The Genealogy Beat

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.

My great grandparents and extended family on their wedding day

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.

My Drake ancestor, Etheldred, who struck gold in them there hills.


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.

One of my ancestors, stationed in WW1.


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.

Another branch of my family, the Sheltons.


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!

By Teri Drake-Floyd

An almost 30-something synestheste, foodie, genealogist and all around proud geek.

23 replies on “The Genealogy Beat”

The first time I was losely researching my genealogy, I immediately hit a small gem. And it’s so ..I think stuff like this reminds people that there is no such thing as being a stand-alone-person. There are always ties that bind, in good and bad ways. I wouldn’t go so far as saying that schools should make it a part of History lessons, but I really think it can help seeing yourself in a different light.

I would love to see Introduction to Genealogy offered as an elective in schools. Just an extracurricular thing. It’d be informative and fun!

I also wish, as an aside, that it was easier to research matriarchal lines. That’s my one gripe about genealogy. You go back a few generations and it becomes a study of the men you’re descended from, and it’s very hard to find out much information about the women. And as a feminist girl-power type lady, I’m interested in the women more than the men most of the time!

Thanks! I’ve amassed quite a collection of photos of family/ancestors over the years. Many of them came from my Grandparents, but a lot of them have come from my ramblings across genealogical endeavors. Incidentally, my Great Grandparents, in the first photo, are the same couple I mention in the article who were street urchins in Naples before coming to the U.S.

My mom’s side has some cousins who are very interested in genealogy, so I think they have that side well done. I haven’t seen it though, but maybe one day I will. My dad’s side is a bit harder. My great-grandparents were the ones to come to the U.S., and I’ve found them on the 1910 census. I haven’t found immigration records for them yet, so the trail stops there. The census says they came from Austria, but right now I can’t go explore that. I’m not sure if I’d be able to find anything…WW2 might have eliminated all records. One day, maybe, I’ll find it.

I’m always interested in hearing the stories, but I feel odd asking relatives. Then again, I should ask before my grandmas die. They’re the only ones left of that generation (including great-aunts and great-uncles). How did you start asking?

I just started by asking my grandparents and great grandparents (I realize that not everyone is as fortunate to having living great grandparents or even grandparents) for anything they could recall. Most importantly, their parents names, maiden names, names of their aunts and uncles, when they got married and what towns/counties they lived in. Most of them remembered a lot of details. And I asked great aunts/uncles, too. They each remembered different names and details. But I basically started out with a big list of names, places and stories and just started with a giant template, filled in my  name, and went up. As far as I could go. And I’m still adding to it. :) When I’d find something especially interesting/odd I’d reference back to my grandparents and run it by them/ask. So far it has worked well.

My dad is the family genealogist right now, but I’m poised to take over when the time comes. His rule of thumb is that each piece of information has to be verified by 2 sources before it becomes fact. We’ve hit a few walls, and think we have some credible leads, but it’s now a matter of time and resources to follow them and see if they’re part of our tree or not. Some of my favorites from that side of the family are the union drummer boy, the Scot who was “lost at sea” (though it sounds more like he was tossed overboard for being a mean drunk), and the “madam” who was run out of Montana so she set up a new house of ill repute in Alaska. I have a “faked his death to get out of a bad marriage” and some prohibition-era moonshiners on that side too.

Last summer I had a chance to meet some distant cousins on my mom’s side. It made me realize that I know very little about that half of who I am. I knew they were wagon train pioneers, and early settlers in western Oregon, so one of the county museums has a lot of information on them, including the family Bible.  I was really excited to learn that a relation was a State Rep and fought for women’s suffrage in Oregon in the late 1800’s. He had 5 sisters and a strong mother, so I’m guessing that had something to do with it.

Your family sounds fascinating! I also like your Dad’s method of verification.

I have moonshiners for several generations on my Grandma’s Dad’s side. They were notorious moonshiners for four generations, but none of them drank. They also were all fiddle players. So two family “trades” if you will. Really interesting. The last of them was my Grandma’s Grandfather, and his name was Lando.

Echoing others in saying thank you for the links. I’ve done some research with a free trial on Ancestry and went far, far back, but I don’t know if it’s all legit. I’m fascinated by it all, and I watch Who Do You Think You Are? and weep every time. Sadly and ashamedly, despite mostly being poor Southern U.S. farmers, my ancestors had a little bit of land and slaves. However, I’ve also got some grandfathers and -uncles who were soldiers in the Confederacy. So, I have some sorrow and pride in my heritage. I’ve only just started.

BTW, the pictures are beautiful!

My mom got really interested in genealogy for awhile and traced parts of our family back to the early 1500s. Our families seem to have a lot in common.  Especially that bigamy thing.  One of my ancestors did that five separate times and just kept moving west.    Are we related?  :0  (Probably not.  Apparently that was a common thing for men to do back in the day.)  If you really want to do some good research, Fort Wayne, Indiana has the second(?) best genealogical research library in the country.  Mom used to spend hours there while we would go look for library books.  :)

Oh, thanks for the tip. I will check that out.

And yes, I have noticed a disturbing trend back then. Men faking their deaths, of going out into the beyond to “find work”, etc and then never coming home, shacking up with other women instead. Assholes. I guess if there’s one good thing to come of this technological age we live in, is that you can’t hide from your responsibilities like that anymore.

My maternal grandmother left volumes of family history that she researched over her lifetime (all done without the internet!) and it’s so fascinating. My sister scanned all of it a couple years ago, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it all or plugging it into any online family trees. My dad’s side is more of a mystery because his mom was a foster kid so we know nothing about her ancestry. I don’t even know if they kept records for kids who were given up by their birth parents in the 20s, but I’d love to know more about that part of the family.

Thank you so much for sharing this! Family history is something my mother is very into and I’m beginning to get interested in it, too. Something that’s sparked my interest was information from one of my cousins (on my father’s side) with records going back to the mid 17th century and finding that for almost three hundred years, part of my family lived in the same village. I found it so strange going through that information, but amazing, too. Much of my family history is in the west of Scotland, with some in Ireland, too. Would love to know more and think, having read this, I may look into doing some research of my own.

I’ve noticed that. In researching my main Drake line, I discovered that one other very diligent person who had done DNA testing and stuff had traced one of our lines all the way back to the year 1200 or so, into Ireland. I did not do any of that research and cannot verify, but what they supposedly found was so fascinating. It went so far back that the names were all gaelic, totally unpronouncable, and into clan names rather than last names. I was reading it with my heart beating so fast. So exciting. I can only hope that it is real research. Seems like it’d be impossible to trace back that far, but they had books and records to back them up.

I can’t really trace much of my family back beyond great grandparents. I understand the want to know about where you come from, but for me the great grandparents I knew are more formative to who I am than the ancestors I didn’t. My father has been hunting about in the family tree for  a while now and he knows more than I do (apparently I have great something uncle named Pontious, given name, not family), and I’m always interested in family stories (apparently a relation on my mom’s side spent a stormy night taking shelter under a wagon with Jessie James), but I don’t feel like a specific genealogy is something I am willing to invest time in. Not that I think it an ignoble quest, it’s just not for me.

I do however want to know more about the ancestors I knew a little, but not well. I know some of my relations served as officers on ships at Pearl Harbor, and one who was a comander of a submarine in the pacific theater. I’ve found some about them in history texts. And then there is the fact that I know my great grandfather was stationed in China before World War II but I don’t know where in China or what Capitan Great Grandfather was doing there. What I do know is that he was allowed to take whatever he wanted over, so he took his car. Coming back they said you can’t take your car, but as many crates as you want. So he had crates made of mahogany, dissembled his car and packed the bits in. When he got home, he resembled his car and used the wood from the crates to make furniture.

My mother’s maiden name is a very distinct and unusual surname in German that derives from a specific hereditary profession. As a result, my maternal genealogy is relatively easy to trace back (the profession in question was of relatively high prestige). If I see that surname, it’s very probable that the person in question is related to me.

One of the weirdest experiences of my life was going over to the battlefields in Belgium with my (British) boarding school. The mood of different graveyards there, if you haven’t been, differs hugely; the Germans are generally buried in mass graves in solemn, dark graveyards (in some cases literally shielded by trees, hidden). The British, American and French graves gleam gold and white and are very shiny. My paternal family (who I’ll get to a bit later) were to sum up British army officers from 1800s to now, basically, and didn’t fight in the front lines or die or anything. So I was surrounded by plenty of people who know they have relatives who died in the First World War, and in many cases knew which graveyard they were in (this spawned many very bizarre crying jags from people I knew but never well enough to see them affected like that.)

When we went to the German graveyards, I was a little bit wary because I knew my distinctive-surname family were not as well-off as my British family, and when we were looking through the graves I found three of them, buried in the same grave, with the same first initial. A triple repeat. I later found out they formed most of my great-uncles. Bit of a mindfuck.

As for my paternal family, my grandfather is really big on our genealogy and has traced us back with relative certainty to 14th century Hampshire. It’s not actually that we’ve always been wealthy and thus recorded, but more that we’ve always worked for positions that are recorded; my paternal family (pretty much as purely British as anyone gets) were officers for a straight 200 years, and before that were involved with local government positions, wardenry, and (for a very long time) the clergy. One of the more amusing sidenotes to this is that my paternal family’s surname used to be “Christmas”, including the time they were clergymen; so I am descended from a long line of ‘Father Christmas’es.

This is definitely cool! My mom/grandmother were really interested in geneology, but I think they had it as a sort of “elitism” thing where they named all the famous people they were related to, like bishops and folks from Germany who once owned a castle.

When I was in Germany, I wished I had known more German so I felt more comfortable in going around and pursuing geneology. One of the things I found, though, was a book of names of the dead in a Holocaust museum. There was someone with the same last name as my grandmother in the book.

I really want to know if they’re related, but I have no idea how to pursue it…

I would start with the closest living relatives you have with the same surname and trace them as far up/back as you can. You may find a link to the country that the ones in the book are from, or some information about them so you can determine if they are distant cousins. You could also google it. Surely someone else with your surname has wondered the same thing, so you could always google, “are the x doe family related to the y doe family” and cross reference WW2 or the word Holocaust or even the word Jew and see what comes up.

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