Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Tracing Your Family History -- Thoughts from the Field

In a very nice comment quite some time ago, blogger Elizabeth said she wouldn't begin knowing how to chase down her family history as her living relatives have been dead for many years.

I'm no genealogy expert though I seem to learn more and more about it every day. But it's something I've heard others mention when I get all excited about my family history search, so I thought I'd share a couple of quick ways to start in case you decide to pursue the family history road  at some time.

I found the land where my great grandfather's farm was and where my grandfather was born.
All I had when I began my search for ancestors was the names and dates on the family tombstones. I knew a few family stories that might add some depth to what I found or maybe point me in a direction but not much hard data.

All I started with were the dates on my family's tombstones
I also had some family photos, some of which were identified, others I was able to figure it out based on resemblances to those who were identified in other photos. I also found a few funeral handouts that had birth/death dates and cemetery information. (When you are from a family of "keepers" you have these things.) Look in old family Bibles, too. Sometimes tidbits are stashed there, especially if you happen to have Bibles belonging to your grandparents.

Ironically, the best "hard data" I had, documentation from my dad's grandfather regarding his immigration, was about as far back as I've been able to go so far because of the Scandinavian connection and how names change from generation to generation. Granted, most of my time has been spent working on mom's family because that's where I have generations in the future that may appreciate what I dig up. Still, my dad's side is tougher.

Then I did it the hard way. I started googling. (This is helpful later; in the beginning, not so much!)

But I did land on a "hit" via one of the many genealogy sites -- in this case, "My Heritage." Someone had been doing work that included my family. Because that's the first I found, that's the one I signed up for. Free. (To actually contact people, you have to pay.) From there, I found the names of my great grandparents.

A page from the City Directory told me where my mother and grandfather worked in a given year
Once I had better information, I was able to google more effectively. I also discovered, which is run by the Latter Day Saints and is a massive genealogy database. I could also access our Michigan Education Library data base, including Between these two, I could find census data, city directory data, agricultural summaries. It was through family search (and the detective work of a woman at the historical society that my friend Barb discovered) that I found my great grandfather's commitment papers to the insane asylum and my second great grandfather's immigration data, along with christening records and much more.

This is the asylum where my great grandfather spent the last 13 years of his life. We never knew.
The Mormon Church in my town has a genealogy library open to anyone. Many universities or community ed programs feature classes or groups related to genealogy and they are all too willing to help you learn your story.

There are also online tutorials that can help you get started. And once you get started -- well, it's hard to stop!

Sites like Ancestry and My Heritage also offer "hints" and some of these are right and some wrong. But you can check to see if you can go deeper by really assessing these hints. You have to be careful of pitfalls here -- many people would name a child after a deceased sibling (which might also have the name of a father or an uncle). One of my relatives had three children named John. Sometimes it's hard to pick the right one!

Agricultural Census
And often, when a wife would die in childbirth or as a young mother, the husband would marry her sister. So, was your fifth great grandmother really your aunt? Or a stepmother with no biological link?

Immigration record of my second great grandfather
The mystery is part of the fun. Much data carries interesting facts, such as religion, occupation or property value. You may be able to find a ship manifest or town history. Many families have written histories as well (some very old) and if you get far enough back in your line to recognize an Erb or a Wismer or an Oberholtzer, you might find interesting stories and more data in books that are available online.

Many families have history books written on their lineage and many of these are available online. They often reveal interesting stories
For me, part of the fun isn't just knowing the dates and places. That's actually pretty dull stuff. But when I learned my great grandfather had a farm in Michigan in the 1800s, I started looking into farming in Michigan during that period and learned so much about what he and his family had to do to maintain a farm long before there was motorized equipment to help with plowing and sowing. Another great grandfather worked in the Buffalo, NY, confectionery business and it was fascinating to discover how candy making came of age in the second half of the 19th century.

My great grandparents on my grandmother's side -- I never even knew her name -- but I still have my great grandfather's recipe book from his time as a confectioner.
Suddenly, these people aren't just old photos or names on a chart, names whose DNA has passed across oceans through generations and now lives in you. They are real people who had real jobs and life challenges. Their courage, their sense of adventure, their quest for freedom and their tragedies are the things that are part of us and part of what shapes us into who we are today, who our children will be tomorrow.
At my great grandmother's grave -- I didn't even know her name before I began my search.
I've realized it doesn't matter if we discover that we are related to Marie Antoinette (I'm not) or just some guy who lived a humble but good life, it is all part of our story. My favorite Christmas gift was a DNA kit from Rick. I can't wait to get the results!

Sharing this week with:  Share Your Cup   /  Let's Keep in Touch  


  1. Fascinating, Jeanie. I'm going to check out those sites.
    Have a pleasant, productive day.

  2. Good information. I did most of my research on and that connected me to a 2nd cousin I hadn't seen in years and she had loads of info for me.

  3. I got a DNA kit too! I'm sure one could get obsessed with that kind of research. I would want to know everything! And to think how far and wide it can lead. Boggles the mind. Happy hunting!

  4. What fun!

    In The New Codependency, Melody Beattie talks about getting to know your family history, thanking and forgiving them as a way to heal. I like the idea of knowing names and proof of their existence, what they did, who they loved. Intriguing.

    Thank you for sharing.

  5. Your family history journey has been fun and I enjoyed reading about it. I have lots of family info but it is rather jumbled.

  6. What an interesting journey you are on Jeanie. Always so fun to see where and who we came from! Looking forward to the updates and more information too!

  7. Glad you are enjoying finding out about your genealogy. We have traced ours back good 160 years now and have learnt a lot. Hugs, Valerie

  8. I gave myself a DNA kit in 2017. There were few surprises, but I enjoyed getting the information.

  9. What a labor of love Jeanie! I have a cousin that did our family tree 10 years ago, she traced it back to the Mayflower and beyond! Fascinating! Have fun, that DNA test will be interesting!

  10. Hi Jeanie, this is great information and tips for researching our family histories. I stated mine on I got stuck and stopped. I believe one of my cousins continued, I can check with her to see how far she was able to get done. It is interesting and fun, it can be addicting too. Enjoy your day!

  11. My Mom had done a lot of searching for her side of the family and has a lot of information. It's interesting. I would like to know more about my biological Father's side so this is some good info. Thanks!

  12. Jeanie, this is great info! My son and brother love to research our family and have done quite well! My brother has done the DNA test and the results were very interesting! From what they tell me, once you get started you are hooked! I am going to share this post with them.

  13. This was an enjoyable post Jeanie. You gave me a lot of info to go by. I really started my geneology search with a DNA test, which was interesting enough and then just using Ancestry I was able to trace 1 of my 4 grandparents family back into the 1400's. Otherwise, it's been a dead end, but to think about all the people in the BIG family tree is really fascinating. Now I have some other places to look. I think you'll find your DNA results interesting, and maybe even surprising. I hope you decide to share at least a little bit with us. (Oh I got a kit for my mom and my daughter for Christmas. So now I can't wait to see what their come back as because that will help me discover more about me, them and even my huy a little bit.) Hugs-Erika

  14. I love that you're learning about jobs that family members had. That sounds so much more interesting than just a bunch of birth, death, and marriage dates.

    If you don't mind me asking, which DNA testing service are you going with? Nick's dad has been working on compiling a family history, and we think a DNA test might be a really good gift for his birthday (in March). It seems like something he would be really interested in doing, but would be very unlikely to spend the money on. Nick went online and from very preliminary research liked 23 and Me the best. Science is not my forte at all, so I don't feel very qualified to choose the best one. I was wondering if your research has lead you to the conclusion that one is significantly better? Or if there's one that's best to avoid?

    I'm looking forward to your post about the results.

  15. It sounds like you're a P.I. in your own account. I can imagine that it's hard to stop once you started finding out about your ancestor. What a thoughtful gift you got from Rick. Hopefully you'll get exciting results.
    xo Julia

  16. This was an interesting read, Jeanie. I know nothing about anyone, except my grandparents. Even that won't help much because my grandfather was no blood relative, since my grandmother's first husband died when my mother was 2. Seems we didn't keep any kind of records in my home, but I am thrilled that you have gotten as far as you have in your quest to find your ancestry. For me it sounds as time consuming as I have heard Pinterest can be (grin). I'm simply thrilled this has all worked for you, dear.

  17. I am so surprised that I have no interest at all:(

    Not in what you wrote finding out more about my ancestors.
    I know a bit about my gradparents..very little..
    But it seems that when my parents passed away..apart from one aunt on each respective side..all my aunts and uncles left my life.As you know I was 19.

    Made me feel very detached re family etc..

    it seems like just mine counts for me..ever since..and I have no desire to know more..I only recently found out my paternal grandfather was married children from the first wife and she died infinitely young.

  18. Great tips. I'm sure plenty of people who want to look in to their own family history will find them interesting and helpful.

  19. Great tips for beginners and following through. A very time consuming project but satisfying. Thanks Jeanie........

  20. This is a fascinating pastime Jeanie. About 15 years ago my husband's uncle started doing their family tree and shared the info with us. From then on I decided to do my family tree, both on my Mother's and Father's side. One day on a genealogy chatroom I came across someone searching for info on a name that happened to be my great-grandfather's name, who had 6 kids. This girl was a also his great-granddaughter and we eventually organized a family reunion with more than 50 people, most of them didn't know each other.
    It was fun and the search has carried on.
    I haven't done all the research but there is a site ( and it was open with all details during Christmas until the 6th of January, so I managed to update some branches of my family tree, going up about 20 generations. They have stories and historical details which are fascinating!
    Keep up the good work, it's time consuming but certainly exciting!

  21. I just love this stuff. I have extensive info already researched on both sides of my family. My Dad's people are Mormon, so much was recorded at their main site in SLC, UT. We have visited graves in our various trips. So interesting! It's great that you're sharing this info for those who want to start or dig deeper.

  22. Waiting for my results from We exchanged DNA kits for Christmas. The little I have looked on ancestry with the family tree I have learned more from one of my cousins and another cousin sent me the information he had. Now I need to find a few days to really delve into things more.

  23. mom has really gotten into it. She started over 20 yrs ago and has her dad's family back to the 1700's. I have just started looking into my dad's family. With luck was able to hook up with a bunch of distant relatives on FB. It is so interesting.

  24. Sad to hear about your great grandfather. I hope they treated him well.


  25. Hi, Jeanie. You've peeked my interest in my own family's genealogy! My mother did a great deal of work on it while she was alive, but I only know snips of what she found. I do know that my great grandmother's mother on my mom's side was Native American from the Mohawk tribe in upper New York state. I've always wanted to go to that area to see if I could learn anything about her, but since she was adopted by a white family it might be a fruitless search. I do treasure that part of my family history.

    I will be interested to hear what you learn through the DNA testing. What a great way to start the New Year!

  26. I loved this post! I started doing genealogy about ten years ago and your'e so right...once you get started, it is pretty impossible to stop! It's so fascinating. I was able to get our family tree way back on one side, not much luck on the other side, it looked as if many certificates, marriage, death, burial, birth, all that, were burned in a big fire back in the late 1800s or so, it's almost like that whole branch of the family tree never existed but I accidentally stumbled on why the records were nowhere when I saw the little church had burned and way back then, that is where they kept all the records. So that explained that mystery.

  27. A cousin started to trace our shared grandparents ancestry. I never knew my father's parents and vaguely only remember my mother's mother. I have some of my mum's old family photos and it is fascinating looking through them, and from a lot of stories my mum told me I have a good insight into their lives.

  28. A cousin of mine has done extensive research on our mothers' side. His mom and my mom were sisters, so it was exciting to see what he had uncovered. His sister also went to Mexico to get a hold of some records from the town office, but it was a very daunting task to thumb through such old documents, written by hand. However, we did learn that our grandfather's mother was a member of the French aristocracy in Mexico! LOL! We also saw a photo of our grandpa in the arms of his uncle, who was dressed in a very impressive suit decorated with epellettes and other royal garb!

    I wish you continued FUN my friend, as you search for the roots of your family tree!

  29. WOW, what a great post and info, Jeanie! VERY exciting this journey you are on... And how sweet the DNA kit as Christmas gift. My Mom's brother did a HUGE genealogy of the family...and it's so much, I can't remember it all. But able to trace back to 1600's, I think. My sister has dabbled a little in tracing some of our Dad's side's family history. While it is very interesting, I've had those moments of where it feels like just a lot of names on paper and amazement that I'm related to them. I think as I've had very little contact with my extended family most of my life (my immediate family was my life for most of life), it never spurred a lot of interest for me to dig into the history myself. And as TJ & I have no children either, it's not something I think of much. However it is fun learning something new. And genealogy is a bit like unraveling a mystery... So looking forward to what more you unravel! :) Happy Hunting! ((HUGS))

  30. Family history is such a fascinating hobby Jeanie. I have been able to trace several lines quite far back. What is interesting to note is that all LDS (Mormon) family history centres are free to anyone who wants to use them and have access to tons of information and dedicated people who man them who are very willing to help. You can also access the Find My Past, etc. sites for free from the LDS History Centres I believe. There is also a site, (FInd a Grave) which has photographs of headstones, etc. that are helping in finding out details of your dead ancestors! Great post! xoxo

  31. Thanks Jeanie . . . a wealth of information here.
    I might have to “up” some of my searches . . .
    Other family members have done some tracing so I do have some info.

    Mister Irish recently purchased a DNA kit and began a search . . .
    He is anxiously waiting this first step . . .

    I find visits to a cemetery informative . . .
    Try some wax rubbings of the grave markings . . .
    Another keepsake . . .

    Happy continued genealogy travels . . .

  32. The younger generation on your mom's side is lucky to have you! I think many/most of us are interested about our ancestry but don't take the time to do the research! So you are giving quite a gift to your family by doing all this research. But it's great that you are enjoying it! I could see myself getting into this more when I am older and perhaps retired! I know my aunt and uncle in CA have done some research on my dad's side of the family so that will be a good starting point for me.

    That was an interesting comment about the dad marrying the sister of his wife if she died in labor. Makes me think of the custom in India - if the husband dies, it's often customary for his brother to make the widow.

  33. Jeanie, I enjoyed your enthusiasm. Your post was so interesting about finding some of your ancestors. I can see how intriguing and rewarding your search was. To have your great grandfather's recipe book from his time as a confectioner is awesome.
    I also can see how genealogy is addictive.

  34. What I've found in the little research I've done is that the initial dates and names always are interesting, but the stories are the thing. Once I tell the few more stories about my family that I know, that will be the end of it. With no generations following me, our line will just fade out, like the Cheshire Cat! If someone in future years wants to know more about the family, at least my blog will be there with photos, names, and stories. The one thing I need to do is go back and add last names. Since everyone has passed away, I don't need to worry about offending a relative!

  35. so much good info in your post! I've saved it to read again when I'm researching. Thanks for doing such a great job of providing resources and information here.

  36. So cool, Jeanie! I love the idea
    of having my DNA tested and traced.
    I watch with fascination some of these finding-your-roots
    type shows and would so love to have blanks filled in for me like that.
    Thanks for sharing your travels in that direction.
    Hoping your story fills out quickly.

  37. Jeanie, Genealogy is really a big thing in our church because we believe that families can be together forever. We can trace our history a long ways. I admit that my older sister does most of the work and keeps our records updated. I love learning about it, but never find the time to do a lot of research. Thanks for sharing this info with SYC.

  38. What a fun post. I need to get together with Rick about the research he has done. I have a friend who tested her DNA along with her sister. They were amazed at how different their information was. She explained that it has to do with the genes we inherit from each of our parents ie why one looks like Mom and one looks like Dad!
    I have been thinking of getting mine checked as we know very little about my Mom's dad.
    Thanks for sharing all your info.

  39. Fascinating, Jeanie. Thanks for all the hints.


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