Becoming a Genealogist at Age 10

Me standing outside NEHGS headquarters on September 24, 2011

You could be 10, 43, or 85. You could be a beginner or an expert. But if you love genealogy as much as I do, you know how special a visit to the headquarters of New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), now known as the American Ancestors Research Center, can be. When my dad took me there for the first time at age 10, I was a total beginner. The only thing I could have been an expert at back then was watching SpongeBob SquarePants.

A few months earlier, I had asked my grandmother about our family history for the first time. I had no idea her answer would kickstart my passion for genealogy. She told me to wait, went upstairs, and came back with a small blue book about the Mayflowerpassengers who sailed to Plymouth in 1620. In the back was a record of two direct lines connecting my grandmother to the families of passengers John Alden and Francis Cooke. I had always felt drawn to history—I especially loved sitting in libraries all day, and watching the History Channel—but something about seeing connections between my family and historical legends on the page excited me more than anything else.

I spent the next few months asking my grandparents countless questions about our genealogy. Fortunately, they were happy to entertain them, especially my grandfather. He sat with me for a couple of hours one summer afternoon and sketched out what he knew about his family tree on a big poster board. I couldn’t take my eyes off the enormous tree as it took shape, and for weeks afterward, I spent large chunks of time studying it. Thirteen years later, I redrew that tree, including all the new people we have found ever since, on my college dorm room wall!

My family tree mural, drawn on my college dorm room wall at Duke University

But back in 2011, our family tree had a lot of holes. Without any hobby genealogists in the family, nobody knew what the next step was.

In September 2011, my dad had the idea to take me on a father-son weekend trip to Boston. My mother passed away in 2007, and he was often busy working during the week to support me and my sister. He was always very intentional about making sure that he spent all his free time with us. We shared evening dinners, trips to grandma’s house, and weekend adventures. A weekend of fun in Boston was one of his latest ideas. Little did he know that our adventure would turn into one of his favorite stories, which he would tell over and over for the next decade.

Always encouraging my interests, my dad found out that the oldest and most storied genealogy library in the country, belonging to the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), was in Boston. He thought it would be fun to kickstart our long weekend by taking me there to check it out. We arrived around 2:00 PM on Friday, signed in, and jumped on the elevator. The staff genealogists immediately recognized my excitement and guided me through the library. Rhonda McClure—a skilled genealogist and frequent contributor to this blog —showed me how to use microfilm readers and look up records online. Before I knew it, it was 5 p.m. Already closing time?!

The next part is my dad’s favorite part of the story. Walking out of the research center that Friday afternoon, he said, “So, what do you want to do tomorrow, Jack? There’s a Red Sox game, we can go walk around the city, there are some shows, we can go on a duck boat tour…” Apparently, I looked up at him and said with complete sincerity, “Dad. The genealogy library opens at 8 a.m.” It wasn’t even a consideration that we would do anything other than spend every hour we could at NEHGS.

I spent the next three days working on my family’s genealogy, both with Rhonda and by myself. By noon the next day, my dad actually asked the staff if they would keep an eye on me, and left the building! Remembering that moment makes me laugh every time. Always the most supportive parent, after watching me research for three hours, he tapped out. He went off to have a nice afternoon walking around Boston, having a delicious lunch, and enjoying the beautiful day, while I stayed glued to the microfilm machines and computers. I was in heaven, and so was he, even if our father-son weekend took an unexpected turn!

Looking at birth records on microfilm at NEHGS in 2011. My dad took this picture on Saturday, right before heading off to lunch and for a walk around Boston on his own!

I loved spending all day talking to other people fascinated by genealogy. I remember a moment when I was sitting at a computer, looking up records. On my left was a man—about 45—doing the same. On my right was a woman who said she was a grandmother and 85, building her family tree on Ancestry. We were each deep in thought, trying to crack our mysteries. I felt like I had found my people! It is one of the earliest experiences of losing time I can remember—I blinked, and six hours had passed.

Rhonda showed me how to read census records. I had never seen census, birth, or death records. World War draft cards were completely new to me. I went from not knowing what microfilm was on Friday at 3 p.m., to whizzing through reel after reel on Saturday. I printed out dozens of records and kept them in a metal box.

Rhonda helped me find one of my favorite discoveries to date: the story of my great-great-grandparents , who were next-door neighbors in rural Maine, went their separate ways, and then found each other and married later in life. We also were able to find a mysterious ancestor, who had disappeared from Connecticut in the 1920s, living in Los Angeles and working for movie studios. I remember the overwhelming thrill, after almost two hours scrolling through microfilm, of finally seeing my elusive great-great-grandfather’s name on a death record from 1933. The thrill of the hunt and the ecstatic feeling when you finally find the ancestor you are looking for is unlike any other. Now a senior in college, I still get that same feeling whenever I come across a new genealogical discovery.

A picture my dad took of me walking back to our hotel after a whole day at NEHGS. The locked box I’m carrying contained all my record printouts.

My dad picked me up at closing time that Saturday and practically had to drag me out. I spent the whole evening on the floor of our hotel room, organizing all my record printouts and talking his ear off about all the new people, discoveries, trials, and thoughts I had about our genealogy. I am thankful to have such a patient father!

Your visit to the American Ancestors Research Center will completely transform your genealogy game. You will meet incredible people and experts excited to help you. You will have access to collections of records you would not have otherwise. NEHGS’s microfilm collections gave me invaluable documents unavailable on any online databases. You will find yourself surrounded by fellow genealogists of all levels and ages.

Today, I am a recent college graduate, with degrees in History and Psychology from Duke University. I dabbled in other subjects during my first two years at Duke like economics, statistics, English, mathematics, natural sciences, Italian, and biology. But I always knew nothing could overpower my love for history and genealogy. My visit to NEHGS when I was 10 kicked off over a decade of research. I do personal projects every day, interview family members all the time, and write about it for fun on my biweekly blog, Genealogy Jack .

Editor’s Note: The American Ancestors Research Center is currently closed for renovations. We are excited to reopen in 2024 and introduce our new Discovery Center, which will feature an expanded building, state-of-the-art facilities, and brand new exhibits designed to engage people of all ages in family history and heritage. Stay tuned!

About Jack Palmer

Jack Palmer graduated from Duke University with Bachelor’s degrees in History and Psychology in May 2023. At Duke, he wrote a senior honors thesis entitled, “A Century Apart: Ship Captains Recording the British Atlantic Slave Trade (1690s –1790s),” focusing on British involvement in the Atlantic Slave Trade primarily during the 18th century under advisor Dr. David Barry Gaspar. He has been researching his family’s genealogy since he was ten and publishes biweekly articles in his genealogy-oriented newsletter, “Genealogy Jack," at

25 thoughts on “Becoming a Genealogist at Age 10

  1. I hope enthusiastic young genealogists will have access to the books and other library materials when the center reopens. It was always a Mecca for serious researchers, and I wish it could remain so. I miss it.

  2. Jack,
    I loved your article and likewise became enthralled with genealogy and Colonial maritime history at an early age. Both grandmother’s in Providence loved to share family stories of Mayflower connections, Roger Williams the founder of Rhode Island and tales of a long line of ship masters, dating to the Revolutionary War.
    With your interest in the British nautical slave trade you may find ‘Dark Voyage:’ written by a friend Christian McBurney an insightful read. Lets continue the dialogue regarding maritime history and see if any of my long list of New England Palmers intersect on your tree?
    Dan Hazard

    1. Thanks, Dan. I will get my hands on a copy of Dark Voyage. It sounds great. Our ancestors must intersect somewhere! That’s wonderful that your grandmother’s enjoyed sharing family stories. I’m sure those are some special memories.

  3. Jack, I really enjoyed your piece this morning. I was around your age when I got started. Will try to be quick here. It was Dec…and we were getting Christmas decorations down from the attic. I happen to see an old school binder with a zipper…tucked between the rafters. I brought it down to see what was it in. When I opened it…it was old 1906 geometry notes. I happened to be sittiing beside my maternal grandmother, she mentioned the notes were her’s. There was a note from her teacher about her penmanship. Which she rec’d a gold locked for….age 16. She went on to tell me about becoming a teacher….told me about her family…brothers..etc. 60yrs later…I’m still at it.

    1. What a nice story. Thanks for sharing it! It reminds me of similarly talking to my maternal grandmother and having the passion spark from things we’d find around the house — books, photographs, the very chairs we sat in for dinner every night that came from her grandmother — thank you for taking the time to reminisce.

  4. I love this! Thank you so much for sharing this story, Jack. Four weeks ago I became a grandma and it would be a dream come true if I could share my love for genealogy with a young family member. My first (and so far only, since I live in Wisconsin) experience at NEHGS was a Coming Home week and it remains a highlight of my many genealogy travels. I need to go back!

  5. Your enthusiasm spills over!!! By the time I was ten years old (in 1948), I was a pro at sitting under the table listening to the “old people” telling their stories while playing Saturday night card games.

    And, my enthusiasm hasn’t waned a bit……..

  6. Jack,

    I, like you, started about 10 – but for years was too scared to enter the NEHGS building – was sure glad when I finally did!

    Any chance of sharing a link to the “Genealogy Jack” newsletter?

  7. Hello cousin! I was 60+ before I I got into the family history stuff. Too bad I didn’t know my mother was a Mayflower descendant through 5 or 6 or 7 of them, one being Francis Cook. I could have been a straight A student back in the day instead of biding my time until it was over!

  8. I remember liking US history as a child. I was told about some ancestors but did not really start genealogy until I helped my mother-in-law update her genealogy. Then my mother asked me to update her father’s descendancy chart. That included my first visit to NEHGS.
    If you have four Mayflower ancestors along with Cyrus McCormick and Robert R. Livingston, you begin to get into filling out the pedigree. For a laugh, you find out that your mother-in-law’s ancestor bough land for a church and graveyard from one of your ancestors.
    Now, like many others, I am trying to find all those ancestors who were alive at the tine on the 1950 census while going down miscellaneous rabbit holes that pop up.

  9. Jack, my mother’s maiden name is Palmer and I am also a direct descendant from John Alden. Perhaps we are cousins. If you could contact me at my email address, we can try to sort out our relationship. As an aside Chris Child is my 9C2R*.

  10. When I was a preschooler, rainy days spent visiting my Grandparents often turned into days of discovery when they got out old photo albums showing relatives long gone going back to the late 1800s. They told me all about the people in the pictures (Great Grandfather in his 1st car, a 1914 Dodge Touring car or my Grammie at nursing school in the early 1920s. She was a flapper!) I absorbed it all, becoming a genealogist before I could read! I kept looking at the pictures, asking questions, and making notes. I even had a great Grandfather who disappeared. His son, my Grandfather, never knew what happened to him. (I found him in 2020, after searches spanning 40 years.) I was ready for the microfilm and paper trails when I was about 10. Genealogy has been a passion for all of my life!

  11. I left this same comment on your Youtube channel – have you looked into whether you have a gateway ancestor? If you do have one (or more – some people have 4), which one(s)? They are such a goldmine.

  12. As I child, I always enjoyed listening to my grandparents’ stories, but never followed up.

    But my interest in genealogy did not start until my late 20s. As a lawyer, I had to certify title to a house in Scituate; the title examiner could only trace deeds back to the early 1950s, a few years short of the 50-year standard for a foundation deed. The house had been in a branch of the Cushing family for about 250 years. From the early 1700s to the 1950s, when the last heir sold it, it had passed from one generation to another without probate or deed, and I had to document that there was only one heir in each generation (I have since learned how uncommon that is, in times when large families were the norm).

    At about the same time, my aunt had taken down my paternal grandfather’s remembrances of his immigrant parents (father from England, mother from Wales) and his childhood in New England and New Brunswick, and I started to work at filling in the gaps. Almost 30 years later, the thrill of the chase is still there.

  13. Wonderful article! I likewise got started early and my aunt would take me to NEHGS before I could drive myself.

  14. You’re lucky that you had grandparents that were very helpful. When I was a child I got a few stories about when they were kids but actual facts about their parents and ancestors they were very tightlipped about. I had to go around them to get Records. In the pre-Internet age that was very difficult. Innoway I’m still very angry that I had so few relatives to help me, and all my tremendous success that I’ve had a Genealogy was despite my family, not because of my family

  15. Thanks, Jack. I, too, got the bug when I was ten. My grandmother on my mother’s side came to live with us and stayed in my room. Oh, the stories she told! Always telling me, “Now, don’t tell your mother.” I used to hide under the bed sheets at night and take notes using a flashlight as she talked. And, I was hooked and have been ever since. I just finished a 546-page book on all sides of my family titled, “Puritans, Patriots & Pioneers: An American Story.” It was my dream to finish it and I did. Check it out at if you like. Wonderful story. Thanks for writing it!

    1. Lynn – unable to use ‘Contact’ on your web page. I would say that our ancestors traveled the same ground including Ling Phillip’s War, the Mayflower and I am sure other paths and highways.

  16. Such a great story. It made me smile this morning. Your earnest reply that the Genealogy Library opened at 8am. Love it. How wonderful. Like others I dream of having descendants as mad about the genealogy bug as me 🙂

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.