Find Your SoCal Roots: Tracing your genealogical history

HOW TO: Trace your SoCal genealogical history
Image of the Ilejay family of Pacoima in the 1950s. Photo Courtesy: Shades of L.A. Photo Collection, via LA Public Library

PBS SoCal recently joined forces with the fine folks at USC Libraries for Finding Our SoCal Roots, an event focused on the importance of researching less-visible histories and exploring how diverse stories allow communities to reveal their stories. We asked our panelists: “How can native Angelenos trace their roots?” Here’s what they shared:

Colleen Robledo Greene
Genealogical Society of Hispanic America – Southern California Chapter

  1. The central downtown location of the Los Angeles Public Library system houses a spectacular History & Genealogy Department. This department is staffed by librarians with expertise in genealogy, who can assist researchers of all experience levels. Their collections and staff expertise also focus extensively on Los Angeles and Southern California.
  2. Those like me who have Hispanic ancestry will want to get involved with the Genealogical Society of Hispanic America’s Southern California chapter. Based out of Burbank, they host quarterly educational programs at their Burbank location, but they also host free monthly Hispanic Research Days help sessions throughout Los Angeles County. These help sessions provide one-on-one and small group assistance.
  3. Los Angeles County hosts a stellar annual genealogy conference (Genealogy Jamboree) in early June in Burbank. Jamboree has a large national draw among speakers and attendees, yet always includes topics of particular relevance to Los Angeles and Southern California.

Liza Posas
L.A. as Subject Coordinator
and panel moderator

  1. Conduct an oral history with your oldest living family member, get as much information down especially information about names, places, and dates. To help jog their memory interview them with a photo album or visiting places of their childhood memories.
  2. Visit the Los Angeles County Registrar Recorder/County Clerk’s Office where you get access to birth, marriage or death certificates.
  3. Visit your local historical societies and public libraries where you can find old phone books and directories that may give you information about past residents of a particular home address

Kenyatta Berry
Author, The Family Tree Toolkit; Host, Genealogy Roadshow

  1. Determine when your ancestors arrived in the Los Angeles area by interviewing family members, recording family stories and reviewing documents such as the family bible. Make sure you document who you interviewed, when the interview occurred and where you obtained the documents.
  2. Find additional documents to prove or disprove the family stories in repositories, libraries, archives and special collections at Universities. (a) Review the genealogy collection at the local library where your ancestors lived; (b) visit historical societies and archives in the area; (c) get to know everything about the county where your ancestors resided, (d) review online resources at and (e) search the Online Archive of California for resources at institutions across the state. These institutions have documents from all over the country. For example, California State University at Northridge has a “Guide to the Legal and Financial Documents on Slaves and Slavery in the United States Collection, 1756-1869″. Most of the documents in this collection are from Lawrence County, Alabama.
  3. Organize your research, cite your sources and create a biographical sketch for your ancestors. Start with your grandparents and great grandparents. Use documents to fill in the gaps from the family stories and interviews. Share your discoveries with your family members.

Michael Ho
President, Chinese Family History Group of Southern California

  1. Seek help. Besides using the Internet, SoCal residents can learn how to start tracing their roots by contacting genealogy groups, public libraries and Family History Centers. These groups can help everyone from the roots-hunting beginner to the more experienced researcher. Genealogy organizations, such as the Chinese Family History Group of Southern California, can provide information that is specific to people with focused areas of research.
  2. Ask questions (and more questions). Tracing one’s roots is often like being a detective. A single clue won’t solve a mystery on its own, so you’ll need to gather more facts to piece together the story of your ancestors. Start with the family members that you know, and work your way up the family tree from there.
  3. Plan on a long game. To use a baseball analogy, don’t walk up to the batter’s box and expect to hit a home run each time. Too many roots rookies immediately aim to find a famous ancestor, perhaps of royalty or historical lore. There will often be important and compelling stories in your family that you might overlook. Tracing one’s roots involves gathering what may seem as sometimes mundane or boring facts, but the picture that it paints will be unique and special to your family.

What about you? Have you had luck finding your SoCal roots? We’d love to hear your tips and advice! Tweet your ideas at us!