My great-grandmother had a family tree that fascinated me when I was little.
It started with her grandparents, Swiss immigrants who came to America in the California gold rush but got side-tracked along the way in Minnesota. The ornate family tree was a picture of vines and branches and leaves, with Grandma Dehn Sr. and her many, many siblings and cousins documented along the way.
But that was all I had.
I couldn’t tell you much about my dad’s other side. His mother was adopted after years in foster care, with only a sketchy child’s recollection of the who and what of her heritage. Her birthday was just a guess.
On my mother’s side, I knew my grandfather was Austrian, but two generations behind him, I couldn’t tell you anything. About my maternal grandmother, I knew even less.
But television commercials and Facebook links have been taunting me for years. And so I bit. I signed up for Ancestry.com, and even though I’m almost criminally frugal (cheap is such an ugly word), I signed up for the highest level membership knowing that my roots were solidly overseas. That package lets you have access to foreign records and immigration data that I figured I would need.
Justin Houser, of the Centre County Genealogical Society, says that can be a good place to start.
“Just generally speaking, there’s a lot of material now that’s online. In the last 10 to 15 years, that’s really exploded. It’s changed how people do research,” he said.
I started with what I knew, filling in info about myself, my parents, my grandparents and waited for the hints that were promised. There weren’t many. I made some calls to aunts and cousins, sketching in a few more lines. I got some payoff.
I found that the great-grandmother who I knew only as Bessie was really named Besriebel. While three of my great-great grandparents records have stopped with them, a combination of family stories, internet searches and government records traced 13 other branches to places I never dreamed.
After months of research, my tree has taken me to colonies in Jamestown, New Haven and Massachusetts. My people came to the New World through New York and Quebec.
They came here from Ireland and England and France, news to me since I had always been very sure I was a crazy quilt stitched from every variety of German-speaking people.
Ancestry.com became the garden where I planted my tree, but the seeds came from other sources, too. Newspapers.com helped me find breadcrumbs that led to births and deaths I couldn’t find elsewhere. The National Archives helped me find that I had family who were veterans of every armed conflict fought by Americans since before America was a country.
“Every genealogical researcher needs to be aware of the difference between primary sources and secondary sources,” Houser said.
Primary resources were records or documentation that happened close to the time an event occurred. Wedding pictures, birth certificates, a newspaper article from the day something happened, all of those are great sources for tracing a story. Secondary sources are more distant, like a book about the history of the Titanic sinking written a century after the ship went down.
“If the website contains images of primary sources, that’s a fantastic resource,” Houser said. “That’s a wonderful way to research from home. It’s almost as good as looking at the originals, with very high quality colored scans.”
In fact, it might be better, opening a single document to search by dozens, hundreds, thousands of people while still keeping the original safe.
Some of the discoveries have been startling. Finding out you’re related to Eleanor of Acquitaine, William the Conqueror and Charlemagne? Pretty cool. Finding out you can trace that line three different ways? Wow.
Some are humbling, not so much by the people involved but the scope of the history. Find certain people in your tree, and the documented records open like cherry blossoms, spilling out generations of history in a blink. For me, that was Elisabeth, my 14th great-grandmother, born in Germany in the 15th century. She was also a countess, and with nobility comes more records than you might find with other weddings and ceremonies of the era. Elisabeth’s history spilled backward from country to country, line to line, all the way to the Roman empire.
And that leads to a caution. Sometimes, you aren’t going to like what you find.
Sadly, my tree has a patch I don’t like. Slave owners, soldiers who marched people along the Trail of Tears, wife-beating and worse.
Another caution? Be careful which paths you follow. Along the way, I found more than once that information needed to be checked with multiple sources.
“A lot of websites have features where people can upload family trees and add to them, but you have to be careful,” Houser said. “That can lead to a lot of errors and mistakes.”
Ancestry.com is a great source, but many of its references are provided by other users and should be verified with other records and histories. Eight generations of one had to be erased and re-done because I followed someone else’s erroneous information. Multiple times, I found clues from one person’s tree that were contradicted by someone else’s tree, leading me to search out the best records I could find on both to point to the real path.
“It can be a lot of detective work,” Houser said.
DNA has shored up things I have found along the way. I did have a DNA test done, spitting in a tube and sending it off to a lab to be reviewed and added to a database. So far, I’ve been matched to more than 200 samples across 12 different branches of my family. Suddenly, I’m feeling better about my odds if I need a kidney.
Internal organs aside, that kind of insight into where I came from and who else is out there that might have my dad’s eyes or my mom’s nose is part of why I started this project. My grandmother died in 2013, never even knowing her mother’s full name or the fact that she herself was named for her father’s mother. We lost those stories, and I wanted them back. When my husband died in 2015, my son lost his tether to generations of Italian nonnas and, as far as I can tell, about a hundred guys named Joseph or Salvatore.
Building the family tree might not give him those stories back, but it can give him a great framework for writing his own.
Tracing your roots
The Centre County Genealogical Society helps locals find their way through the detective work of tracing ancestry, and can also point the way to resources for people whose roots happen to snake through the area.
The society offers classes and lectures on genealogy throughout the year.
On July 15, at the Centre County Library, the society will offer a beginning genealogy event, what Justin Houser calls a “micro” version of the four-week classes. On Aug. 20, it will host Family Heritage Afternoon at the Grange Fair.