25.1 This bloghopes to answer such questions as If my boyfriend’s grandfather is my grandmother’s uncle, can we get married? and For once and for all, who’s my frickin’ second cousin? Its mission is to reacquaint those searching for their roots with the systems of kinship they’re likely to encounter. Precisely how you find your long lost relatives is a subject covered by dozens, if not hundreds, of websites…and books if you’re old school. That having been said…
25.2 I have spend the past several months researching the side of my family I had known the least about, the French Canadian side, my material grandfather’s. Sadly, the best resource, asking the people who were “there at the time,” has passed me by…I waited too long. And that’s a lesson for you: find out who’s in those old photos ASAP! But the internet, supplemented by various printed sources, can get you a long way, and today I have some “notes from the field.”
25.3 There Goes the Bride…Do they still do this? A combination registry and scrapbook to record all the events leading up to and including the wedding and the honeymoon? (Do they still have trousseaus?) Check your mom’s, your grandmother’s, your aunts’, any you can get your hands on. You’re likely to find 2 sets of lists that can be invaluable in identifying distant relatives and clearing up hazy familial connections.
25.4 The first list is the Guest List, where the people who attended the wedding actually signed in for posterity. In my Mom’s, virtually all of them also put down their address too, which helps to single out your relatives from those non-relatives you’ll encounter with the same name. What’s more, the guests will have most likely signed in as what they called themselves…and this ties into the 2nd list: the Gift List. Compiled by the bride, or perhaps her mother, this allows you to cross reference what your mother and other relatives called them…thus you may confirm that Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Blow are in fact cousin Joey and his wife Rita. And this is especially important when dealing with immigrant ancestors, because of…
25.5 Americanization of First Names…Of course, many last names were changed to sound more American, but these tend to be well documented, as are the various branches of your family who decided to stay ethnic, but still change the spelling, often to make it more phonetic…in my Mom’s case, Berube sometimes became Berby, Berbey, or Burby. But when first names change, you can have a hard time keeping track of who’s who over the years, or even finding relatives at all. For example, I had no luck with my Polish grandmother’s sister, until I realized that Phyllis was as a child called Felixa, after her father Felix, or as it is spelled in Polish, Feliks. And her sister, my grandmother, “came over” as Czeslawa (“ches-wava”), morphed into Stella, then by the time she was married was Sophie, which the Polish newspapers then translated back into Zofja.
25.6 City Directories…Many towns and cities issued these year after year…they could
have been mere booklets, or fancy hardcover affairs, loaded with local advertising. For my roots in Salem, Massachusetts, there was a long period of time when there were 2 competing directories, sponsored by rival banks. Generally, you’ll find streets listed by number, and the person or business located at that address. But if you’re lucky, as I was, you’ll also find alphabetical lists of residents, sometimes only the adults, but sometimes also the children, along with separate lists of births and deaths for the year. I don’t see very many on line, but libraries and historical societies collect them. But be aware: you will find many errors, misspellings, omissions, and inconsistencies, so such information must go into the total research mix…but then, even the official US census made mistakes…
25.7 Ancestry.com Library Edition…I apologize for not having yet the complete story on the US Decennial Census. I do know that as an official government record, it is not on line. I’ve heard mention of “census discs,” presumably CDs available at libraries. And so far, only census data thru 1930 is available, altho the genealogical community is waiting with baited breath…some sites even count down the days…for the release of the 1940 census sometime in 2012. Your best bet is a commercial website, of which Ancestry.com is one of the most prominent. Now look: they’ll offer some information free as a tease, but they want money if you want access to their “billions of records.” An excellent compromise is their “Library Edition,” that your local library can subscribe to, and you can access for free. I don’t believe this offers everything, but I’ve found a ton of valuable information, including copies of original documents, as filled out by the census taker on the scene at the time.
25.8 And as I said, what you find, even on official census documents, must be taken with a grain of salt…for example, below…my Grand Aunt Felixa, later Phyllis, is written as Felexi…and her brother Boleslaus, Uncle Bill to the family, has an extraneous “d” thrown in, as Boldeslaus. Ancesery.com also includes in their data base military registration records, some immigration and death information, a world of facts, figures, and clues to help you fill out the branches of your Family Tree. And if your research leads you north of the border as mine did, many Canadian organizations have excellent on-line data, completely free, and guess what? Often not agreeing with one another! But that’s the fun of it, nez pah?
25.9 Non-relatives can be lifesavers!…By that I mean, people you’re not related to may know more about your relatives than you do. And that makes sense because, as I’ve pointed out, people you’re related to are related to people you aren’t related to. For example, your cousins have a whole set of uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. on the “other side”…the family of the person your parent’s sibling married. Occasionally of course, they are related to you, and all types of Double Cousin relationships result. But depending on how deeply they’ve delved into the families they married into, you can find valuable information in the genealogy of a family not your own, so cast your net as wide as possible. Every family name that you discover “thru marriage” should be given a least a quick Google…you never know what might turn up.
25.10 Ask around, and be patient…I understand that we’re all in a hurry with this stuff…the clock is ticking. So leave inquiries wherever on the net it seems even remotely possible you might get a response. Don’t be bashful…there is a world of perfect strangers (and I am one of them, as I will explain in a moment) on the net willing to share with you what they know…and after all, they may be strangers, but they may also be relatives! In fact, I have seldom seen, in any area of human endeavor, the degree of kindness and generosity I have experienced within genealogical circles, and I’m really just getting my feet wet. But you must be patient.
25.11 Case in point: 6 years ago, a woman left inquiries on various sites concerning her maternal grandmother. She died when her daughters (this woman’s mother and aunt) were very young…the mother had only vague memories of her, just one photo, and little information, believing, for example, that what turned out to be the grandmother’s niece and nephews might have been her siblings. 6 years later, I come along…the grandmother was my grandfather’s sister…in fact, my Mom was named after her…and I of course have a complete run-down of the family, pictures of the grandmother, even a picture of the mother and her sister with all her lost cousins on that side of the family…including my Mom…and me, almost 1 year old. It might sound strange to say it was a posthumous joyous reunion, but there you go…what’s been a mystery to you for decades is common knowledge to someone else, the trick is hooking up…and that’s the internet in a nutshell.
25.12 But we’re not related, or are we?…One final thing I was surprised to discover, and that concerns those people your ancestors grew up around, who had the same last name, but the story always was “we aren’t related.” The experts say everyone today is at least a 50th cousin to everyone else…so the question is not are you related, but how close? 30th Cousin might not mean much to you…10th might.
25.13 With my family, there was one particularly large Berube clan in Salem, Massachusetts when my grandfather grew up, married, and raised my mother. And it didn’t take long for me to determine that those his age were in fact his 5th cousins…probably something even he didn’t know, since they were always described as “not related to us.” Sure, 5th is relatively distant, but then you have FDR, 5th Cousin to Teddy Roosevelt and his brother Elliott, who was the father of Franklin’s wife Eleanor, the couple thus being 5th cousins once removed. So don’t dismiss those “non-relatives” quite so fast. It all depends on how detailed you’re doing your family’s history…how far back and how far across…those collateral relatives, descended from siblings of your direct ancestors, can really add up.
25.14 Next week, we’ll look at several practical ways to organize your family data, both as charts and as lists…till then, happy hunting, cousin!
Copyright © 2011 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved