Who Do You Think You Are? Genealogy Q + A

I love this photo of My mom and grandma in the summer of 1950...couldn't this be a photo of me and one of my kids?

I love this photo of My mom and grandma in the summer of 1950...couldn't this be a photo of me and one of my kids?

Over the course of this summer, I have become incredibly passionate about genealogy and I've learned so much about my ancestors along the way. I've used the internet, county healthy departments and clerk's offices, visited cemeteries, quizzed and pestered all of my relatives and even connected with a distant cousin once removed at a small town gas station (she had photos of my third great grandparents!) I'm really proud of all I've discovered thus far, but I'm no where near stopping! 

Getting so far in my quest has been a mixture of hard work and a lot of luck. It's like my own real life mystery to unfold! I went out to you guys last week to get some of your burning family tree questions which I'll answer below! Some if it is a little repetitious from my previous post with my Top Ten Tips for Finding your Family Tree, but here's a refresher and some new ideas too! 

What is the best way to get started? Where should I start online?

Before you go signing up for your free trial, the very first thing you need to do is make a date with your parents, or even better, grandparents, to ask them what they know. Not all family oral histories match up to what you'll find online, but the more recent generations should be quite close. If you have the names of all four grandparents, or better yet, all eight great grandparents, you'll be able to get a great tree started. Ask for maiden names, other family members (like aunts and uncles, birth, marriage and death dates and where they lived) From there branches will grow thanks to other genealogists who have collected information and shared it online. 

I'll be honest, I didn't get a whole lot of traction in my first round of questions with my own folks. There are so many things I want to know that just don't seem interesting to others. But I think the persistence is paying off. When you ask enough times, relatives just seem to find old documents and know that you want to see them! In just the past couple weeks I've been handed birth certificates, older genealogy work done by past generations, scans from county records and photos galore! 

I chose to start my online quest with the free service from FamilySearch.org. I found A LOT of great info and leads there, but they don't have access to every single document, so I finally decided to get on board with a free trial at Ancestry. I've since decided to pay for a subscription for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because a lot of other genealogists use it and upload to it (such as with family photos) it's a wonderful tool for adding depth to each ancestor you're working on. Secondly, they just have more information, including scans of genealogy related books (for me, I wanted to see the first edition of The Roush Family in America, and Ancestry had it!)

Another key difference between the two is this: Family Search has one main page per person that many people can contribute to (and change for better or worse) while on Ancestry you build your own tree, but can reference other public trees. If you get back far enough there are professional teams at Family Search (I've heard of a Medieval team, for example) that verify those ancient records. Then again, if you have someone who was, say, a Mayflower pilgrim with millions of descendants (I'm looking at your Elizabeth Tilley!) then those records can have dozens of changes each week. If someone has new information = awesome! But if someone makes a mistake or makes an incorrect update then it has to be changed back. There are pros and cons with using that kind of system. On a positive I hope there are people watching all of the photos I have been updating to our common ancestors! I would be thrilled if a distant cousin of mine did the same! 

In addition to Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, I also decided to subscribe to Newspapers.com and have found SO MUCH there that fills in a lot of the blanks. Old newspapers printed things we might find inconsequential, like who had lunch and where last Sunday, but it can really help paint a more vivid picture of relationships from the past. In my case, it's also help connect some family members where I didn't have great documentation (like the 1890 census, which was almost entirely lost in a fire). You never know what kind of drama might unfold either!! 

Lastly, because of the big sale, Adam and I just ordered DNA kits from Ancestry. I have a family link I'd really like to know for sure where the paternity is a little questionable and I hope this gives me connections to solve that mystery. You can save 15% off your DNA kit using my link here

I've done what I can with census records, what comes next?

Census records are so great. In the later parts of the 19th century and onwards they really tell us a lot about who lived in what house, their relationships and usually who lived next door! In fact, what got me started on this whole research rabbit hole was looking up my own home from the 1940s census and my neighbors now lived in the same houses back then! I've also seen a lot of coupling up with neighbor kids who later got married.

Next start collecting vital records to confirm birth and death dates. Most of the recent versions of both of these will list parents, including maiden names. You might also find that your ancestors had more than one marriage and possibly children with another partner. This has happened in a few cases for me and I was able to connect with other FamilySearch and Ancestry users who had more details!

What do you do if there aren't documents online for your family? 

Don't be so sure there aren't! In my experience, sometimes taking a break and moving on to a different line helps give me ideas for other branches of my tree. For example - spelling can really vary depending on who was recording the information, especially because compared to modern times, far fewer people were able to read and write. A lot of names were Americanized as well like dropping accents or umlaut over the o. Two examples in my family line are Roush, which was changed from Rausch and Schroeder from Schröder - both German names. 

Check your state's vital records availability through Family Search. Most records post 1900 should be available, but if they're not, try the county's health department. I found my great grandparents, born in 1893 and 1901, which were not online. 

How much time do you devote daily to researching?

Depending the day I can spend between 15 minutes and a few hours. I check in on Family Search, Ancestry and Newspapers.com daily, just to see if any new hints are available. I also keep a notebook of questions and tasks I have for myself. Your ancestors will multiply quickly as you get back further generations and you can spend an entire week on just one of those great grandparents! Because I'm usually working while my kids are playing and can be easily distracted, it helps to have notes to go back to when you're able to pick it back up again. 

You seem to have found so much! Do you just have good luck or are there also dead ends?

When you're given a hint about a family member, it can be really tempting to just create a tree that's as big and wide as possible. Think it through. Do the birthdates make sense? Are they in the same state as siblings (or do they move westward, especially in the early 1800s when land opened up beyond the 13 original colonies?) I remember one of the first nights I was looking around on FamilySearch and dozens of generations later saw a connection to Cleopatra (and the early kings and queens of Europe). Other people told me they were connected to Noah or Adam and Eve. I get that there's a desire to connect yourself to the beginning of recorded time, but I also have no faith in humanity's early ability to keep reliable records. If you want to be serious, you'll want to seek out actual records. And sometimes, you just have to admit to yourself a link isn't correct. Remember what happened with Sarah Jane King?

Speaking of connections, don't be shy when getting in touch with other genealogists, especially if you share a common ancestor. I commonly write people who have updated a record of one of my family members and ask how they are related and do they know anything else that's not in the file for that person? Sometimes folks also have their settings set to private (on Ancestry) and I've found most are willing to share what's behind the photo or file with me. 

Do you think it's easier to search for US records? Any tips for first generation immigrants on international research?

I started my search with the goal of finding each ancestor from the time they came to the United States and connect it downwards. I haven't done much research beyond my American ancestors especially because I can't read German! I wish I had better advise for searching in other countries!

What was your goal when starting this?

My goals have changed a little bit since I first started building my tree. Initially I just wanted to see how far back I could go. Like I mentioned above, I have doubts on the validity of those really old records, so then I thought I would gather and confirm all of the documents for all of my immigrant and first generation American ancestors (and following generations). Then, because of some traction, I was made aware of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) which is a linage based genealogy club. Yes! I am currently in the process of submitting an application to join and proving my connection to a Patriot from the Revolutionary War.  If that weren’t enough, I've also started pursing a second line for a different Patriot (I have seven I'd like to check out!!!)

These ancestral connections to 18th century Americans have also really sparked a desire  in me to learn more about that time in US history, including another love of mine, costume history. It's a nerdy dream come true to have so many intersecting hobbies! 

While I finish my application and then wait for professional genealogists to verify it, I'm going to continue to flesh out each and every ancestor I've found. I've been calling on my parent's cousins and older living generations to conduct informal interviews and ask questions about their grandparents. I just want to know more about where I came from and get stories about those real living, breathing people. Lastly I am borrowing albums and copying photos for two purposes. Firstly to upload online so my distant cousins can see our shared ancestors and secondly for a legacy wall in my home. I have a couple gems going as far back as the early days photography (well... maybe mid 19th century) that I can't wait to frame. 

One of the things I love about genealogy is that you never know what you're going to find. I've uncovered some pretty big surprises and it's such a thrill to piece together all of the evidence you can find. How deep you dig is up to you! 

Please feel free to ask questions on anything I might have skipped over in this post (or others!) I am happy to answer anything that could help someone else!