I've had many people contact me over the last few years who've read my books and told me they're descended from some of the historical figures I've written about. As it turned out, I eventually discovered I was, too!
While I'm no expert on genealogical research, a couple of my former critique group partners, Julie Conner and Sandy Frykholm, have become quite engrossed in digging up their own ancestry. So I asked them to write about how they would advise others to begin researching their roots.
First up is Julie Conner. She has a Master's degree in History and is currently working on a time travel novel. (She's also my NaNoWriMo Buddy!). You can find Julie at http://jeconner.blogspot.com/ where she talks about writing, life with Primary Lateral Sclerosis, her obsession with Walt Disney World, and world history. Here are Julie's suggestions on getting started in genealogy:
I’m proud of the fact that I can trace both sides of my family tree to at least the twelfth century, but it’s not something I brag about unless someone brings up the subject of family history into the conversation. Put it this way, I’m not photo bombing strangers pictures yelling, “I’m Lady Godiva’s 30th great grand niece!” as I dash in from the left, arms flailing wildly, or informing the teenage bag boy at my local grocery store, in my best professor voice, “When Sir Henry de Percy, my 22nd great grandfather on my father’s side of the family, met Robert the Bruce, my 21st great grandfather on my mother’s side, I bet they never thought their families would mix together in the twentieth century.” Insert pompous laughter here. I’d be labeled a crazy loon if I did this.
If you’re interested in uncovering where you came from, too, and possibly bragging about your results in a normal way, here’s my advice.
· First, have the complete names and birth/death dates of as many of your direct relatives as possible. Information on your grandparents is good. Information on your great grandparents is better.
· Second, find a website devoted to ancestry research. I am addicted to Ancestry.com, but there are multiple free websites that have plenty to offer: familysearch.org, genealogytoday.com, and olivetreegenealogy.com/beginner to name a few.
Once you’ve done these two things, the fun begins…
On familysearch.org, I typed in my name and birth date, my parents’ names and birth dates, and the names and birth dates for both sets of my grandparents. Within seconds of finishing, I knew who my paternal 3rd great grandparents were thanks to the Mormon’s excellent record collecting. Easy peasy. If this doesn’t happen for you, and your relatives don’t magically appear on your tree, don’t get discouraged. Try these tools:
· The census:
In many cases, a widowed parent lived with one of his or her married children. Look the parent’s name up in a search, match them to a much older census with the same child and their alive spouse, and voila, you have another level of descendants. I also did this with two families who lived beside each other in Pittsburgh, PA. The son of one family married the daughter of another. I couldn’t find the name of the son’s parents until I saw the 1910 census. I matched the two families names and siblings to the married son (a Hillgartner) and daughter (a Winn, who became a Hillgartner) and found the names of both his parents. After I had that, I crosschecked it with an 1890 passenger boat list from Germany to New York City that named the son, and I knew I was correct. All the information clicked.
· Passenger lists, border crossing lists, military draft cards, birth announcements, obituaries, local papers, church registries, and findagrave.com. I can identify the correct birth and death dates sometimes by simply looking at a picture of a tombstone on findagrave.com! Even google can render amazing finds just by typing in the name of a relative.
Unearthing answers about family history today is as easy as turning on your computer and clicking a mouse. Soon you can run around shouting about who your ancestors are. And if you’re also a great grand niece of Lady Godiva, you’re related to woman who gave generously to the church and lived in England. As for the other story, well…most likely, she never stepped outside her castle naked. Sorry sensationalists and makers of fine, yummy chocolates. She might have ridden a horse through her town while wearing her shift—think nightgown—to make her husband repeal the taxes she’d deemed unfair. Unfortunately, the whole story is probably a myth, a victim of whisper down the centuries, where details were embellished every time the tale was told. But, it’s still fun to imagine the facts are real. I bet the villagers loved her. I wonder what emotions ran through her head while she rode from the castle to the village. Did the sun shine through the tree leaves? Did the wind tussle her long, silky hair? Did her sister encourage her to do this? Was her husband angry or amused? Hmmmm…I believe my next storyline is calling to me…
Happy researching, everyone,