I think we’re related to Robert E. Lee,” my paternal grandmother told me more than once during my childhood. In doing so, she kindled my interest in genealogy. She spoke at length about relatives who lived in Indiana [she and my grandfather moved to St. Louis from the Hoosier State just after World War II] and traveled to many family reunions there.
As a young adult, I used Ancestry.com to build a rudimentary family tree of immediate relatives and asked my mother and paternal grandmother about earlier ancestors while taking notes. But when it came to transferring that online information in order to search for more details, I procrastinated.
Over the last 20 years, both of my grandmothers died, as did my maternal great-grandmother, who came to St. Louis as an orphan, and many of her 11 children, leaving me with few choices for getting more oral family history. Then, last fall, I saw Ancestry’s advertisements for DNA testing and my interest was piqued again.
I had heard much about my lineage over the decades – German, Irish, Swiss, French, Italian and even Native American. My older brother debunked the latter as a myth. Instead of continuing to wonder, I decided to take the plunge; I ordered the kit and submitted a DNA sample.
Friends say I should take the information with a grain of salt, but I have ignored that advice so far.
While I waited for the results [six to eight weeks], I rejoined Ancestry’s website and started building a new family tree. The site offered a free, 30-day trial and while I have not found any connections to General Lee, what I have found amazes me.
For instance, my maternal grandfather, who died when I was 3, served time at Alcatraz; a female slave poisoned one of my maternal great-grandfathers; one of my paternal grandfathers married President George Washington’s sister; and I have discovered a direct link to President Zachary Taylor. I also have discovered royal connections on my dad’s side – I’ve found direct and indirect links to European nobility between the 13th and 16th centuries. A recent find is a connection to a man linked to Johann Gutenberg, inventor of the first printing press with mechanical movable type.
To start my new tree, I entered what I knew – names, birth dates and locations for myself, my siblings, parents and grandparents. Small, green leaves appeared next to many of their names. Leaves data that could match an ancestor. Clicking on a name takes you to a new page with four options – Lifestory, Facts, Galleries and Hints.
I clicked on hints and compared the information presented with data in my tree. Hints come in multiple forms – census records, religious documentation, National Archive records, photos, maps, stories and more. Once I verified the information shown to me was correct, I added it to the tree and moved on to the next person.
After I entered my parents’ and grandparents’ data, I built off other people’s work to locate great-grandparents and beyond. It sounds simple, but Ancestry users have to double-check information to ensure it applies because some hints lead to non-relatives. Also, some users have entered modern names into people’s files, such as North Dakota as a place for someone born in the 1600s. Another error happens when ancestors who lived centuries ago are listed as living, creating false dead ends. When that happened in my search, I toggled the setting to deceased and opened at least two sections of my tree that otherwise would have remained blank.
In addition to other families’ trees, Ancestry’s sources include the National Archives, the U.S. Census, military records, death and grave records, and overseas databases. However, some resources come with a fee.
The old adage, “haste makes waste” applies to family tree building. This is not a five-minute, overnight or weekend process. If you cannot bear the thought of sitting in one place for hours on end, it would be better to have someone else do it, perhaps a professional genealogist.
Streamlining also can be a problem. I find it difficult to “trim my tree” by excluding children and siblings. Checking on the work of a family of 12 or 14, followed by another family of 14 or 16, sometimes with the same first names can seem endless. At those times, I remind myself that if I kept my search to just related adults, I would have cost myself several key finds, such as George Washington’s sister. So far, I’ve traced relatives back to approximately 1099 A.D.
Not everyone is jazzed about the notion of using a web-based genealogical service instead of old-fashioned pencil, paper and books.
Last October, “The Legal Genealogist,” Judy G. Russell, picked apart Ancestry.com’s then-new mobile application, “We’re Related” on her website. According to her review, the app tries to link users to celebrities, musicians, politicians or anyone famous. She then pointed out presumed fallacies with the app and her experience with it, summing it up as entertainment that should never be confused with genealogy.
As an experiment, I quizzed some co-workers about skepticism or reservations they would have about using an online genealogy program.
One mockingly summed up many people’s skepticism on the subject. “It’s on the internet, so it must be true, right?”
He said he has relatives who maintain his family’s history, so he has “no need for online genealogy.” But added that if he did, he “would be concerned if the amount of information they [an online site] are going to produce [is] worth the amount of money I have to spend to get it.”
Another nonbeliever joked, “Have they sold you a coat of arms with your last name on it yet?” However, not everyone is skeptical.
One co-worker, who identified as “a current subscriber to Ancestry,” said: “I consider it a great hobby and worth the yearly membership fee.”
“Just last night, I talked to my husband about scanning in the few remaining pictures we have of his family members who have passed, in an effort to preserve them and move them to a more suitable online archival file,” she said. “That’s my next Ancestry.com project. I have also assisted friends with their searches. It enabled me to find a picture of my half-sisters’ father from a high school yearbook; something they didn’t have before.
“I have not utilized or signed up for the DNA membership as of yet. It’s mainly for privacy reasons as I’m not completely sure who would then have access to that DNA and how it could be used.”
DNA analysis also is offered by 23andMe. Its name comes from the 23 pairs of chromosomes found in normal human cells. It started its direct-to-consumer personal genome testing in 2008 and claims more than one million genotyped customers. It further claims to have collected 320 million phenotypic data points or individual survey responses – an average of two million responses per week.
“23andMe is the only at-home genetic test that provides reports that meet FDA standards and that provides both health and ancestry information,” Rachel Reichblum, a company media services representative, said.
Reichblum went on to explain that all customers need to do in order to have their data used is answer simple survey questions on a variety of topics through 23andMe’s secure, online portal. Customers can also opt-in to the DNA Relatives feature. DNA Relatives finds matches by comparing customers’ DNA with other 23andMe members. When two people share identical segments of DNA, this indicates that they share a recent common ancestor. The length and number of these identical segments is used to predict the relationship between relatives.
“We have been growing at a rapid pace since we launched our first product in 2007,” Reichblum said. “We’ve also seen increases in the pace of customer growth when we launched our new health and ancestry service in October of 2015, and again when we launched a standalone ancestry product in September 2016.”
Getting help along the way
The St. Louis Genealogical Society is a traditional place to start building a family tree.
The Society is located at 4 Sunnen Drive, Suite 140 in Maplewood is open from 9 a.m.-noon on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Membership in the society provides discounts to events and publications. Its mission is to promote family history research by providing educational and research opportunities, offering community services in related fields and collecting, preserving and publishing genealogical and historical records. Researchers can learn more by calling (314) 647-8547 or visiting www.stlgs.org.
“We have had a slight increase in membership of late, but I couldn’t say that it would be due to the TV ads run by Ancestry,” said Carol Hemmersmeier, a Society volunteer. “People who are paying close attention to those ads are probably the people who are expecting DNA to be the answer to their genealogy questions, especially the question of ‘where did my ancestors come from?’ or, in other words, what their ethnicity is.”
Hemmersmeier said the concept of genetic genealogy is more involved and complicated than those advertisements would lead one to believe.
“Understanding DNA, as it relates to genealogy, is something that has to be studied by the average person to be understood and used effectively for genealogy,” she said. She added that visitors to the Society’s Maplewood office run the gamut.
“We have people visit the office who are just starting their genealogy search and others who have been researching for years but have brick walls that they want to break through,” she said. “I did have one person who asked me to help them put a family tree together for a Christmas present for [a] niece. Since it was November already, I had to explain what time and effort would be involved to accomplish that.”
Hemmersmeier said TV programs like “Who Do You Think You Are?” and Ancestry ads give an illusion of genealogy being a simple task. However, people soon learn that the information they are looking for isn’t always readily available, that they do have to research and not just gather low hanging fruit. Individuals who are genuinely interested in their family history come to realize that research takes time as well as effort.
Local genealogical resources also include the National Archives, found online at www.archives.gov/research/genealogy, offers people many online tools, resources and tips to explore their genealogy. Researchers also can visit the National Archives at St. Louis, located in North County, near the intersection of Route 367 and Interstate 270. Home to military records, the St. Louis facility welcomes visitors by appointment only to its research rooms. A link to the local archives can be found off the main National Archives site.
St. Louis County Library’s headquarters, located at 1640 S. Lindbergh, across from Plaza Frontenac, has a history and genealogy section, complete with databases, publications and forms. Tours are offered three days a week for those who are interested in learning more. Classes and upcoming genealogical events also are offered and detailed online at www.slcl.org/genealogy.
An unexpected help might be learning to read cursive and ancient script. While researching documents on a relative, I had a difficult time deciphering the penmanship of the person who filled out the census form I found. What I thought was the initial H was actually the letter W. Not only did that initially prevent me from adding to that part of my tree, it reminded me that cursive is no longer taught in many schools.
For younger people widely accustomed to a digital environment, trying to read digital copies of documents written with the end of a feather dipped in ink more than 150 years ago may be a hurdle. This could mean letters from a great-great-grandparent would be illegible or reading a hand-written will from a fourth- or fifth-generation ancestor would be like trying to read hieroglyphics.
Getting to know you
Inscribed in the Greek Temple of Apollo at Delphi is the simple maxim, “Know Thyself.” That is the biggest genealogy benefit. I know more about my background, my family and myself than I did before I began this journey and it is far from over. Uncovering your family’s past is somewhat like doing a color-by-number painting. Slowly, a picture emerges as you fill in the blanks.