We’ve all heard one or another researcher’s story of some grand, unexpected genealogical discovery that strikes like lightning: Your neighbor learns his grandmother was third-grade playmates with the grandmother of the guy who sealed his driveway. A research buddy finds a family photo album at the neighbor’s yard sale.
You smile and applaud their fortune, but inwardly wonder, “Why doesn’t that ever happen to me?” Well, I’m here to say you can find unknown cousins and long-lost heirlooms if you create your own luck. The genealogists who told me the following inspiring success stories went out looking for serendipity on message boards, in DNA databases, at online auction sites and elsewhere. Use their secrets to capitalize on these five ways to connect with kin and rediscover your family’s past.
1. Post to online message boards.
Back in ye olde days of genealogy, posting a message meant sending a query to a magazine, leaving a card at a historical society office or taping a note to a headstone but now online message boards let you post a query with the potential to reach zillions of people who can reply hours, days, months or years later.
Sharon Sergeant, who runs Ancestral Manor <ancestralmanor.com>, has gotten information, family stories and photos in response to her posts on RootsWeb message boards <boards.rootsweb.com> for Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. “I posted the information about 10 years ago, and because it’s archived, I’m still receiving responses,” she says. One distant relative sent photographs of a family in which two brothers had married two sisters. The grandson of one of the couples is the spitting image of Sergeant’s brother.
Janis Walker Gilmore couldn’t have imagined the genealogical bounty that would come from a single posting on a USGenWeb Project <usgenweb.org> message board. A relative who read it contacted Gilmore to share family data. “This cousin began to pull out documents, and that was the point at which my jaw dropped,” Gilmore says. The papers included narratives Gilmore’s aunt Delia her grandfather’s sister had written about the family’s move from Tennessee and an encounter with a bear along the way. They also told Civil War anecdotes and listed children who were born and died in Tennessee.
“The documents that Aunt Delia left, as the eldest daughter who knew the most about it all, are invaluable, and might never have come my way if I hadn’t left a trail,” Gilmore says.
Jackie Frye has posted to a variety of message boards on RootsWeb and Gen-Forum <genforum.com>, but one unexpected surname connection stands out. In late 2006, she began trading e-mails with a woman trying to solve the mystery of Grandma Lepley. The woman sent a picture of her grandmother to Frye it was the same photo as Frye’s picture of her aunt Jennie Lepley. They’ve united in their quest to research their relative.
The above-mentioned boards are bound to have forums related to your ancestor’s surname, place of residence or other topic of interest. Try Cyndi’s List <cyndislist.com/queries.htm>, too. Write your query with brief information on whom you’re looking for, their life dates and where they lived, and state what you’d like to know. Be sure to follow our etiquette guidelines on the opposite page. Finally, search the board archives to make certain you haven’t missed any pertinent posts.
2. Scour photo reunion sites.
More than 5,000 people a week search DeadFred <deadfred.com>, an online database of unclaimed photographs waiting to be reunited with rightful owners. Webmasters and site visitors put up thousands of new images each week, and if you think one shows your family, you can get in touch with the submitter. It’s worked for more than 1,000 images. Similar sites include Ancestors Lost & Found <www.usgennet.org/usa/topic/ancestors> and Ancient Faces <www.ancientfaces.com>.
When genealogical writer Midge Frazel searched DeadFred while writing an article about the site, she didn’t think she’d end up with her own story to tell. “I randomly selected the letter S and paused when I saw one of the surnames I’m researching Schofield. I never expected to stare into the face of my great-great-grandfather Joseph, whose photo I’d never seen.”
She had no doubt this was the right man. “His eyes are so like his daughter’s and his sister’s that the picture made an immediate connection,” she says. Frazel also found a picture of another ancestor, Thomas Schofield.
Melinda Gardner of Denbighshire, Wales, posted a picture of her great-grandfather William Henry Brown, born in 1856, in hopes someone would recognize him. No one knows where in England he was born, the circumstances of his departure or even his true surname (it might be Goodhine, Goodhind or Glistine). The biggest mystery involves his career as an Indian trader in Florida. Browsing DeadFred, Marcy Leisure thought Brown looked familiar. She was right: It turns out Gardner is her first cousin. Now they’re collaborating to research the mysterious William Brown.
For Darlene Hutchings Odenwalder, who works for DNA Ancestry <dna.ancestry.com>, a photo bridged a gap caused by a divorce in her family. At age 18, she learned her father wasn’t actually a Hutchings, but a Vanderveen. Born Rudolph Eugene Vanderveen in 1903, he took his step-father’s name as a young man and became Eugene Frank Hutchings. Years later, searching Find A Grave <www.findagrave.com> for information on her “new” line, Odenwalder found pictures of her great-grandparents’ headstones. Now she’s working with the cousins who submitted the photos to research her father’s family.
Besides photo-reunion sites and gravestone photo databases, you can search for family photographs in public databases such as the Library of Congress’ American Memory collection <memory.loc.gov> and on historical society Web sites. Find more options on Cyndi’s List <cyndislist.com/photos.htm>.
3. Take a DNA test.
A quick-and-easy swab of the inside of your mouth could help you find missing branches of your family tree. People decide to pursue genetic genealogy for different reasons, says Bennett Greenspan, president of DNA testing company Family Tree DNA <www.familytreedna.com>. “Some have a person with the same surname and want to confirm or deny the person is related, while others test to see if they match anyone.”
Two years ago, hoping to break through some brick walls and overcome my common last name, I commenced a search for Y-DNA matches to my dad’s cheek cells (read about it in the October 2006 Family Tree Magazine). I didn’t find any matches in genetic genealogy databases at the time, but another Taylor recently contacted me. He matched my father’s markers 100 percent, so he’s probably related to us. We haven’t found our common ancestor yet, but the DNA test gives us excellent reason to keep looking.
Kenneth V. Naysmith spent years trying to locate his family members in Europe. Obituaries for his great-grandparents gave their birth dates and hometown in Scotland, but Naysmith couldn’t document a connection to modern residents there. Through a surname message board, he met Donald Neasmith of Australia. Were they related? A 26-marker DNA test later, the men hit genealogical pay dirt: They matched on all markers. Eventually, a Nancy Nesmith hooked them up with similarly named folks, including a couple in Scotland. All their DNA profiles matched. Turns out the Scottish couple had Kenneth’s great-grandfather’s birth record, but didn’t know he’d gone to America.
“Without [this experience],” Naysmith says, “I wouldn’t have met Naysmiths with seven variant spellings, or ‘met’ family in Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Australia and the United States.”
Shamele Jordon, a genealogy blogger <toomerfamily.blogspot.com> and researcher for the PBS series “African-American Lives 2” <pbs.org/aalives2>, doesn’t have any mystery relatives, having grown up in Berlin, NJ, surrounded by extended family. In 1984, her cousin began researching the clan’s roots, and he recently encouraged the family to participate in a DNA surname study. Their test results supported an origin with the Songhay and Fulani tribes in Niger and the Akan in Ghana something they couldn’t have determined through traditional research. Now the family is trying to plan a trip to Niger and Ghana.
If you want to see where DNA can take your tree, start by exploring testing company Web sites (listed in our DNA research kit at <www.familytreemagazine.com/dna>) to learn about your options. Depending on what you’re trying to find out, you’ll need to choose from Y-DNA, mitochondrial DNA and ethnic origins tests. In general, choose a test measuring as many markers as you can afford. Also consider joining a surname study, in which people with the same last name take DNA tests to determine their relationships. Find one by searching Google <google.com> on your surname and dna study.
Don’t understand the scientific jargon? Read Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree (Rodale) by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak and Ann Turner, or see Smolenyak’s article in the February 2005 Family Tree Magazine.
4. Attend online auctions.
It may seem a stretch, but everyone knows of someone who’s come across a family album or a postcard from Great-grandpa up for bid on eBay <ebay.com> or another auction Web site. I asked George G. Morgan and Drew Smith, otherwise known as the Genealogy Guys <www.genealogyguys.com> podcasters, if they’ve ever made family finds on an auction Web site. Nope!
But they, too, have heard stories and even gotten e-mails from listeners over the past two years. “[One person] wrote about having located a grandfather’s homemade woodworking plane, a clock made by an ancestor, and a set of pharmaceutical bottles of patent medicine that had been compounded and later sold by a great-great-grandfather,” says Morgan.
One of my own clan’s unsolved mysteries involves a missing family Bible, supposedly in my great-grandfather’s possession before it disappeared. I’ve been searching for it since I started researching genealogy years ago. Having scoured the memories of all possible family members to no avail, I’ve turned my attention to online auction sites. On eBay, a keyword search for taylor family turns up more items on Elizabeth Taylor than anything else. That’s the challenge of having a popular surname.
I’ve picked up some tips to help narrow my results, and though they haven’t yet led to our Bible, they may aid you in finding family heirlooms. First, add the word genealogy (and the common misspelling geneology) to your search. If you’re seeking something specific, such as photos or a Bible, add that term. Look for an advanced search so you can eliminate words common in wrong matches in my case, elizabeth.
Even better, eBay lets you search or browse all listings in its Genealogy category: From the home page, hover over the Categories button and select Everything Else. Scroll down on the resulting page and click Genealogy to see family papers, diaries, photographs, old maps and county histories, plus CDs and published indexes.
Of course, eBay isn’t the only game in town. To find other auction Web sites, such as uBid <ubid.com> and Online Auction <www.onlineauction.com>, run a Google search for online auctions. Adding the item you’re looking for to your search terms may turn up treasure troves on collectors’ sites. Be aware, though, that someone selling your family’s records online probably isn’t a relative.
5. Go to a reunion.
More than 50 years ago, my husband’s Miller clan began gathering every other year at the family farm in East Guilford, NY. When it was sold, the venue became the Basin Harbor Club on Vermont’s Lake Champlain. The descendants of the farm’s original owners now circle the globe; at the last event, around 60 of them came from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. Dinner conversations revolve around how everyone’s related and who has which family treasure. First-timers are always surprised and delighted with the unbroken line of Millers, from the almost-centenarian Aunt Bette to the youngest tot.
Aneth, Utah, professional researcher Jeff Davis <www.americanancestors.info> witnessed a similar phenomenon at his family reunion. “In the 1840s, my ancestor William Dudley left Ireland and went to England with his family. An aunt left for Australia. Then half of William’s children went to Australia, and the other half, to New York. One of the New York families sailed to San Francisco.”
In the late 1990s, one of Davis’ Australian cousins found a list of e-mail addresses. “They didn’t all work, but she wrote a letter to all the George Dudleys in the United States,” he says. “One of them got to the right person.” That George gave the letter to his genealogist brother. Descendents from New York, San Francisco and Australia met up two years ago on the family homestead in California.
“Reunions are organized opportunities for families to interact and share the one thing they all have in common: their history,” says Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions magazine <www.reunionsmag.com>. Want that experience for your relatives? You might not have to do all the work of planning it maybe a distant relative has begun a reunion or a family association. Ask around at family gatherings and consult Directory of Family Associations by Elizabeth Petty Bentley and Deborah Ann Carl (Genealogical Publishing Company). Or type your surname plus “family reunion” or “family association” into a search engine.
Starting from scratch? Consult resources such as Wagner’s magazine, A Family Affair: How to Plan and Direct the Best Family Reunion Ever by Sandra MacLean Clunies (Rutledge Hill Press), and our online reunion toolkit <www.familytreemagazine.com/reunions>.
No single reunion or blog or message board posting will fill all the blanks in your tree. But using every bit of technology at your disposal to make family connections will go a long way to creating your own luck and writing your own genealogical success story.
Help Others Help You
Increase your chances of making a successful message-board connection by following these posting-etiquette guidelines:
• Post to the right forum. Before using a “general questions” board, see if there’s one related to your ancestral surname or place.
• In your post, put surnames in all capital letters so they stand out. (But don’t type your entire message in all caps.)
• Double-check your spelling and use proper capitalization and punctuation. Otherwise, you make it difficult for people to understand your post.
• Web surfers rarely read big blocks of text. Be brief and divide your post into paragraphs.
• Regularly check for responses to your post and reply promptly.
• Try to give others as much help as you get, or at least thank them abundantly. Credit other researchers whenever you use their information.
Everyone Loves a Happy Ending
Short for “Web log,” a blog is an online diary, and it seems every genealogist has one. But you don’t have to read them all instead, find posts containing your ancestral names and places using Google’s blog search <blogsearch.google.com> or the Genealogy Blog Finder <blogfinder.genealogue.com>.
You can blog, too, even if you’re only slightly computer-savvy. It’s easy and free to set up a blog through a site such as Blogger<blogger.com> or Word Press <wordpress.com>. You’ll need to come up with a name and URL (it may take several tries to find one that’s not already in use), then select a template. You can customize it by changing colors and typefaces.
It worked for Suzy Snapper <suzysnapper.blogspot.com> blogger Sue Bryant. The Vancouver, Canada, genealogist wrote about her great-grandmother, who had two children from a marriage in Scotland and gave them up when she remarried. “Imagine my surprise when the granddaughter of the first-born son contacted me,” Bryant says. “She’d Googled her great-grandmother’s name and stumbled onto my post.”