A great place to start your search for your own roots is with Ancestry.com. For the beginner, their basic information is free, although you get access to more records if you take out a membership.
Researching your own family tree can be revealing (sometimes too revealing), surprising, or embarrassing. It is almost never dull. The key, I think, is to poke around a lot in all kinds of places and NOT to start out with a list of specific questions you want to answer. It's much more fun to see what just turns up, and then follow the clues until they run out.
Let me give you one small example. Several years ago, when I was just starting to write A Scratch with the Rebels, I traveled to western Pennsylvania to see what I could learn about my Great-Uncle James, whose Civil War letters had started me on this adventure. I already had the 1850 and 1860 Census records for Beaver County. (You can actually access some old county lists on line from the U. S. Census Bureau.) So I knew the names of his brothers and sisters, their ages, and his father's occupation. I knew James was the second child and oldest boy.The family, however, was still very much a mystery to me. Even though I looked at the 1860 Census and found my grandfather as the six-year-old Joseph McCaskey, no one in the family seemed very real.
Then pieces began falling into place. At the county registrar's office, I learned that the oldest girl, Sarah Jane, had married a man named Simon P. Fisher, and that Simon later served as executor of my great-grandfather's estate when he died in 1875. Then in the local history room of the county library, the curator showed me a map drawn in that same year. It showed every building in the township, each carefully labeled with the owner's name. There -- near where I thought it might be -- was "Mrs. McCaskey's house." What really caught my eye, however, was the property just down the road. It was a house belonging to Simon Fisher's father, and set way back from the road -- hidden from view, almost in the woods -- was their barn.
To understand why that was so important to me, you have to know a bit about my own teenage years. I grew up in a fair-sized town, back in the days when kids walked everywhere they wanted to go. From the time I was 13 or so, my mother always sent me out with the same admonition. "You come straight home from school (substitute: movie, dance, play, football game, choir practice, etc.). Don't you think about coming home by way of Fisher's barn." At the time, I thought it was just about the dumbest thing she ever said. I didn't know anybody named Fisher, and there wasn't a barn anywhere near our urban neighborhood.
I laughed out loud at discovering the original location of Fisher's barn. My guess? Well, I'm pretty sure that when Sarah Jane and Simon were courting, they took some detours on their way home. That hidden barn would have made a perfect place for a bit of hanky-panky. And evidently their antics were discovered. I asked around among my cousins, and they too remembered their mothers (my mother's sisters) using the same phrase. In the McCaskey family, Fisher's barn was the equivalent of the local drive-in, the back seat of the family sedan, the back row of the balcony -- the local "make out" spot.
It was a bit embarrassing to realize that my mother suspected me of being up to the same sort of shenanigans, but the discovery of the origins of one family saying gave me a warm feeling of belonging. Fisher's barn allowed me to connect with my long-dead ancestors in a way that the usual genealogical charts never could.
I was reminded of this story yesterday when I found a message from another long-lost relative while surfing through Ancentry.com. Sarah Jane, James, and my grandfather, Joseph McCaskey, had several other siblings. I knew that sister Eunice had remained unmarried. She died at the age of 54 in 1895. But there were two other brothers, John and Theodore, about whom I knew nothing until yesterday.
This note came from a woman still living in New Castle, PA -- the great-grandaughter of brother John. She is, as she had correctly figured out, my second cousin, once removed. Now, thanks to her own genealogical research, I have filled in the gaps in my knowledge of that whole branch of the family. I hope she enjoys my speculation about Simon and Sarah Jane!