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:
get new genealogy details that didnt make it to your branch of the family tree
find oral history subjects
collaborate on a family history Web site or book
recruit participants for a DNA surname study
build a family reunion attendee list
reunite an orphaned photo or heirloom with its family
add to your family photo collection
reconnect family branches that got separated over the years
Theres even a name for what Smolenyak and her ilk are doing: reverse genealogy. We wondered if this unconventional technique really can do such great things for family trees, so we set out to talk to some practitioners. Their stories reveal five benefits of applying reverse genealogy principles to your own research problems.
1. Grow your family tree.
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.
Hes found it a great strategy for solving brick walls. I tell people that if I find living cousins, they may have that missing link I need to continue back more generations, he says. Just last week I ran across someone researching the Laufersweiler family. He was able to supply me with another daughter in this family who married Augustus Havorsen Hilton, an immigrant from Norwayyes, the same line that begat the hotel chain and Paris Hilton.
Jane Lindsey, professional genealogist and president of the California Genealogical Society
, is also familiar with record gapsin particular, the one created by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. So when her client Barbara Dwelly needed help researching an application for the General Society of Mayflower Descendants
, Lindsey went forward instead of backward.
The more Lindsey researched Dwellys grandmother, the less sense the data made. Newspapers filled in blanks and provided details about marriages and stepchildren, but missing records and different surnames in the same generation caused all sorts of problems. Then a birth notice for the grandmother identified her fathers name as Anton Lanné. Searching the Internet, Dwelly found a German mans posting about his fathers Lanné line. Anton Lanné was also named on an Australian site, where a woman whod been researching the family for 30 years noted, We think he went to San Francisco. Dwellys Mayflower connection was made through the work of researchers on three continents.
Lindseys fellow society members Lavinia Schwarz, Judy Bodycote-Thomas and Richard Rees used reverse genealogy to find the descendants of Luis Maria Peralta, a Spanish comisionado
and early Bay-area resident, and his 17 children. They wanted to build the story of Peralta Hacienda Historical Park
in Oakland, Calif., which preserves part of Peraltas 45,000-acre Rancho San Antonio land grant. The team looked up family members in federal censuses through 1930, the most recent census open for research. For descendants since then, they used voter registrations, city directories, people-locator Web sites, genealogy databases on Ancestry.com
, and Web search engines. The result? Compiled information on 700 relatives who trace their line to Peralta
2. Reunite lost family branches.
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.
Descendants of several grandchildren were still alive and willing to swap stories. Next, Maehrlein widened her search to all the descendants of the great-great-grandfathers generation. A pattern jumped out: No one in the family moved far from home. Probate records, census records and phone books showed most of Maehrleins living US relatives not only reside in the same area as their ancestors, but often in the same houses.
Maehrlein created a cousin network and eventually found her living relatives in Germany. They also stay close to home: A grandmothers cousin still lived in the house where she was born. Apparently, Maerhlein surmises, whoever handled her great-great-grandfathers estate was too accustomed to the pattern. [He or she] either carelessly or deliberately left off the grandchildren who werent in the immediate area, she says.
On a visit, a German cousin showed Maehrlein a 1930s New Jersey newspaper clipping shed savedone of the American relatives mailed it to the family back home. But in the ensuing decades, the branches lost touch. Maehrleins reverse genealogy re-established the connection.
Massachusetts resident Marian Pierre-Louis, of Fieldstone Historic Research
, has found so many relatives that her birthday present for her dad, a family history Web site
, has become a group project. For a while, I was having two new distant cousins a month contact me, Pierre-Louis says.
Pictures the newfound cousins sent show resemblances dating back several generations. I found a picture of my cousin Dimmick Edwards from a line that split off back around 1800, Pierre-Louis says. He looks almost exactly like my brother does today. Those are some strong genes.
Find genetic cousins.
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.
Sutphen had six daughters, five of whom also had daughters. It added up to a challenge. Its a time-consuming project because of the married womens name changes. The trick is identifying the husbands and then finding the kids, Prescott says.
She calls this project a work in progress and a concept with a lot of potential, but one that requires a lot of work. Most of her success comes from looking at census records, tracking down probate documents (to verify kids and spouses) and consulting vital records.
4. Discover health history.
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.
Professional genealogist Kathleen W. Hinckley specializes in finding missing heirs and verifying legal kinship. For one client, she traced three generations forward, locating 237 living relatives in the United States and Ireland. A trend startled her: A legacy of deaths by suicide persisted in both branches, though neither knew of the others existence.
I did an analysis that showed the suicides were all males between the ages of 25 and 53, Hinckley says. She found the familys suicide rate was three times higher than averageinformation that might help the descendants take precautions to safeguard their health.
5. Solve mysteries.
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.)
Smolenyaks reverse genealogy endorsement comes through 10 years working for the Army to track down families of missing WWI and WWII, Korean War and Vietnam War soldiers. Specifically, shed have to find the primary next-of-kin and three people with the same mtDNA as the soldier to return his or her remains to loved ones. Finding next-of-kin often meant locating a sibling or child, but tracing mtDNA lines would often necessitate going back in time, then forward. One case had Smolenyak researching a family in the 1700s to find a single mtDNA line that persisted into the present.
If reverse genealogy can work such wonders for all the genealogists mentioned herein, it can do the same for you. Maybe its time for you to buck the trends and throw it into reverse.
Throwing It Into Reverse
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.
Internet Search Engines
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.