Genealogy for Geeks, Part 1: Who Do I Think I Am?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Some might argue that all genealogy is for geeks. It’s designed for us. Where else do you get to dive into the facts and daily lives of thousands of ancestors? Follow one branch, and that leads to another, and another, but wait, backtrack and take care of that other branch, and then the one on your mother’s side… It’s an information addict’s delight.

Though my recent resurgence of interest in family history has been brought on by the most excellent show, “Who Do You Think You Are?”, I’ve been personally interested in genealogy all my life. I remember as a small child my paternal grandmother showing me her family wheel, with her at the center and her ancestors going all around, many back to the 1600s. I was quite impressed. It turned out that her father and her grandfather had both done copious amounts of research on reams of thin typewriter paper from whatever information was available one hundred or so years ago. I later inherited it all, and my genealogy holdings are one of my life’s treasures. I also have plenty of other family bits, from them and from many other family members, including letters, documents, memorabilia, and many family photos.

My maternal grandfather (the tallest boy) and his family with their 1922 Chevy.

Since I am the person in the family with the most interest in genealogy, I’ve had the fortunate role to hold onto most things from both sides of my family. Unfortunately, some of the things my grandmother held on to have water damage, which makes a face mask a necessity when handling them (mold!). But I’m determined to digitize all our family history documents and photos someday, so that future generations don’t have to worry so much about such damage.

In the past, I have done a small amount of research on my own, but have relied heavily on that done by my paternal grandmother’s family, and also that done by a cousin of my maternal grandmother. Family members have labeled photos well, and that helps, too. But now, to build on what I have already, I intend to renew my efforts and dig as far back in the past as I can, and more deeply into details of more recent family members. I invite you to come along on my research journey, where I will revel in the U.S. history that comes along with the names and dates, and solve as many mysteries as possible. To understand where I’m coming from (literally), here is some background on me.

My maternal grandmother is the one with the really curly hair. (Not a surprise for those who know me.)

My ancestors were a mix of several nationalities, but most of them were from western Europe, and most lines have been in the U.S. for 300 or 400 years (I have one ancestor who came over on the Mayflower). I have a few branches who came over from places such as England and Germany in the 1800s, and I hope to fill those out more, including learning about when and why they immigrated. I have direct ancestors who were veterans of wars such as the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, and World War II. I want to learn more about their experiences in the wars and those of their families. Most branches of my family settled in New England or the eastern midwest. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio figure prominently.

I can’t imagine doing significant genealogical research before the internet. Before, you would have to travel around, digging through dusty old books stored in tiny towns for one tiny piece of information, and then trek somewhere else for another. These days, much is digitized and cross-referenced and available online. Some of it is free, such as comparing notes with other researchers, genealogies digitized on Google Books, and sites like FindaGrave.com where you can search for where family members are buried. The Social Security Death Index can also tell you much. But even with this convenience of being able to sit behind a desk and research online, it is a lot of work, and not a lot of return.

My great great great grandmother. I have a long line of women with glasses in my family.

Enter Ancestry.com. I heard of them many years ago when I first started looking into online genealogical research. They’ve always offered an excellent service offering access to genealogical records, but today, they’ve been in business so long that their collections are impressively extensive. For a month or a year, you can get access to U.S. or worldwide records on their site. These records are quite varied and are very easy to use and search through.

Ancestry also has products available in their store, such as Family Tree Maker software, and many books and other resources. Or, if you’re just interested in hosting your family tree online, you can do that on their site for free, with a very attractive interface. They make improvements to the functionality of their site regularly, which I’ve noticed over the years. And if you are at all interested in researching your family roots further, once you’ve gathered what you can on your own, a membership is worth considering. You might just uncover that long lost ancestor.

Combined with the information I have and that which I still have to sort through in my copious tubs of family history items, Ancestry.com is going to help me through the adventure of filling in my family tree, as far back as I can. Most of the low branches of my tree are quite well filled out, but even on the great great grandparent level, there are glaring holes. I have names in some cases, but nothing else. I will dig through Ancestry.com’s resources on my own, and they have also offered to give me some assistance through professional genealogists when I get stuck.

My great grandmother on her wedding day. Unfortunately, she died two years later in the 1918 influenza epidemic.

Needless to say, I am thrilled to be going on this journey. I am also very glad to have help. Whether you are brand new to genealogy and only know a bit about anyone older than your grandparents, or if you’re well-versed in family history but want more information about a few individuals, there is help for you online. Ancestry.com has materials from the U.S. and around the world including census records, military records, immigration records, family trees, newspapers, birth/marriage/death records, legal records, maps, and many other resources, and they are adding more all the time. There are also message boards where you can collaborate with other researchers. Also, once you have your family tree filled out enough to share, they have built-in options to publish posters, books, and other attractive creations.

Stay tuned to GeekDad as I write more Genealogy for Geeks posts, at least one per month. I’ll take you on my journey of learning more about my family history, with the generous help of Ancestry.com, and other resources I find along the way. In future posts, I’ll go into Ancestry’s census records, military history, immigration, looking at other member trees, Ancestry’s hints to help you find more sources for your ancestors, their iPad interface, and more. I hope my journey inspires you to look into your own family’s past, to learn what kind of people you came from, and to get a sense of your place in the world. In my opinion, there’s nothing more inspiring about history than learning what it was like to live in a time from someone with whom you have a connection.

Note: Ancestry.com has given me access to their records for the purposes of these Genealogy for Geeks posts.

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