• Kristin Wenger

Five Reasons Why I Love Family History Research

Updated: Feb 8

In the days since the Ancestry ProGenealogists scholarship was announced, I have fielded the same question from friends multiple times: “How did you get SO into family history?”


I can point to 2011, when my Grandma Lucy and my husband’s Grandma Becker died within six months of each other.


After she was gone, I realized that there were so many questions I had never asked about her early life and her family. I was a busy mom with three young children, but I wish I would have made the time. Records can only tell us so much and the personal stories are now lost to time.[1]

At that time, I realized how truly little I knew of my family history beyond the grandparents and great-grandparents who were living when I was born.

My living grandparents and great-grandparents surround my parents and me in 1979

Clockwise from bottom left: Albert and Kathryn Hornberger (his first wife, Lizzie Landis, died in 1975), John and Doris (Millhouse) Hornberger, Lucille (Norbeck) and John C. Groenendaal, Lloyd and Grace (Kramer) Millhouse, Alma (Burnum) Oswald, formerly Groenendaal (seated center).


In contrast, my husband, as a tenth generation Wenger in Lancaster County, had been given a rock-solid lineage through a family heritage book that we can now share with our eleventh-generation children and beyond.


I soon discovered that there were quite a few reasons I knew so little: murder, suicide, divorce, generational cycles of alcoholism and domestic violence, poverty, babies born out of wedlock, and secret half-siblings. These were not events to preserve for posterity; rather, they were buried and forgotten after a generation or two of silence following pain and trauma that was simply not discussed.


Some of my ancestors have been extremely challenging to find, but that makes finally discovering their lives all the more rewarding. While understanding where I have come from and how I fit into the story of the world is fulfilling, more importantly, it inspires me to make the most of the brief life I have been given and focus on what matters for eternity.[2]

As a parent of three teenagers, I’ve received more than the occasional eye roll for being “fascinated with dead people.” I would argue that my interest is not in finding birth and death dates on a gravestone; it is discovering how each person lived “the dash” between those two numbers.[3] My passion is breathing life back into their stories.


Here are the top five reasons why family history research has become my life’s work:


5. I am a storyteller at heart.


I now recognize that the opportunity to tell stories has been a constant in my pursuits. I majored in Elementary Education and minored in Theatre. As a teacher and later preschool librarian, my absolute favorite aspect was reading aloud to students. I adored teaching the elements of story and increasing empathy and perspective through engaging narratives. My theatre major stemmed from years of acting in community and high school productions. I loved the process of character development and understanding motivations. Two of my favorite roles in high school were Helen Keller and Anne Frank. I now see why I found it so meaningful to research the historical and social context of these young women to bring their inspiring stories to life.


This article describes a few of the ways I prepared for my role as Helen Keller as a freshman in high school. "Teen Scene: Actress Enhances Upcoming Role By Observing," Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Intelligencer Journal, 22 November 1991, unpaginated newspaper clipping.



4. Who doesn’t love detective work and a good mystery?


A few months ago, I gave a presentation on newspaper research to a local genealogy club. A gentleman who recently retired from the CIA asked (in all seriousness) if I had ever considered doing research for the CIA. His comment made me chuckle, but I later considered that genealogy can be very much like detective work. It is incredibly fulfilling to solve mysteries. For risk-adverse personalities like yours truly, family history research offers the best of both worlds: the thrill of the chase with none of the danger. Sometimes you can even crack a case in your pajamas.




3. Research = endless opportunities to learn.


As a teacher, my ultimate goal was to inspire students to develop a lifelong love of learning. I have always had that insatiable thirst for knowledge. I was that kid who was so desperate for reading material that I would resort to reading the dictionary, the encyclopedia, the phone book, even the back of the cereal box. Genealogy provides a constant supply of individuals to research, new locations and record sets to master, and more methodology to study.


Lacking easy access to a photograph of myself at this age, I've substituted one of an equally voracious pint-size reader, our oldest son, Josh. Shortly after his fifth birthday, he became obsessed with learning about the U.S. presidents. Notice the George W. Bush "action figure" at left in the midst of play food strewn by his younger sister and brother. This was my life 13 years ago in February 2007!



2. It’s a puzzle.


When I wasn’t reading anything I could get my hands on as a child, I might have been doing a puzzle. In my “taxi mom” years, I’ve been known to keep a logic puzzle book tucked in the door of my minivan so that I can solve one while I’m waiting for one of my kids. Genealogical research is often compared to a jigsaw puzzle. Tom Jones shared an apt analogy in his SLIG Advanced Methods course last year. Challenging research is akin to piecing together a jigsaw puzzle – except there is no picture on the box lid to guide you.[4] For those of us who enjoy mental gymnastics and the satisfaction of finally finding that last piece to complete the puzzle, family history research can be incredibly fulfilling.




1. Eternal perspective


Learning about those who have come before us causes us to keep things in perspective.

  • I have a greater appreciation of just how small I am in the grand story of humanity.

  • Many of our ancestors faced hardships that we don’t even consider today. Their experiences can encourage us to endure and teach us resilience.

  • We are all mortal. Studying lives of those who are no longer with us prompts us to consider: How can we make the most of our short time on earth? How do we live in light of eternity?





[1] Kristin Wenger, “#52Ancestors Week 3: Longevity,” Roots & Wings Research Blog, 19 January 2018 (https://www.rootsandwingsresearch.com/post/52ancestors-week-3-longevity : accessed 7 February 2020).


[2] Kristin Wenger, “The Best Bequest (#52Ancestors week 8: Heirloom),” Roots & Wings Research Blog, 23 February 2018 (https://www.rootsandwingsresearch.com/post/the-best-bequest-52ancestors-week-8-heirloom : accessed 7 February 2020).


[3] Linda Ellis, Copyright © Inspire Kindness, 1996, thedashpoem.com


[4] Thomas W. Jones, comment during “Special Problems I: Enslaved, Peasant, and Other Impoverished Ancestors,” Advanced Genealogic Methods course at Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, 16 January 2019; recorded in author's syllabus notes.

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