And now with the growth of the Internet, a profusion of books and the success of TV series such as the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? genealogy has taken root as a major hobby.
It has also spawned a wave of professional genealogists who, for a fee, will do the research for you and help you piece together a complex family jigsaw.
With mountains of on-line and hard copy archives to dissect, it's tempting to go down this path. However, with a bit of planning, and a good list of contacts, taking on the project yourself should be a fun and rewarding journey into the bowels of your past.
Many local organisations can offer advice and provide excellent sources of information to the novice genealogist. But, before you land on their doorstep demanding to know when great grandad Bert married his third wife, try and make sure you're armed with as much information as possible.
Full names, dates and places of births, deaths & marriages are all excellent starting points. Talking to older relatives is particularly invaluable; grandparents' memories are screaming to be tapped so click on the dictaphone, sit back and hear those stories flow.
Belfast City Council has put together a very useful online guide... click here to read more. You could also write to a local newspaper, such as the Belfast Telegraph, Newsletter or Irish News, and ask readers if they know anything about your ancestors. NI is a small place, so your chances of hitting paydirt are good.