I’ll admit it. I’m not ashamed of it. I’m a johnny-come-lately to the genealogy game. My computer can tell you how I’m related to more than 1,200 different people. And I just started last week.
I’ve accumulated more names than my mom did in years of research, working the old-fashioned way in the 1970s, searching libraries, museums, LDS records, and graveyards.
So how’d I do it?
Talking about Mom’s side of the family is cheating, because she can easily trace her ancestry to pre-Civil War days. Dad’s side of the family was the challenge, because his parents never talked about their roots (my grandmother actually told my mom to quit nosing around in the past and spend time with her two young kids instead–advice that I, as one of those two kids, disagree with, but it’s too late now).
Here’s what I did. I knew that my great great grandfather was named Isaac Proctor Farquhar (I didn’t know if the middle name was spelled “Proctor” or “Procter”), that he was a doctor, and that he lived in Ohio. I literally punched “Dr. Isaac Proctor Farquhar Ohio” into Google to see what came up. What came up was a family tree tracing my ancestry back to 1729. I verified it because I knew the names of my great grandfather and grandfather.
A better approach is to visit a pure genealogy search site, such as ancestry.com or the Mormons’ familysearch.org and punch in the names of any deceased relatives you can think of. The further back they are in the past, the better. The names of living relatives aren’t very useful, since people almost always strip out the names of any living people from their online records due to privacy concerns.
Once you’re reasonably certain you’ve found a relative, enter whatever you can find into your computer. Family Tree Maker is a good piece of software for tracking your roots, and it’s not terribly expensive. Several sites offer free genealogy software. I haven’t looked at any of it. There’s little risk in trying it though–virtually every genealogy program can import and export data in GEDCOM file format. A number of free Linux genealogy programs are available too–just search Freshmeat.
I need to stress entering anything you can find. Often I find incomplete genealogies online. I’ll find a record for a great great great grandfather that lists two children and a birthplace. If I’ve previously entered all available data and I know my great great great grandfather had 10 kids, including the two on that genealogy I just found, and the birthdates and birthplaces and spouses’ names all match, then I can be reasonably certain that I’ve got the right ancestor and I can see where that trail leads me. It’s more fun to track direct ancestors and see how far back into the past you can go, but you need aunts’ and uncles’ and cousins’ names to prove relations sometimes. Besides, sometimes you find a distant cousin who married someone interesting.
If you don’t find anything, talk to your living family members. Ask if they can remember any relatives’ names, birthplaces, and anything else about them. I only know about Isaac Proctor Farquhar because of some conversations I had with my dad. My sister may or may not have known about him. But I know there are relatives she knows about that I don’t. Old family photo albums and Christmas card lists are other sources of clues.
Here’s how I cracked a tough problem. My great grandfather, Ralph Collins Farquhar, married a woman named Nellie McAdow. Nellie McAdow was a dead end. Her mother’s name was Mary Lillian Miller. I didn’t even have her father’s first name. All I found was a guy named McAdow, born in Ohio. A subsequent search revealed her father’s initials were A.G. and he was born in Pharisburg. So then I had A. G. McAdow, Pharisburg, May 25, 1859-January 15, 1904. I did a Google search and found the text of an old book that casually mentioned A. G. McAdow owned a store in Pharisburg in 1883. Great, so the guy’s in the history books, and I still can’t find his first name. Somehow, somehow, Mom knew his first name was Adalaska. Adalaska!? No wonder he went by “A. G.” I searched for Adalaska McAdow. Nothing at ancestry.com. But at Familysearch.com, I found 1880 census data. I found Adalaska living with someone he listed as his stepfather, Smith May, occupation farmer. His mother’s name was Virginia, and she was born in 1838 in Ohio, and they had a daughter, Lena, who was born in 1871. That was enough information to feed a couple more searches, which gave me Virginia’s maiden name, Evans, and the name of her first husband, James W. McAdow.
He was tougher than most, and I still don’t know nearly as much about this line as some others–including Nellie’s mother, Mary Lillian Miller’s line–but I broke the dead end.
I still have no clue why two people with normal names like James and Virginia would name their son Adalaska.
The grandmother who told my mom not to pry into the past remains a tough one. Social security records confirmed her dates of birth and death, and place of death, because my memory was hazy. Mom knows her parents were German immigrant Rudolph Keitsch and Irish immigrant Bessie Bonner. A Google search revealed Elizabeth Keitsch graduated from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1932. So far I’ve found absolutely no trace of her parents. I’m hoping that census records may help–a Google search for “ancestry records search” turns up several sites that will let you search various U.S. censuses for free, but they all use ancestry.com for something or another, which is down for maintenance as I write.
But I’m reasonably confident that once I can search census records, even my stubborn half-German grandmother will finally yield some information after all these years.
You can subscribe to ancestry.com to get to information that you can’t find online for free, and I’m sure that at some point I’ll end up doing that. For now I don’t have much reason to. You might as well see what you can find out for free as well. And I honestly hope you don’t have four grandparents like Elizabeth Keitsch. I hope yours are more like Ralph Collins Farquhar Jr., who took about 30 seconds to trace back to 1729, and whose grandmother, Elizabeth Stratton, led me back to the sixth century and gave me a splitting headache that forced me to temporarily abandon the search to return to this continent and four-digit years.
May all your lines do the same.