“It’s a disease of which there’s no known cure. Does that help?”
That’s how Alton resident Bill Amidon describes studying your family’s genealogy; it can “eat you alive” and cause you to do things you’d normally never do, like spend hours at the library or watch the History Channel.
Kevin Dadoly of Amherst agrees.
“I tell people, if you’re going to start getting into genealogy, don’t. It becomes an obsession,” Dadoly said. For Dadoly, the hobby — or condition, he might say — caused years of anguish, years of dead ends.
But take note that these morbid descriptions don’t at all match with the rest of their interviews. Dadoly also described finding his long-lost great-aunt as one of the “shining moments” in his life. Amidon said researching became therapeutic and gave him a better sense of where he comes from.
Those who don’t become quite as obsessed describe genealogy as a never-ending puzzle, a treasure hunt whose prize is learning your family’s story. Few are disappointed when they’ve finally reached that pot of gold at the end.
“At the same time, it’s absolutely fascinating,” Dadoly said. “I think people should know where they come from. I think it helps you move forward with your life.”
Here’s some inspiration and an introduction on how to get started.
In the United States, people became interested in genealogy in the late 1800s. A few things drove this.
“It was about the time that the Daughters of the American Revolution [DAR] started, and it was an effort to capture all this information about the people who fought in the American Revolution,” Amherst resident Vick Bennison said in a phone interview.
“This was when America opened up to the unwashed masses of Europe. There was a certain snobbery; people wanted to prove that they were not part of that, that they were actually citizens from way back,” Bennison said. “The Mayflower Society, a group of people who were descendants from the Mayflower, started around then, too.”
But nowadays, Bennison says, people are much more egalitarian about it. They want to know who they are and where they’re from.
Bennison is one of them. He’s delved deep into his own ancestry and wrote a 500-page book, The Loop Family in America, detailing the German family that traveled to America in the 1700s. He’s become so knowledgeable on the subject that he’s hosting a free series of genealogy classes at the Amherst Public Library in June.
The hobby’s popularity has come in waves; in the late 1970s, there was a bit of a rise because of Roots, a miniseries about author Alex Haley’s family line from ancestor Kunta Kinte’s enslavement to his descendants’ liberation. Right now we’re in the midst of a wave because of online search websites like ancestry.com and familysearch.org.
“I think it’s definitely more popular now because of the advertisements you see on TV, the programs you see that are sponsored by ancestry.com,” said Ruth Parker, a Hudson history buff whose family is swarming with amateur and experienced genealogists. “The books that have been written, the availability of the Internet and the search engines have made it more popular because it is easier to do. If we had to research the way our grandparents did, it wouldn’t be any more popular now as it was then.”
It might be easier, but be warned, you still need to do a great deal of work. Ancestry.com makes it easier to connect with genealogists — perhaps even distant relatives, whose work overlaps with yours — but you should never rely on those sites alone.
“If people think they can just go to ancestry.com and get all this information, then they’ve got another thing coming,” Bennison said.
He describes the site like a pot of gold littered with booby traps.
“There’s tons and tons of great information, but an equal amount of totally bad information. There are so many families there where it’ll report that the parent was born after the child, and nobody fixes it.”
Relying only on ancestry.com is kind of like using Wikipedia as the main source for your college thesis. It’s bursting with data, but the only way to make certain your tree’s correct is to find the primary sources yourself.
Where do I even begin?
Also important to establish early on: what’s your goal? What do you want to accomplish?
“Some people just want to trace their line way back to the immigrants,” said Paul Friday, a volunteer genealogist who spends his Thursdays at New Hampshire Historical Society library. “They want to join lineage societies, like the DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution], SAR [Sons of the American Revolution], the Colonial Dames, the Mayflower Society, and they have to prove they’re part of that lineage.”
They’ll often trace back through the male line; it can be tricky to trace females because they’re not in the records as much before 1900, plus, you have name changes to maneuver around. (You might also find that it’s much easier to track people after 1790, because the first census was taken that year.)
People who’ve conducted extensive research — who have traveled to great lengths to snag a document, who’ve connected with other genealogists online, who describe the hobby as an “incurable disease” — often have a more personal aim, whether it be to solve a mystery or learn about about family members they never knew.
Once you’ve decided your goal, start with yourself. Then move on to your parents. Then, if they’re still alive, your grandparents.
“One of the things I think genealogists tend to overlook is to interview family members while they still have the opportunity,” said Ruth Parker. “I had the opportunity to ask my folks these questions before they passed away, so then all I had to do was verify it.”
Parker knows a great deal about her ancestors before her but claims she’s “riding on the back of a giant,” as her mother, aunt and great-aunt were all hobbyists. She had their results to work from when she became a researcher 15 years ago.
But were they still alive, she’d go to greater lengths in these interviews.
“I would sit down and embroil them. I’d try to get them involved in reminiscing,” Parker said.
Had she gotten more detailed information before they passed, it would have meant for an easier time with her current project, an embellished family history that would feature not just a pedigree chart but information about where her family lived, who they were, the towns they served, where they were educated and, in the case of her parents, how they met.
At home, you should also try to snag documents like birth, marriage and death certificates, high school diplomas and military records. If you’re lucky, you might stumble across letters, diaries and old photos that lead to clues, too. (Tip: If you’re a photo person and want to help out your descendants, write out names on the backs of photos, and don’t use the word “me” when describing yourself. Write out your name.)
Next step? Go to the library
Librarians can be a good source of information too. For example, the Rodgers Memorial Library in Hudson has two employees, Laurie Jasper and Anne Carle, who know a great deal about how to research, not only because they’ve done so themselves, but also because they know Hudson history quite well. (Jasper wrote a book about the history of Hudson for the Images of America series.)
Don’t use garbage sources
Every person, date and event should be double-checked with primary sources.
Birth, death and marriage certificates are all primary or original sources. Obituaries, census records and town history books are secondary because they simply relate to or discuss information presented elsewhere (namely, the primary source).
In some cases, you may need to travel in order to see these original sources, and the extremists make mini vacations out of these trips. Bill Amidon of Alton, for instance, uses the Internet more as a guide to generate ideas of where to look, but in order to find good, solid facts, he drives to where his family used to live.
“I saw where they lived, I saw where they were married, and I saw where they were buried,” Amidon said.
Traveling for the hunt is quite common. A few weeks ago, a woman named Malissa Ruffner made the New Hampshire Historical Society library her home away from home for a week. She traveled all the way from Baltimore, Md., to see these artifacts first-hand.
This is how people did it before the Internet age, and in many opinions, it’s the most meaningful research tactic.
Fortunately for those who have little time or money to travel, it’s becoming less difficult to obtain these primary sources. The New Hampshire Historical Society, for instance, is working hard to make its special collections — manuscripts, photographs, maps, newspapers, diaries and letters — available online.
“We’re in the middle of a digitization project,” Sarah Hays, the New Hampshire Historical Society Library director, said in an interview at the library. “There’s a new catalogue we’re developing, as well, which will run off our new website. You’ll be able to see the digital images of what we have in the catalogue record itself.”
This project started last year, and the digitization will likely take years and a few more monetary donations to complete, but there will be a catalogue with special images rolling out in September.
When all is said and done, “You’ll be able to look at a nice variety of materials online. You won’t have to come up from Baltimore unless you want to,” Hays said.
Still, she doesn’t expect the digitization will dissuade the public from stepping in to the library.
“Attendance actually goes up in the reading rooms [when a collection goes online] because all of a sudden, people are finding out about the organization. They just want to come in to hold the marriage certificate of their ancestor,” Hays said.
Though, on this note, Cynthia David of Amherst would like to point out that not all secondary sources are garbage sources.
“Certified genealogists will talk about primary resources. City directories and obituaries aren’t primary resources, but I find that they’re useful,” David said. “There are discrepancies, and you have to take everything with a grain of salt, but I find that the secondary sources are useful as well.”
Break through a dead end
It’s going to happen. You’re going to eventually come to a dead end. It’s why many researchers take breaks from their hunt or else give up entirely. The trick is knowing how to get through it.
One way, said Amidon, is to think back to the time in which the person you’re searching for lived.
“If you study history, you don’t necessarily study genealogy. But if you do genealogy, you’re going to get history as a side act, whether you like it or not,” Amidon said.
Manchester today, for instance, is not Manchester 300 years ago.
“It’s important to have the names, addresses and date that they were born or married, and you need to make a timeline of when this all happened,” Amidon said. “You need to establish a timeline because otherwise, you could be looking in the wrong neighborhood. You could be looking in the state of Massachusetts, and the reality is that, at that time, that area was part of Canada.”
New Hampshire didn’t become a state until 1788; when you go way back, you may need to look in the Massachusetts records, too.
When you’re stuck on one of your female ancestors — perhaps because you’re uncertain of a maiden name — try seeking out obituaries, gravestones and marriage records. (For finding gravestones, genealogy researcher Jennifer Day recommends findagrave.com.)
Today’s technology makes it a bit easier to break through dead ends, too. One of the biggest things in genealogy right now is DNA research.
“It’s because of things like NCIS and CSI and all these shows that are using DNA information,” Bennison said. “But only recently has the DNA testing gotten to the point where it’s useful. … Prices have come down. When I first did DNA about five or six years ago, it was about $300. … Now for $100, you get what’s called Autosomal DNA, which, instead of using certain pieces of someone’s DNA, looks at the entire chromosome structure. It finds matches between you and other people.”
There are organizations like Family Tree DNA (familytreedna.com), for instance, with a DNA ancestry database that can put you in contact with your closest matches and help to confirm (to a degree) otherwise uncertain relationships.
“It doesn’t prove anything, yet, but it gives me a direction and a hope,” Bennison said. His sister is involved in genealogy, too, and the two of them came across a distant cousin on the West Coast through this service.
“He helped us a fair amount,” Bennison said. “He’s now a third person [to check DNA with]. … It’s getting better and better. The more people who get involved, the better it’s going to get, as there will be more people we have to compare against.”
Paul Friday has also done his fair share of manuevering through the Family History Library, which operates familysearch.org and has centers in Concord, Exeter, Lebanon and Nashua. They’re run by the LDS Church, open to the public and free of charge. (Some libraries, like the New Hampshire Historical Society Library, charge a fee if you’re a nonmember, $7 a day or $40 for a year.)
In some cases, the mystery may be in the name; last week, for example, Pauline Cusson from the American-Canadian Genealogical Society talked about English names with French origins and name changes at a program through the Rodgers Memorial Library.
For more tricks on getting past dead ends: “Learn from other genealogists. Go to clubs. Read books,” Parker said. “Use the Internet, your search engines, anything you can, but do not restrict yourself to the Internet. Use your libraries, your cemetaries, use your feet and your car.”
As seen in the May 15, 2014 issue of the Hippo.