Discovering Your Roots: An Introduction to Genealogy

Course No. 9394
Professor John Philip Colletta, Ph.D.
Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University
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Course No. 9394
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What Will You Learn?

  • Learn how to interview your family and research home sources to start your quest.
  • Understand how local and widespread historical events can affect the context of your family history.
  • Learn how to use official and government records, such as ship passenger lists and naturalization records.
  • Get a handle on how to convert your research into a compelling narrative or biography.

Course Overview

Few experiences in life are as enriching and rewarding as researching your family history. To trace your ancestral roots is to take part in an exciting detective story; one that asks you to rebuild the past from oral tradition, written records, and artifacts, such as family photographs.

Genealogy, however, is about more than just digging up the past. It’s a journey of self-discovery that can teach you as much about yourself as about those who came before you. After all, your ancestors’ story is your story as well. But most important: It’s a way for you to uncover and write one of the most important stories you could ever tell—one that’s unique to your individual life; one that no one else can tell; and one that you can pass down to future generations.

But there’s an obstacle that holds many of us back from unearthing our family history: uncertainty about how to go about it.

  • Which online resources and databases should you use—or trust?
  • How do you make your way through the tangles of public records out there?
  • How do you bring separate facts and events together into a complete story you can share with future generations?

With Discovering Your Roots: An Introduction ­­to Genealogy, you’ll learn the same skills and methodologies the experts use to solve genealogical mysteries and create compelling nonfiction narratives about the past. In 15 engaging lectures, genealogist, writer, and lecturer John Philip Colletta shows you how to uncover information from the long-forgotten past in the most effective ways possible.

Maybe you’re working on a family tree. Maybe you’re writing a personal memoir. Maybe you’re just curious about how people rebuild history. Whatever your reasons, this lecture series is your chance to plunge into the past and start finding the life-changing insights about where you come from.

Learn the Tools of the Trade

“Genealogical inquiry is a progression from the known to the unknown,” remarks Dr. Colletta. “You always start with a few known facts that allow you to access the sources that will yield new facts. Then those new facts allow you to access other sources for more facts. And so on, further and further back in time.”

To help you navigate the winding road into your family’s past, Discovering Your Roots provides you with smart and savvy ways to find—and use—the most helpful online and print resources available today. These include the following:

  • Interviews with living relatives, who can often provide you with the names and events that will serve as the foundation for future research
  • U.S. population censuses, the single most important historical records for constructing American lineage
  • The Periodical Source Index (PERSI), an online index of 11,000 genealogy and local history periodicals from the mid-1800s to today
  • The National Archives and Records Administration, which holds millions of records documenting your ancestors’ dealings with U.S. government agencies
  • Passenger arrival records, which can help you recreate an ancestor’s voyage to America
  • Court records, including dockets, minutes, case files, and probate packets

You’ll also learn a practicing genealogist’s tools of the trade for working with these and other sources, as well as countless tips for making your own research more useful. You’ll discover

  • how to make your interview subjects more engaged and informative;
  • how to judge the reliability and veracity of the information you uncover; and
  • how to collect and organize your findings in family group sheets and pedigree charts.

Rebuild Your Ancestors’ Lives

<>Of course, genealogy is about more than just collecting facts. It’s about discovering the real lives and stories of your ancestors. In addition to showing you genealogical resources and methods, Discovering Your Roots reveals how you can flesh out your forebears’ lives and write engaging historical narratives that can inform and entertain family members or a more general audience. You’ll learn

  • seven steps for personalizing biographical facts by placing them in their historical context;
  • how to construct and narrate the timeline of an ancestor from birth to death;
  • four fundamental questions you need answers to before you start writing about your ancestors;
  • and much more.

Dr. Colletta incorporates hands-on activities into each lecture, offering applications for the skills you’re learning and also stimulating you to get started on your own genealogical detective work. And he also makes the journey personal—constantly illustrating the genealogical process with stories from his research into mysteries about his own family. Using documents and sources pertaining to his ancestors, he helps you develop a stronger sense of what records to look for and how to use them.

As one of America’s most popular genealogical lecturers, Dr. Colletta is a master of the field and a passionate instructor who has spent decades teaching students and laypeople about how to shed light on the past. His clients have included the National Park Service, the National Archives, and the Chicago Public Library, and his work has been recognized by several prestigious genealogical societies.

“Every discovery brings a new mystery to be solved,” notes Dr. Colletta. So grab that old photograph, sit down with an elderly relative, comb through old files and records, and prepare to embark on a personal adventure that can dramatically reshape how you think about your past—and yourself.

Genealogy is a journey of self-discovery that can teach you as much about yourself as about those who came before you. But what holds many of us back from unearthing our family history is uncertainty about how to go about it. Which resources should you use—or trust? How do you make your way through tangles of public records? How do you bring facts together into a complete story you can share with others? With Discovering Your Roots: An Introduction to Genealogy, learn the same skills and methodologies the experts use to solve genealogical mysteries and create compelling nonfiction narratives about the past. In 15 engaging lectures, genealogist, writer, and lecturer John Philip Colletta shows you how to uncover information from the long-forgotten past in the most effective ways possible.

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15 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Interviewing Kin and Mining Home Sources
    One of the foundations of genealogy (and one of its most enjoyable aspects): interviewing relatives. Here, Dr. Colletta introduces you to several strategies and 10 vital tips to help you get the most out of sitting down with family members and transforming pleasant conversations into solid foundations for future detective work. x
  • 2
    Genealogy Online—Gems and Junk
    It’s unthinkable to do genealogy today without the Internet. But not all online sources are reliable. First, take a look at the benefits (and drawbacks) of government, nonprofit, and commercial online sites. Then, learn how to make sense of U.S. population censuses—the most important record for constructing lineage in America. x
  • 3
    The Library—Shelves Full of Family History
    Learn how to tap into the wealth of library material to get solid answers to the “why” behind events in the past. You’ll tour genealogies and family histories; histories of states, counties, cities, and towns; the Periodical Source Index (PERSI); and several types of maps (which help ground events in the physical world). x
  • 4
    Military Service and Homestead Records
    Holding a document your ancestor once held is a thrilling experience; and this intimate link to your forebears is more readily accessible than ever. Train yourself to navigate through both military records (including service and pension records) and homestead files (which encompass 33 public domain states from 1863 to the 1970s). x
  • 5
    How to Build Historical Context
    Step away from research and explore how to use historical content to transform your facts into engaging life stories. Dr. Colletta reveals seven steps for building effective historical context, including examining your sources in light of local history, and using history to test a hypothesis about how an event transpired. x
  • 6
    Your Ancestors in Ship Passenger Lists
    Learn how to make sense of passenger arrival records: the single most precious document for reconstructing your ancestors’ voyage to North America. Using several key guideposts and sources (including colonial land records and immigrant directories), you can uncover facts about arrivals from colonial days through the 1950s. x
  • 7
    Your Ancestors in Naturalization Records
    Did your immigrant ancestors become U.S. citizens? Did they procrastinate, or not naturalize at all? Dr. Colletta reveals how naturalization records can answer these and other biographical questions. You’ll focus on adapting your research to three major naturalization periods: prior to 1790, 1790 to 1906, and 1906 to today. x
  • 8
    The Genealogical Proof Standard
    Strengthen your skills as a family history detective with this in-depth look at the Genealogical Proof Standard, the five-step process that certified genealogists use for proving ancestral identities, relationships, life events, and other biographical details. Then, wrap up the lecture with a fascinating look at the nature of evidence. x
  • 9
    Your Ancestors in the County Courthouse
    Discover how to work your way through the courthouse records of the county where your ancestors resided. Using the two most common types of courts (circuit and chancery), you’ll examine how to read courthouse materials, including probate packets, vital records, tax rolls, and even colonial-era records such as indentures and apprenticeships. x
  • 10
    Your Ancestors in State Records
    Good genealogists always take advantage of local sources outside the courthouse as well, including state archives, which hold records that resulted between the administration of state laws. Here, you’ll learn how to tap into the information found in original sources (such as census and military records) and derivative sources (including maps and newspapers). x
  • 11
    How to Write Biography
    Explore the process of writing about your ancestors in a way that’s memorable—but that always adheres to the truth. Learn how to compose timelines; how to build historical context around life events; how to search for (and find) a life’s central theme; how to select the right literary format; and more. x
  • 12
    Dos and Don’ts of Writing History
    Writing about the past is fraught with snares. Find out how to sidestep them with Dr. Colletta’s dos and don’ts for writing historical narratives. These include using period vocabulary; evoking the senses through sounds, textures, and aromas; and avoiding the danger of viewing the past through the lens of the present. x
  • 13
    Searching in Your Ancestors’ Backyards
    At some point during your detective work, you’ll have to actually visit where your ancestors lived. In this helpful lecture, discover how to use key local resources you’ll need to rely on for success in your research: cemeteries, records of churches and synagogues, city directories, local libraries, and historical societies. x
  • 14
    Assembling an Account of Your Discoveries
    You’ve learned how to build context and write an engaging narrative. Now, examine the best ways to organize your material and assemble a lasting account of your unique heritage. What are the fundamental questions you’ll need to answer before writing? What are the five elements essential to any multigenerational account? x
  • 15
    Extending Your Family Tree Overseas
    Conclude the course with a peek at how to research records outside the United States. Focusing on his experiences in Europe, Dr. Colletta reveals what essential facts you need to know about your immigrant ancestors, and how to overcome six major challenges to accessing and using historical materials in foreign countries. x

Lecture Titles

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Video DVD
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  • Download 15 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
Instant Audio Includes:
  • Download 15 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
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DVD Includes:
  • 15 lectures on 3 DVDs
  • 136-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 136-page course synopsis
  • Photographs
  • Suggested readings
  • Assignments

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Your professor

John Philip Colletta

About Your Professor

John Philip Colletta, Ph.D.
Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University
Dr. John Philip Colletta is one of America’s most popular genealogy lecturers. He is a faculty member at the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama; the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy; and Boston University’s Genealogical Research Program. Dr. Colletta also has been an instructor and course coordinator for the National Institute on Genealogical Research, the...
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Discovering Your Roots: An Introduction to Genealogy is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 91.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Haven't had a chance to get very far into it but very interesting so far.
Date published: 2017-02-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Discovering Your Roots: An Introduction to Genealo I have enjoyed and have learned, so far, a great deal on how to get started researching my family history. I am lesson 4 and have taken the time to start practicing what was on the first 3 lessons. Anxious to continue the lessons.
Date published: 2017-01-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyed each of the different subjects. I just bought this program, I was very impressed with the presenter and the information that was in these lessons. I especially liked the assignments given at the end of each lesson designed to use the information was given. I have been doing genealogy for years but I still learned somethings to put flesh on the skeletons that I have.
Date published: 2017-01-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from For the newbie researcher Very informative for the new genealogy researcher. Very helpful
Date published: 2017-01-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Anyone interested in learning about genealogy should watch this. Outstanding
Date published: 2017-01-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Worth Watching and Worth Keeping to Watch Again Being a beginner to genealogy, I thought this product might be helpful to me. It was that and more. I've already used it to discover information about land grants for some of my 19th century farmer ancestors, for example. Several other topics covered have helped as well. However, it may be time to update the product, as the genealogy field is advancing rapidly and changing scope often. Sources that were available for free one year may be expensive the next, or perhaps not available at all. One note: The story about the author's good experiences in Italy when he visited to discover his ancestry roots might not be duplicated in other such journeys. For example, a fellow genealogy buff told me her father's recent visit to Poland to search out relatives was met with much suspicion and even hostility. And he had a professional Polish guide. They were not pleased with the outcome.
Date published: 2016-10-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Presentation Style The presentation is very well organized and cogent. The presenter gives relevant factual information that is useful for tracing ancestors. Fluidity helps the listener follow what is being presented. It is enjoyable to listen to and not dry or halting. I would strongly recommend it to anyone contemplating launching research into their family origin and history.
Date published: 2016-09-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Discovering Your Roots: An Introduction tonGenealo A very informative unit. Easy to understand. I find it each unit enjoyable and full of useful information. The instructor does a very good job of presenting each unit in a very understandable fashion. I have been doing online genealogy research for many years now. Many of his ideas I have already encounted and have already learned to use. However he is helping me to broaden my outlook by providing new methods of gathering information. I have completed 5 units so far and look forward to the remaining 10. It is my hope that more advanced units will be developed on the subject of Genealogy.
Date published: 2016-09-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Overview This course is a good overview of the various sources and research techniques available to genealogists. If you're a seasoned professional, you won't get much out of this course but if you're starting out, it's a good rundown of the basics of genealogy. The biggest thing I got out of this course is the lecture on creating a biography, It focused on looking at every single available resource about a given event and the day it occurred and talked about how to put it into a narrative storyline with more detail than you thought you had. If you're like me and live on genealogy podcasts, this is a decent add-on that will give you a few things to think about.
Date published: 2016-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent in Every Way Professor Colletta does an excellent job of introducing genealogy research, and even though I have spent several years of doing such research, Colletta's information has sent me back to the drawing board, so to speak. I really liked the way he used examples from his own research to show the many sources, both online and in person, that could be used to build and enliven your family history.
Date published: 2016-08-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fun Course This is an excellent course, and it's a lot of fun. Genealogy is also addictive (in a good way). The tools that I learned in this course helped me to take part of my family back 41 generations to 532 A.D. I was also able to determine where many of my ancestors lived, and what many of them did for a living.
Date published: 2016-07-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Really, REALLY Good! I found this course to be jam-packed with very useful information. I have been pursuing my genealogy hobby for a couple of years, and still found many practical suggestions and numerous sources I was unaware of in this course. I would definitely recommend it for those just beginning their own journey, or for those, like me, who have been at it for a few years. Money very well spent!
Date published: 2016-07-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful Course I am enjoying the sessions which are well organized and have guided me to a better understanding of genealogy research. I have taken genealogy courses before but none has been presented in such an interesting and orderly way. After seeing the video sessions, I will keep this as reference.
Date published: 2016-06-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Discovering your roots: intro to Genealogy Professor John Philip Colletta, a professional genealogy researcher, does a super job covering all the bases to start your own research. Chapter by chapter he identifies the sources to consult and the information needed to begin each aspect of one's search. He speaks clearly, without hesitation, with animation that keeps your attention and your focus. He loves his field. Moreover, the course guide has all the details for following through on your own research. I recommend this course without reservation. One suggested improvement might be to present much of the guidebook material in numbered lists.
Date published: 2016-06-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course! The course covers all aspects of genealogy and family history in just enough detail. Dr. Colletta provides personal stories that help illustrate the principles he is teaching. A great course for those just starting out as well as those seasoned genealogists who need a refresher in some of the finer points of family research.
Date published: 2016-06-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Course for Genealogists I have been doing genealogy work for over 40 years. I did not know what to expect in this course but I knew Dr. Colletta from several of his books he has written. I can honestly say that I was greatly surprised at how much I learned from these lectures. Many of the topics I am very familiar with but he added new perspective to all of them and by the end of each lecture, I couldn't wait to go back and take a new look at the records or topic he had just discussed. This course is a must for anyone either starting out with researching their family or who have been doing it for many years. I wish he would do more genealogy courses for The Great Courses. He is a great motivator. .
Date published: 2016-04-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good Course I've only gone through the first two lessons, so far, and am really finding the information very helpful. I will listen to a short part of the lesson then log on and start working on one of the issues mentioned to see where I can go with the info. So far I have had a good deal of success in tracking my family back. I am excited to continue, and although it will take me a while to get each lesson done, it is well worth the money and time.
Date published: 2016-02-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Genealogy Although I have been doing genealogical research for years I found a number of very useful suggestions in this course. The instructor has considerable experience in this area. For the novice it is a very good beginning. One thing I found slightly irritating was the constant change of camera angle. The instructor would state something, stop, then turn and walk in the other direction to get a different camera angle. I did not see the point in this constant movement and found it detracting from the information being disseminated.
Date published: 2016-02-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful I'll watch it again and again. With names like Smith and Jones in my family tree I need all the help I can get!
Date published: 2016-02-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from finding my roots This would have been a great start for searching out your ancestors. I have been doing this for a while and was stuck on an naturalization document. I did get sites to check out that were helpful.
Date published: 2016-01-29
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Discovering Your Roots: An Introduction to Genealo Overall this course was a bit helpful with what I am attempting to do in genealogy. The instructor was well versed in the subject. I just wish he would have gotten more into the "nuts and bolts" of the "how-to" part of the subject not just the what.
Date published: 2016-01-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Educational I wanted to trace my family tree and tried a bit in the past. I did not get very far. I am new to Genealogy. The information shared in the CD was extremely helpful! I have referred to the workbook many times. The information from this course has allowed me to find a lot of family tree information that I did not find before. It is an exciting adventure - and an addicting one. Thank you for such great and helpful information! Pupmom
Date published: 2016-01-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from More Much More This course is everything I had hoped for and so much more. I am so into Genealogy that I spend hours at the computer(seems like minutes). I have my tree already back 250 years on both sides of my family.
Date published: 2016-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ancestral Revelations with Dr. Colleta I am totally delighted with The Great Courses, "Discovering Your Roots." It is delightfully presented by Professor Colletta and the course is chock full of valuable resources for expanding one's family genealogy. I have been building my family's ancestral story for a number of years and now that I am retired have much more time to continue my research. As Proffessor Colletta states in this course, "discovering your roots" is a life-long endeavor and he has given me the tools with which I can bring to life the stories of my ancestors. I am looking forward to preserving this information for the benefit of my daughters and grandchildren. This course is a great value and has paid for itself many times over in providing me with sources of free genealogical information and suggestions for personalizing my research. Many thanks to "The Great Courses" and Dr. Colleta.
Date published: 2016-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Informative! Although I have been doing genealogy on my own for some time as a hobby, this course had lots of tips and information/sources that I would have never thought of without taking this course. Some of the information I already knew, however, the purchase of this course was definitely worth what I didn't know!
Date published: 2016-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Needed My Own Copy Even though I have spend more than 15 years researching my family history, I still found plenty of great ideas to help with further research. The instructor was very clear in his presentation and the examples he used were interesting as well as instructive. I first viewed several of the presentations that belonged to a friend, but decided the series was so filled with useful helps that I wanted my own copy.
Date published: 2016-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from discovering your roots this is a recent purchase i haven't had time to explore or utilize it yet i've been inundated with e-mails and mailings from great courses it will take me sometime to get through this course but, i hope to rate it post my studies as i've done already. please allow me a senior citizen to take my time with the studies of this course. i'm sure i will find it greatly satisfying in all aspects.
Date published: 2016-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wish I Had Time For Another Hobby Right Now... ...because after this course, I would be doing genealogy for sure! This is my first Great Course with video. I am very interested in genealogy but, being a busy professional at the height of my career and with lots of other hobbies on the side, I just don't have time for one more. Nevertheless, this course was completely fascinating and so full of useful information that I know I will come back to it when I retire or when I get bored with something else. I don't know anything about genealogy, but the presenter's demeanor, knowledge, and the way he dropped in bits of information about his own family kept me eager for the next lecture every time. I am confident that even with zero knowledge of genealogy, I would be able to get some serious research done just by following the guidelines presented in this course. The only thing I would change is that I probably should have gotten the audio version instead. I like to watch the video on the big screen of my computer, and because I'm hardly ever idle at my desk, this took me twice as long to get through as it should have. If I had had just the audio version, I could have listened to it while working out like I normally do. I enjoyed the visuals very much, just found that they made the presentation a little less convenient for me to access. Highly recommend to anyone with any interest in genealogy!
Date published: 2015-10-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding! This is a terrific course and should appeal to persons of all levels of interest in genealogical research. I have been actively researching my family tree for close to a decade, and this course gave me a number of new ideas and sources to pursue. The professor has a warm and engaging personal style, and his lectures are logically organized and very entertaining - sort of like a series of 30-minute visits with a wise, older family member. I anticipate i will draw on the course (and the course guidebook) regularly in my continuing family research efforts. I watched the video version, which I don't think is required, but the video version does, I think, provide some useful visuals of certain old records, maps, etc. that provide some context for the end product of the research that is described. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2015-10-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Hit the mark exactly For more than twenty years I have been engaged in discovering my family history and trying to figure out how to (a) proceed further productively and (b) how to organize what I've learned in in some coherent manner that will serve my children and their children. Along the way I've learned a lot, and documented some of it in "technical" things like family trees. But all that, while important, is just the raw material for actually thinking-through what has happened and then articulating it for those that come after. This course was exactly what I was looking for. The presenter provides an excellent overview of what the "real" process and its outcome are, and along the way shares concrete, explicit and reasonable approaches to solving problems and, importantly, documenting the research conducted. I highly recommend this course to any person interested in methodically pursuing his/her family history and in documenting it for the family-to-come that we may never know, but who will appreciate the findings and descriptions we've been able to create.
Date published: 2015-09-07
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