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?

  • numbers Learn how to interview your family and research home sources to start your quest.
  • numbers Understand how local and widespread historical events can affect the context of your family history.
  • numbers Learn how to use official and government records, such as ship passenger lists and naturalization records.
  • numbers 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

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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
Video DVD
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 4.7 out of 5 by 106.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent tutorials and review While I have some on-hands experience with my own family history research, these lessons provide an excellent foundation for continuing basic strategies. Dr Colletta shares many on-lines sources for pursuing those clues that seem fuzzy or unclear. His weaving of actual family historical discoveries helps drive home the concepts and has the 'feel' of putting yourself in their shoes.
Date published: 2020-02-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative I haven't finished the course yet, but I do like hat the sesions are available whenever I have time.
Date published: 2020-02-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great in-depth information. Great info but the lecturer moves to fast past the sources and web sites he suggests. This dosent leave enough time to copy them down
Date published: 2020-02-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Course on Genealogy!!! I filled 2 legal pads with notes from this superb course. Though I have worked on my family tree for years, this course provided every thing necessary to create an outstanding genealogy of your family. It included so many details, such as how to locate information, catalogue information, and numerous other absolutely imperative information to work on your genealogy, whether you are a beginner or a long time researcher. I highly recommend this course. My only regret is that I did not find it sooner, as it would have saved me significant time already spent in research.
Date published: 2020-01-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Learn and enjoy Understanding topics and subjects that we can enjoy as a family is wonderful...birding, art learn to shoot better photos has been fun.
Date published: 2020-01-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I can not use it as I do not know about a DVD for course. I did send an e mail on how to use program but no answer yt. Help.
Date published: 2019-12-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Title describes content very well Information was well organized and practical Instructor was interesting
Date published: 2019-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from You will learn things in every lecture Of the half-dozen or so Great Courses I have taken, this is easily the most enjoyable. I have been doing family histories since 2005 and I can say for sure that I learned something in every lecture that I wish I had known before I wrote those histories. John gives you a mix of facts, rules, and guidelines illustrated with fascinating stories. Thanks John!
Date published: 2019-10-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrific--and not only for genealogists! In addition to those researching their own family histories, anyone writing historical fiction or nonfiction, or planning to travel to areas where family predecessors have lived, or simply interested in biography, will find this course—along with its excellent guidebook—to be an essential resource. It is pitched not as a graduate-level academic seminar but as a practical, accessible guide for anyone with an interest in learning more about family history. Of the 100 Great Courses I have taken via DVD over the last 15 years, none has been more effectively designed, practically useful, authoritative, and delightfully presented than this one. Dr Colletta fulfills all the criteria I have come to hope for in a presenter for these courses: he is a genuine authority on the topic, having contributed important scholarship to it and taught this same material to others for decades; he organized and targeted the lectures perfectly for the intended audience, providing many references to internet sites, books, articles, and other valuable resources; and he is a most appealing, clear presenter whose pace and delivery are as close to ideal as I have encountered. I will definitely return to these lectures, and use its guidebook, in the years to come.
Date published: 2019-10-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Roots to Leaves...a roadmap I am very fortunate to have come from a very large (maternal) family that has had an extensive genealogical study reaching back to ancient Wales (three volumes, no less)...the Morgan clan is an interesting one. My relatives managed to put together a very readable (well at least the narrative parts) story, with many chapters and many, many interesting characters...sadly I'm not one of the interesting kind. It must have been an exhausting study. After Dr Colletta's lectures, I've come to appreciate that work. Colletta's lectures are a pure joy for the future genealogist wishing to delve into their past, as I might try for my paternal line. The good professor lays out a flow chart of the do's and don't's for a study. His lecture style is clear, concise and well-organized. I followed easily on audio. The guide follows-up with details regarding sources and hints for almost any situation. The only thing he doesn't do is the research for you. Very highly recommended, even if you have no interest in genealogy, since his methods of investigation (thorough, making no assumptions and leaving no stone unturned) can be applied to almost any research project, and describes a master's thesis approach perfectly. Often on sale...often with a great coupon.
Date published: 2019-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course My dad got me this set and I totally enjoyed it. It brought about a variety of things I hadn’t considered by finding where my ancestors lived and more about their lives than dates and names. I also enjoyed the assignments at the end of each lesson. Learned a great deal, liked it so much I purchased it for my mother-in-law
Date published: 2019-03-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Time and $$ Well Spent Dr. Colletta's lecture style is engaging, and his voice very pleasant. His knowledge of his subject is clearly so deep and wide that he could do several more installments. I hope he will. I've been working on my family history for many decades, yet I learned things here that have inspired me to revisit "dead ends" and flesh out lots of individuals and families. I'm glad I bought the DVDs, as I plan to lend them out to the family members who are on the fence about getting involved in my research.
Date published: 2019-02-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful commentary I have really enjoyed this course and have learned a great many new things about how to do my family search.
Date published: 2019-02-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Helpful Although I am still on the first DVD, it looks like it will b e extremely helpful. I didn't realize there were so many resources out there. I am looking forward to learning to use them
Date published: 2019-01-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good for novice and intermediate research skills Very helpful tips which are also outlined in the booklet.
Date published: 2019-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I did not think of that I have only watched first disc but the things brought up and how to go about interviewing family and friends, looking at the time period and why things were that way or why somebody's family changed made me rethink and take on a new look at all my stuff. Great look from another view.
Date published: 2018-08-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from lots of information I bought this a while back and have not finished it because I keep rewindind it and exploring the leads. I just found my great grand parents were remarried at the ages of 60& 70s,
Date published: 2018-07-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A very informative and interesting course! This is exactly what I was looking for. This course is filled with information and examples. The topics are great, the lectures are just the right length, the lecturer was extremely knowledgeable and spoke well. I learned so much from this course and I can't wait to get started on my family history!!
Date published: 2018-06-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Discovering Your Roots: An Intro to Genealogy Dedicated, well-informed instructor with good lecturing skills. It's obvious that he cares about his subject and imparting it to beginning family historians.
Date published: 2018-06-16
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Very good data contained in this course. The instructor is very knowledgeable and very easy to listen too. I have found new sources that I did not use before.
Date published: 2018-06-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great information, great instructor! I have been researching my family for years and found everything in this course to be very helpful!! I have taken several courses on genealogy but still learned many new things. The case studies were relevant and interesting. I especially enjoyed the Genealogical Standards review. I highly recommend this course to anyone interested in researching their family history!
Date published: 2018-04-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I ordered because of Professor Colleta's reputation as a genealogist. It is everything I expected and more. I have hearing problems and was extremely pleased with the sound quality.
Date published: 2018-02-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Discovering your roots Just finished the series and it provided exactly what I wanted; clear step by step instructions on how to search my ancestor history. Classes include sections on websites, libraries, court houses, and how to write a narrative to share with others. The only thing I would add is maybe to provide a sample worksheet to collect information, pedigree chart, etc. The instructor seems happy talking about the subject. I purchased the audio version and downloaded. It was easy!
Date published: 2018-02-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Information! I thought I knew quite a bit of researching genealogy but I barely scratched the surface! There is SO much to be learned in this course!!
Date published: 2018-02-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Some great tips! I bought the DVD because I learn better with visual and audio combined. I have taken other genealogical courses and this one did have some tips that I haven't heard before!
Date published: 2018-02-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Roots This is an excellent course full of tips for those researching their family tree
Date published: 2018-01-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best of The Great Courses owned Doing genealogy for 19 years .. Best course and presenter.
Date published: 2017-12-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A How-To Course With Zest Although I did expect Discovering Your Roots to be a practical course, and it certainly is that, I am delighted to report that it is fascinating and entertaining, too. Professor Colletta’s presentation has the feel of well-written creative non-fiction. He delivers plenty of facts and advice about how to conduct genealogical searches and coaches his audience about what elements of data are most important to collect, to be sure, but he also enlivens his material with well-considered and plausible storylines about what life was like for his own ancestors (or those of others in case studies) and how they were all real people dealing with dramatic events in discoverable historical contexts. He has a raconteur’s good sense not to tell everything he knows all at once. The course’s fifteen lectures are intriguingly linked, with something of a “cliff-hangar” or an unsettled question ending most of them, making one look forward eagerly to what might be revealed next. There is nothing “dry” about Dr. Colletta’s lectures, and I suspect that even people who are quite sure they will never conduct a genealogical search can still enjoy this course. After all, a good speaker often makes audience members become interested in a life’s work or a hobby that they may never personally take up. Here are a few additional strengths of Discovering Your Roots: 1) Enhancing my prior knowledge of some likely sources for genealogical data, the professor’s list of additional suggestions about where clues and nuggets of information might be located is creative and extensive! 2) Dr. Colletta speaks sensitively but never judgmentally about tragedies and regrettable incidents in the past. He urges his audience not to indulge the prejudice of presentism. 3) He emphasizes the importance of respecting and interviewing one’s living relatives. 4) He is pleasantly good-humoured. 5) Though focussing primarily on how genealogical inquiries could be conducted in the United States, he also does not neglect to make helpful suggestions for those working with records from other countries. 6) I feel the visual extras accompanying the lectures are especially good, as is the course manual. My wife, who took this DVD course with me and has much more experience than I do with genealogical work has these insights to add: I was already well into my family history research when I began viewing the course Discovering Your Roots. Many of the problems I had already encountered were discussed by Dr. Colletta. He gave some possible solutions which helped me tremendously. I very much appreciated his use of examples to illustrate the points he wanted to make. It was like peering over the shoulder of an experienced genealogist and seeing how he works. The course is very U.S.-centred, but I am hopeful that his suggestions will be applicable to genealogical research abroad. If anything, my only concern is that the course was too short. Every lesson was packed with information and some topics were necessarily covered only briefly. A slightly longer course might have allowed him to explain in greater detail such things as the Soundex code and how it is used, or the facts a ship’s manifest can supply. All in all, though, it is a wonderful course and I highly recommend it.
Date published: 2017-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Significa points, and order of importance as well! This is a great course. I have only watched the first 3 lectures, but there is a wealth of information I wish I had known about years ago. I like that he not only tells you what is available and important, but also shows the order of importance of them. So depending on where you are in your research, you know what the next few steps in that research should be.
Date published: 2017-11-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Love it It is a great introduction to genealogy. It is a great resource for any level of genealogist.
Date published: 2017-06-15
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