Since the beginning of time, generations of genealogists have learned a basic rule of research: Start with yourself and work backward. Yet some brazen genealogists dare to flout this time-honored tenet. Theyll identify an ancestor and trace that persons descendantsgoing so far as to look for living relatives. Imagine!
But wait. These same people report stellar genealogical successes with such unorthodox methods. Professional genealogist Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak is one of themshe endorses researching forward in time as a way to:
Miles Meyer of Jacksonville, Fla., has added more than 30,000 people to his family file by tracing descendantsnot ancestorsof those on his pedigree chart. I look for all the documentation I can find for every person I find in my line, he says. Then I add all of their children.
Lauren Maehrlein, director of education at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, started her search for relatives because of her immigrant great-great-grandfathers probate papers. The papers mentioned only his grandchildren who lived in the immediate neighborhoodit left out Maehrleins grandfather and other relatives residing a couple of miles away. My grandfather and his siblings got skunked, she thought.
Professional genealogist Laura Prescott took a mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test, and thought that if she could get all the female descendants of her fourth-great-grandmother Susan Sutphen to take a DNA test, shed confirm family relationships. Youre probably thinking, wouldnt a paper trail confirm relationships? True, but with mtDNA testing, adoptions would be easier to spottheyd become immediately apparent when the DNA didnt match.
If youve ever done mtDNA testing, Prescott says, you know you come up with a lot of hits that arent likely valid because the database is so small. So I decided to go to the farthest-back maternal ancestor I could.
It can be hard to find reliable causes of ancestors deaths, what with spotty availability of death certificates, archaic medical terms and lack of diagnostic procedures. But examining your cousins death records also can reveal unexpected medical conditions that run in the family.
Youve probably gathered that it doesnt have to be one way or the othermost of the researchers we spoke with use a combination of traditional and reverse research to accomplish their goals. Thats how the genealogy volunteers who formed Unclaimed Persons help coroners find the kin of unclaimed deceased individuals. The group began when Smolenyak stumbled across a newspaper article on a person who died in Lackawanna County, Pa., with a family Bible as one of the few clues to possible relatives. After getting the coroners OK, she began tracing names written in the Bible back in time. Then switching gears, she went forward to find a descendant of the Bibles original owners. (You can watch the case unfold on Unclaimed Persons.)
Many of the same resources you use to research back in time also can help you research forward. The folks we spoke with favor these sources:
Searchable indexes to federal censuses from 1790 through 1930 are handy for tracing families movements and, in 1850 and later, learning childrens names. Youll find databases on Ancestry.com and HeritageQuest Online, which is free through many public libraries. The FamilySearch Record Search Pilot Site has free indexes to several censuses.
Using a Web search engine is a relatively easy way to find people. Start by searching for an ancestors name (inside quotation marks; be sure to try it first-name-first and last-name-first) or a surname followed by family or genealogy, such as Bellows family. You may turn up Web sites, genealogy charts and images. Consult Google Your Family Tree by Daniel M. Lynch (FamilyLink, $34.95) for more help finding family records online.
Search for papers by location at the Library of Congress Chronicling America Web site; some are digitized there, too. Youll find searchable, digitized newspapers on subscription Web sites such as World Vital Records, GenealogyBank and Ancestry.com (the latter two have editions you can access free through many libraries).
Search for living individuals by name and location in online phone books such as Switchboard.com and WhitePages.com. Many of these sources are out of date, so you may have to try a few names to get success. Also, these sources give numbers for landlines, not cell phones. Dont forget to search for people in social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn, too.
These sites index contemporary public records that contain names, ages and addresses. Usually, you can search and get limited information free, then pay for more details. Beware of errors such as incorrect maiden names and middle initials. Note, too, that its not unusual for two people in a community to have the same name. PrivateEye.com and Zabasearch are two to try.
Court documents related to a deceased persons estate can help build a network of relatives. Use a reference such as Red Book, 3rd edition, edited by Alice E. Eichholz (Ancestry, $49.95) to find where your ancestors county keeps probate records. Many are on Family History Library microfilm; run a Place search of the online catalog for the county and look for a probate heading. You can rent film through a Family History Center near you (see a directory here). For more help with probate research, see the September 2008 Family Tree Magazine.