For years there have been shows like Who Do You Think You Are and Finding Your Roots that make the search for your family’s past seem like fun and a somewhat easy process to go through. For anyone that’s just an amateur family historian like myself, the truth is far from that.
I got sucked into the search for my family’s history back when I was still in middle school. I had to write a paper on a family member and my grandmother graciously provided the information on her father that had recently passed away. She asked for my help and the next then I knew I was spending my summers in the library with her trying to track down the origins of my grandfather’s family.
In the television series that help celebrities track down their ancestors, you seem them bounce from one expert to another. Most of the time the information has already been tracked down for them and they normally get to travel the globe to piece everything together. Other times the experts have them pull up Ancestry.com and guide them to records available on the site.
What is it really like to search for your ancestors? The truth is complicated. Of course there are plenty of records Ancestry and other paid services sites that can get you started. However, they require subscriptions. While I love Ancestry, I do get frustrated with having to pay so much. Also, if you want to be able to access records from other countries, you will need one of the more expensive plans. If you’re just beginning your work or have a long history in the United States then this might not be a problem for you.
What happens when you hit a wall with records?
There are a few options, all of which are going to cost extra money. You could contact your local genealogical society to see if they can be of assistance. However your best bet is going to be to travel to the place you’re searching (if not local) and look for hard copies of records. Unfortunately I’ve hit this point in almost all the lines I’m searching in.
The area in Italy my paternal line comes from has no digital records. This leaves me with two options. First, I could write a request, have it translated, and then sent to the proper place in Italy along with a fee in hopes that they can provide me with records. Then I have to wait for a response and have it translated. If they couldn’t provide me with answers I have to start again. However, this is a slow and costly process if I want to trace further back on that line. My other option is to take a trip to Italy and hunt down the records myself. While this would be a fun trip and I would love to go, it’s well outside of my budget.
Another, more local issue I have is due to lax record laws. I live in South Carolina and unfortunately many of the records I hoped would shed some light on my ancestors just don’t exist. For example, prior to 1911, counties did not record marriages. You’ve hit a dead end unless you know the church where the marriage took place. Also, there were no birth or death records recorded prior to 1915. This leaves census records as my main option. Those come with their own set of problems.
DNA To The Rescue
There are numerous DNA kits around now that make a lot of claims. The truth is they’re only as good as your own family three knowledge is.
I took 23andMe partially for the ancestry break down which was pretty surprising. However I also took it for the DNA relatives feature that I thought would help with my genealogy quest. The truth is that it’s been little to no help in the month I’ve had my results. While the site gives a pretty good guess as to how you and a match are related, there isn’t much else to go on. I personally don’t know enough about DNA sharing to try and break everything down for more clues and answers. What’s worse is that while there is a messaging feature on the site, no one seems to use it.
At the time I took this screen grab I had 1119 relatives. I’ve only been able to confirm 7 of them. Of course I recognize surnames on others but I don’t have the paper trail to connect them yet. I can make some educated guesses based on the site’s projected relationship and common relatives but overall I don’t know who most of the people are.
Are you missing anyone?
Another interesting thing I learned is that the site has a limit on how many relatives you are matched to. That number is 2000 and due to that there is a threshold for the DNA shared that prevents others from showing up. Because of this I haven’t been connected to anyone with the four surnames of my immediate family. However, I’ve been able to take a look at my aunt’s results. She has been connected to people with both her mother’s and father’s last names. I also show up as a common relative for them. The percent DNA shared though is too low for them to make it into my matches. It is also likely that I don’t show up on theirs either.
The biggest problem with this threshold is that those people from my four immediate family surnames are the ones I actually have paper trails on. Things could be different if they showed up in my matches. I would be able to compare our common relatives and possibly figure out who some of these people are.
All of this has prompted me to take the Ancestry DNA test as well. I’m currently waiting on those results.
Tips For Beginners
Ancestry.com is great for building your family tree and beginning your search if you can afford a membership. I suggest starting out with the basic subscription and then working your way up once you have a good working base in place and need those international records to continue your search. Be wary of other member’s trees though. Unfortunately a lot of the information isn’t correct. While they could be great places to get an idea of where to proceed, always try and find proof.
23andMe is really great to get your ancestry breakdown. In the last month since I got my results I’ve seen them updated with more information and a better breakdown in specific regions. You can get 10% off your test by using my referral code (and I’ll get a gift card).
FamilySearch.org is another great, and free resource you can use to find records. While most of the information is also available on Ancestry, you can search this database for free.