Explorer membership to confirm the connection. (BTW, it was one of your earlier posts that inspired me to start digging)

  14. Greta Houston says:

    That is just a cool thing to get him started with and thinking about!
    I love discovering genealogy!

  15. mary o'quinn says:

    Would love a membership. My family tree is just starting to open up and grow. Recently connected with distance cousins in the US from my fathers side. The membership would very helpful.

  16. Paige T says:

    Knowing very little about what I believe to be a rich and interesting family history, this would be so fun and informative!

  17. Debbie says:

    This is such an incredibly interesting opportunity you had with him. I remember the hours upon hours that my mom spent doing this long before the internet. She would have loved$

  18. The gift of family history you have given your sons is priceless. As far as the assignment is concerned, I think it was a good lesson for you son to see that just meeting the requirements is not what is important. You helped him cover the subject to quench his interest.

  19. Sarah says:

    I would love to share some more about our family history with my boys, too.

  20. Jackie says:

    I would be over the moon to win this prize. My grandfathers side stops at his father. How awesome would it be to finally find those ancestors?

  21. jenny says:

    I would love to win. I used to have everything in my computer, but I switched to Mac and only have it on paper now.

  22. I would love to win. Where do I come from? It’s a mystery!

  23. Bill Fitzgerald says:

    I’ve searched and confirmed back to my great-great grandfather, but can get no further. He’s the one who came over from Ireland in the late 1700s. Would love to know more about ol’ Walter!

  24. andrea says:

    knowing family–present and past. explains a lot…

  25. Stephanie says:

    Oh – id love to know more about my family history!

  26. I would love to do this with our children. I think it is important (coudl be scary) for them to know where they came from.

  27. juliloquy says:

    We found a Norwegian ancestor who was actually a Scottish aristocrat. Wonder how accurate that is . . . would love to learn more. Thanks for the giveaway!

  28. Tena Laing says:

    I’m loving your dual grandmother photos. It’s time to sort through my own and re-listen to the audio interviews I had with them several years ago. My guilt at taping them unawares is mitigated by the fact that I now have precious recordings of us talking and reminiscing quite naturally, where I believe both of them would have been quite uncomfortable had they known I was taping us.

  29. Shannon says:

    Both of my parents passed early in my life and as I’ve grown older I find myself missing the opportunity to ask them about my family history. My father a Cherokee and my mother the daughter of a nearly off the boat Irish Yankee would’ve had many stories to share I’m sure. I love what you’ve given your boys- a map through the past. Amazing.

  30. […] own Ancestry family tree, things start to get really interesting.   I’ve mentioned that my husband’s family has been in the USA for a long time. When his DNA results came back, he immediately had pages and pages (and pages) of matches. In […]

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