Genealogy is one of my main passions in life. I’ve written about this very topic for Persephone before. When I hear people talk about how they’d like to trace back their ancestors, I get incredibly excited. I watch shows like Who Do You Think You Are? religiously every Friday night (seriously, I will cancel plans so I can stay home and watch it), and I own countless books about tracing ancestors and several genealogy programs on my computer so I can better track my information. I’ve made countless friends through my genealogical searches, most of them distant cousins. I have found out so much fascinating information about my family, and I’m not even remotely done. I still have branches of my family on both my mother’s and father’s sides that are completely unexplored. I’d also like to do research on my husband’s families, simply for the benefit of my son.
Tracing your genealogy isn’t all fun and games. It can be a lot of hard work. When you reach a dead end, it can be incredibly frustrating and upsetting. Recently on the Blair Underwood episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, the actor discovered that many African Americans hit what they call “the wall” in doing research on their families, usually around the year 1864 or so. Before slaves were free men, it was a rare thing for their genealogy to be traced. Now, through the use of DNA testing, many African Americans can find out what countries their ancestors originated from (as Blair was able to do), but for many American citizens, when they hit “the wall” their luck has run out.
There is also the possibility that in doing research on your family and ancestors, you may find out that some of your relatives were unsavory characters, had shady pasts, or were just unlikable rogues in general. I have definitely given the side-eye more than once to a few of my ancestors. Among the band of ruffians in my family include several Italian mafia members (some of them quite notable); a bigamist who faked his own death to go and live with another woman, having fathered ten children with the woman he left; an incredibly wealthy tobacco farmer who owned upwards of 40 slaves; an old drunk who refused to work, beat his wife and threatened his kids by lining them up and putting a shotgun in their face if they didn’t do their chores. Those are just a few examples of the lackluster lineage I am left with. If you start digging in the history of your ancestors, you’re bound to find a few guys and gals who, quite simply, were jerks. Time moves on, but history is full of assholes, and it’s a foregone conclusion that you might be related to a few.
Of course, you’ll also hit the jackpot now and again. In addition to the bad apples, I can also count among my ancestors a man who fought valiantly among the redcoats and makes appearances in many books about the American Revolution; a man who inherited a plantation of slaves from his father and whose first order of business as head of household was to free them all; two orphans on the streets of Naples who fell in love, crossed an ocean together to the United States and made a life for themselves in Colorado; a man who reportedly ran off to join William Wallace’s rebellion (yep, the guy from Braveheart); a man who used his life savings to open a school for poor children (which still stands in the town I live in to this day); and a man who discovered a gold mine in the hills of Georgia and went on to share the wealth with his neighbors. I have familial ties to many “famous” families and clans (though I am NOT related to Sir Francis Drake – I get asked that a lot). They include the MacGregor clan (as in Rob Roy MacGregor), the Merovingian family, and one section of our family is even rumored to be related to the infamous Plantagenet family of kings.
Of course, the further back you go, the murkier it gets, so you should always take your research with a grain of salt unless you have concrete proof like DNA samples, census or other records like baptisms, marriage certificates or obituaries. Sometimes, when doing genealogy on the internet, you’ll find that people get a bit overzealous with their research and can make assumptions or exaggerations when it comes to their family trees. Always do your own research, even if the supposed facts are all laid out in front of you. If someone else has done all the work, there is always the possibility that they’ve made an error or filled in a few gaps.
Generally, I’m not a fan of genealogy sites that you have to pay for. My personal opinion is that things like census records, and other matters of public record should be free. I don’t like that certain companies charge incredibly high amounts of money for their patrons to access files that are already public record. Of course, I realize that these sites are helpful because all the records are in one place, and you have a wealth of tools and resources at your fingertips. Were I not such a struggling artiste (ha), I might be willing to pay a monthly rate to use one of these sites. But the way I’ve always done it thus far is to do my own research without the help of a website that I have to pay for. I make use of sites that are free, like RootsWeb, or MyHeritage. I also visit the websites of libraries in areas I’m researching (they often offer a link to their genealogical/historical societies, many of which have groups of people who are doing research on their own family trees, and these people share their information willingly). Surprisingly enough, Google is my best friend. If you’re hitting a dead end about a family member, Google them immediately. Don’t trust the first results. You must plug as many tiny differences as you can.
For instance, I have a relative named Savilia Drake. I hit a wall with her. I could find nothing. It was incredibly frustrating because Savilia is only my great great grandmother. My Papa has memories of her; she was living not that long ago. However, for some reason I could not find the first piece of information on her. She wasn’t listed on any census; her home town had no information about her on their websites, and none of my living relatives could remember her maiden name or any other details. So I hit up Google. Using the quotation brackets, I typed in every possible misspelling of her name, every combination I could think of by including her husband’s name, her kids’ names, the name of the town she lived in, and everything in between. Eventually I found hits for Sevilia Drake, Saville Drake, Seville Drake, Savilia D. Drake, Savila Drake, Sevila D. Drake, Savilia D. Owen, Savilia Owen, Sevilia Owen, and dozens of others. They were ALL her. People back in the “old days” may have kept good census records, but man, they didn’t bother with spelling. Just in trying the variations of her name, I was able to find tons of information on my great grandmother that I otherwise would not have had.
Genealogy can be so rewarding, if you’re interested in your family history or finding out where you come from. Visiting historical sites like Ellis Island can be incredibly moving, and taking the time to do research on your ancestors is a fun and enlightening experience. If you know the tricks of the trade, you can do it without having to spend any money. Happy hunting!