Genealogy websites that help people trace their family histories love to focus on fortunate souls descended from royalty, or related in some distant and indirect way to George Washington.Yet genealogical research is just as likely to turn up horse thieves, drifters and scandals of every sort.

“You’re going to find stuff you don’t want to know,” says Ceil Lucas, a sociolinguist, amateur genealogist and author of How I Got Here: A Memoir. “But who knows, those might be your most fascinating finds.”

For others who want to delve into their family histories Lucas suggests:

• Check census records. Every 10 years since 1790 the census has taken a snapshot of who’s living in the United States. Valuable information can be found in census records, and you might even discover relatives you never heard about.