Having personally started, only a very few years back, to pursue my very murky family background, it is remarkable what can be accomplished nowadays from the comforts of home instead of traveling to distant libraries and courthouses to spend hours looking through dusty tomes often put onto the wrong shelves or cabinets. Perhaps by me long, long ago. My very first job was filing materials in a university archive collection. It involved not just paperwork, either. If you ever want to find full sets of 19th century surgeon’s tools, or glass photographic negatives of Oklahoma, I can tell you where to start looking.
Even though I’m the oldest living member of my family, I knew very little about our genealogy, ancestry, family tree. For one thing, having been uprooted by World War II, there was little by way of papers and old photos that fled the Nazis along with us to America. Add in that our parents relayed very little by word of mouth regarding a time they would rather forget and a yawning void loomed.
And then along came the Internet and massive projects, both public and commercial, to digitize everything put down on paper and place it all into immense, searchable databases that continue to be added to on an almost daily basis.
Thus, I do a few searches weekly to see if anything relevant has been added in digital format somewhere on the globe, and have a subscription service that sort of helps build a super-sized family tree for me. That tree with all its branches has almost 3,000 names now.
IN A WAY, this ancestry-chasing stuff has gotten much easier and constantly provides more turns, twists and surprises than the best television drama. It becomes sort of a combination of doing a crossword puzzle and treasure hunt at the same time.
Sure, like all things involving computers, there will be a lot of self-education involved with various programs and search engines plus trial-and-error in learning how to set up queries to bring back desirable results. However, it is worth it at least on a personal level which, of course, is what makes this kind of a “hobby” particularly unique.
Anybody can collect stamps, coins, guns. Collected ancestors are artifacts of value only to you (and your kin) and have no resale value. It is an investment mostly in knowledge. And, like most knowledge, it can erase misconceptions or supposed “truths” taken for granted.
A good uniquely personal example, as most are, is as follows.
Our immediate family, with long European roots as far as we knew, assumed we were the “first” to come to the United States as immigrants. Turns out we were just about the last and missed “first” by about a century. Our Ellis Island entry paperwork and ship manifest (available online for free) showed in the detailed subheadings that we were going to live with a person whom my mother listed as a “cousin” and my grandmother as a “nephew.” With a name and address.
Actually, it turned out to be a grandnephew, and a long series of searches involving U.S. databases led to finding out that my grandmother was actually one of six children with two brothers and two sisters, all separately, having come to America before she arrived — at least two in the 19th century. Until then I didn’t even know my grandmother had siblings, much less their names and, by even more pursuit, the names of all their offspring.
ONE OF HER brothers died quite young, in his 30s, in Baltimore. Construction or industrial accident? Spanish flu? Don’t know ... but his online death certificate did list the name of his father: Simon. Thus, I now know the name of my great-grandfather. And his U.S. passport application for a trip back home to Germany to visit his parents when in his 20s (he had left, solo, for the New World at age 14) gave the number and street address of where he was going. Thus, I know exactly where grandmother and all her siblings grew up. A Google map search shows that whatever house was there then is long gone as a newer apartment building is on that site today.
All this learned while sitting in my own home, in Rome, with a computer. There were not even telephones when my grandmother was a child.
There are other related possibilities as well.
For example, there’s an old vaguely connected family friend in Italy that I uncovered by following hints in other discoveries. He doesn’t speak English, I don’t speak Italian, yet we can communicate sufficiently to understand the drift of what the other is saying because Google (and others) now incorporate translation engines that keep getting better all the time, although nobody would want to write a legal contract in one.
Just this past week a recently discovered first cousin twice removed in this country, detected only about a month ago and with whom email contact had just been established, died at the age of 85 before common linkages and unknown elements could be explored. There’s a sense of urgency involved in this sort of pursuit. Many folks think about attempting such a thing and put it off. They probably shouldn’t.
THERE ARE already many, many amateur and even semi-pro family genealogists in these parts. (The Georgia Room of the Sara Hightower Regional Library, with its great collection, microfilm readers plus banks of public computers nearby, is where those looking for local roots are often found.)
All this is only meant to encourage others to pursue this sort of mystery detection by pointing out one no longer has to have been “born in the shadow of the Clock Tower” to do such research. One’s family might have come from the shadow of the Mayflower mast, the shadow of Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower and also be able to join such pursuits thanks to the high-speed connected world containing all those searchable databases ... and old newspapers, too.
With a name in hand — a person, business, event connected to one’s family — it is remarkable what can be found. For example, my mother was an opera singer in Europe but never established a major performance career in her new country. I’ve found, and now have copies of, reviews and concert announcements from papers in Germany and France regarding her performances — not only how good she was but what she specifically sang.
Maybe one of your relatives owned the first car in the town where he lived, or was the first to run such off the road ... or fell out of a tree and broke his arm when a child. All that, especially in the olden days, was often reported in the local hometown newspaper and, if it has been digitized (not all, sadly, have as yet) might be there for the searching using his/her name.
Of course — fair warning — there are risks in such pursuits as well. You could find a relationship to a horse thief or, perhaps worse, a newspaper columnist!