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How to trace your family tree, minus the expensive DNA testing

One of the hottest trends right now is getting your DNA tested to see where your ancestors were from. Are you Irish? Russian? Nigerian? Native American? The real question, however, is what does that information tell you? It does not tell you who your great-grandparents were or how they survived the Great Depression. Nor does it tell you what town in Greece your ancestors came from. It doesn’t tell you how your family got to South Carolina.

Tracing your family tree, however, can tell you these things. And there are some very simple ways to get started without shelling out money for a monthly membership to a research website.

The easiest way to find out about your family is to ask them. Are your grandparents still alive? Sit down with them and ask them about their childhood. About their parents. Ask them what they know about even earlier generations. Write it all down. See if there’s a family Bible or record of marriages, births, and deaths. Personal diaries and letters can also tell you so much more than the dates someone was born and died. Old photos can also give you an idea of a family’s wealth, location, and occupation.

According to, “A personal interview can be a valuable means of gathering information about your ancestors. Members of your family and others may remember important details or have family heirlooms, records, or photographs that can help you.”

If your family is from the area in which you still live, visiting a local library might be a great way of finding out more. In South Carolina, Greenville and Columbia both have great genealogical resources. The Hughes Main Library in Greenville houses the South Carolina room, which is staffed with people who can help you get started in your search.

Rulinda Price is a historian and librarian in the South Carolina Room at the Hughes Main Library. She said they can help anyone from across the country with their genealogy. While the library specializes in South Carolina history, they also have information from the southeast and across the United States.

“We recommend starting with census records and going from there. Death and marriage records will give a person’s parents’ names, so that can fill in blanks to help the search,” she said.

And while there are many websites you can pay to join, there are also free ones as well. is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and provides most records for no cost. Census records, marriage licenses, and more can be found and fill in valuable information for those wanting to learn about their family tree.

Ancestry offers a free version of their website where you can build your tree and see how everyone relates to you. You can also search a few free records on the site as well.

Even searching for someone’s name in your web browser might bring up some results. If they were alive in the recent past they might show up on a search, or if they are included in somebody else’s family free they will also show up. And in the latter situation, maybe the work is already done for you.

Of course, you can always bite the bullet and purchase a website subscription to a genealogical page. Many offer a free trial month, in which case have a lot of names on hand you want to search and do it quickly with the free month. Or you can pay the fees and have a lot of fun learning where your family came from.

Regardless of how you do it, learning about where your family came from is a lesson for everybody. Maybe your great-grandparents were cotton farmers. Maybe they were well-to-do doctors or lawyers. Perhaps your very proud South Carolina family discovers that your great-great-grandmother was actually born in Boston.

The most important thing, however, is not learning the dates a person lived, but learning what they did with their life between those two dates.