What country did my ancestors come from? Were there any famous people in my family tree? Was great-great-great grandma a full blooded Cherokee?
Gaining deeper insight into those that came before us gives us deeper insight into ourselves.
Even if much of the time you think your ancestors are just a bunch of old dead people who don’t matter anymore, at some point in time all of us have wondered where we come from and if the rumors about great-great-great grandma were really true. Even white folk in America and other primarily immigrant countries wonder what our ethnicity is from time to time and what country our ancestors came from.
Most of us have never gone beyond asking grandma and grandpa about the family history, but from DNA to online searchable records, it’s now possible for inquiring minds to go much deeper and get there much more easily than ever before.
Gone are the days of spending hours on end spooling through microfilm at the library to even figure out who your great grandparents were. What used to take years, decades, or even a lifetime of research can now be put together in literally a matter of hours using the right tools on the internet.
Most excitingly, you might even find old pictures of those ancestors!
Genealogy, Proof, and Documentation
First a word about genea-epistemology, a fancy sounding word I coined that means “how we know what we know about the family history.”
For your great-grandparents and maybe great-great-grandparents, you can pretty reliably get names and maybe even accurate birth and death dates simply by asking your parents or grandparents.
But what about beyond that? At some point living memory of the family line ends.
Let’s say you discover a document that purports to show one of your family lines back to England. How do you know that it is accurate, and not a work of pure fiction put together by a lovable retiree with too much time on their hands? (You know you were thinking it! But not, of course, to discredit the contributions of folks in their golden years. While there absolutely is some historical fiction in circulation, the fact is that most of the reliable research out there comes from the hard work they have put in over the years.)
Does your document just list names and dates? Does it actually cite some sources like birth, death, and census records? Do you have a “smoking gun” picture of an ancestor’s tombstone?
As those in the business like to say, “genealogy without documentation is fantasy.” If all you have is a list of names and dates without supporting documentation, all you really have are a few clues to begin the real research with.
Doing genealogical research is a lot like doing proper academic research. Source documentation is important. Sometimes the sources conflict with one another, but usually the preponderance of evidence will point in the same direction. You will mind filling out those ridiculously long government forms a little less (you still won’t like it of course) when you see how helpful that old, rich documentation is in helping you piece together your family tree.
21st Century Genealogy Tools and Ancestry.com
There are many, many online tools out there for genealogy. It’s a wonder anyone still does this by paper anymore. I am going to focus primarily on 3 resources great for beginners–Ancestry.com, Familysearch.org, and Findagrave.com.
An unintended consequence of signing up for the 23andMe DNA testing service was that I started getting e-mails from possible distant cousins.
One of my genetic cousin matches sent me pictures of a whole bunch of my ancestors that neither my dad or I had ever seen before and said they came from Ancestry.com. I was blown away.
I tried a trial subscription and I’ve been hooked ever since.
The actual techniques used to piece together family trees aren’t a whole lot different than what the geneas of old did, what has really changed is how much more easily accessible the information has become.
In the old days, you’d have to go down to the county courthouse and look through pages and pages of census records hoping to find your ancestors living together with their siblings. And then infer that the older people of the household were their parents. Of course if your ancestors moved, the paper trail disappears and you have to figure out where in the world they moved to or from and then go visit the local repository of records there. Extraordinarily mind numbing, tedious, and slow work.
With services like Ancestry.com, these public records are all online and searchable. Type in your ancestor’s name and presto, every census record they are listed on pops up. Not to mention marriage, birth, and any other public records they might be listed on. No trip to the courthouse, no hours and hours of searching.
If you get stuck, Ancestry.com even gives you “hints” about records that might be related to your ancestors. Some of these hints might be public trees created by other members of the site (you have the option to keep yours private if you wish). Though take these other member trees with a grain of salt. There may be errors, lots of errors. Many of these trees are just created by other normal folks who decided to play around with Ancestry.com for a little while and not real researchers. Even if these people are good researches, your direct ancestors may only be tangential relatives in their family tree that they haven’t fact checked.
Occasionally, however, you will hit pay dirt and find a once in a generation genea who has meticulously documented and researched one of your family lines and/or posted a ton of old photos. Fact check them anyway. These people are tremendous resources, but I have still uncovered mistakes here and there.
A great free resource run by the LDS Church is familysearch.org.
You can’t create a tree on familysearch.org in quite the same way as Ancestry.com, but most of the same records are searchable through their website. One thing familysearch.org has which Ancestry.com does not is many international records. Bless the Mormons, for they have microfilmed the church records of nearly every country in the world. I was able to blast through a brick wall on my tree and find some of my Swiss ancestors via their records.
Even if the particular records you want to see are not online yet, you can usually order the microfilm be sent to a nearby family search center. Often even the online records are not indexed yet and have to be searched image by image, but it’s still a lot easier than boarding a plane to Switzerland and tracking down the right parish.
Now, let’s say you have figured out who your ancestors are. What became of them? Did they really exist or are they just ghosts on paper?
A site I love, love, love is a grave indexing site called FindAGrave.com.
You can find out what cemetery your ancestors are buried in and see pictures of their gravestones. It’s entirely volunteer supported–I have added several memorials for my ancestors myself–so not all tombstones are online yet, but the coverage is still impressive.
If you live far away from where your ancestors are buried you can submit a photo request for a volunteer nearby to photograph. Several kind people have helped me out with some fantastic pictures.
DNA and Genetic Genealogy
A more recent twist to the genealogy game is a host of DNA testing services that match you with potential relatives that you share DNA with. I have connected with several people this way and verified parts of my family tree that were previously a bit hazy and lacking robust documentation.
However, with all the intermixing and groups of families migrating out across the frontier along the same routes together over years and decades, you may discover that you are actually related to your genetic cousins in multiple ways. I have one distant cousin who we’ve already identified at least 3 different places where our family trees cross 5 to 9 generations back.
Currently Ancestry.com and Family Tree DNA are the most popular genetic tests for genealogical purposes. National Geographic also has a DNA test for their genographic project, but it’s more about deep ancestry and the routes your paleolithic ancestors took out of Africa while populating the globe. Likewise, I’ve already mentioned 23andMe’s DNA test which focuses more on health (my full review of 23andMe here).
The avenue of exploration that genetic genealogy opens up that excites me the most is the surname projects operated by Family Tree DNA. One of my genealogical dreams has always been to meet another Brookshire in the UK who was provably a descendant from where the tree split prior to my line immigrating to America in the 1600s. Y-chromosomes are passed from father to son in an unbroken line, so it’s possible to reliably track those lineages way, way back with DNA. Many such surname projects are already under way.
Now go find those ancestors
I’m deeply interested in the field of evolutionary psychology and one of the things I’ve been saying for years is that on a short enough timescale, evolutionary psychology is family psychology. I like to think that knowing something about how my ancestors lived and the choices they made reveals something to me about my own personal makeup and potential.
Perhaps uprooting the family and moving across the country seemingly every generation has contributed to my own geographical restlessness and wanderlust.
Start digging and who knows what you may find. I even surprised myself and solved a 100 year old mystery that people had been saying for generations couldn’t be solved about where our Bohemian (modern day Czech Republic) line originally came from.