NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, March 2011
Search for Your Ancestors and Make A Family Tree
By Ira Wilsker, Radio Show Host,
Columnist, College Professor and deputy sheriff
(click to email author)

http://ssdi.rootsweb.ancestry.com (Social Security Death Index)
http://ellisisland.org Ellis Island Immigration Records

Over the years I have dabbled in genealogy trying to create a family tree. While I have always been curious about my ancestors, my interest was piqued in pre-internet days when I encountered a gentleman in Germany with the same unusual last name as I have. We exchanged letters and photographs noting some commonality in our respective families, but could not prove a relationship. Sometime later, in the early days of the internet, I saw a reference to a British author of children's books with my last name, and we started an online correspondence in an attempt to find a common ancestor; while we still email each other, and I get regular reports of his son's football (soccer) matches, we have not found that common ancestor.

In this country I periodically see articles in some professional journals referencing lawyers, business executives, artists, and others with my last name with several of us exchanging emails trying to find that common link. Several years ago I went to Los Angeles to speak at a professional meeting, and stayed for a few days with someone with my last name who may have been a distant cousin; when he picked me up at LAX I thought someone was playing a practical joke on me, as it appeared that my brother was picking me up. After some research, we found that my paternal grandfather was his grandfather's brother. Also a few years ago I received a cryptic phone call from an individual looking for a bone marrow donor for his daughter who had leukemia. This individual in Washington, D.C. had hired a professional genealogist to find relatives who may be potential marrow donors in an attempt to save his daughter, and the genealogist found me, my brother, my sister, and my maternal cousins. Our common genetic bond was my maternal grandmother, who was the sister of his maternal grandmother. Of my siblings I was the better match, but another relative was the best match, and she donated the marrow; in this case, genealogy was a literal life saver.

Genealogy is a popular activity that many do for religious reasons, while others do it as a hobby. A recent online news story mentioned what it called one of the best free online databases of genealogical information. Being curious, I decided to try it; the website mentioned was FamilySearch.org. While registration is not required to use the website, it is free, so I registered online. The first example of the advantages of free registration was that I could view some of the actual documents found, rather than just a detailed reference. The first name I entered was my paternal grandfather and almost had an epiphany with what was displayed on the first few screens I viewed. The 1920 census listed the residents of the household, and the names and ages of the adults were all correct as I knew them, as were the names and ages of two of my uncles; the shock was the first name listed for my dad in the census was different from the first name which he used around our family; we knew it was him because the age shown on the census matched his age on that date, and he did not have a twin brother. My late dad's listing on the Social Security Death Index (ssdi.rootsweb.ancestry.com) shows his first name as the one we knew him by, not the one shown on the census records.

Another startling fact that I found on FamilySearch.org that my siblings and paternal first cousins were totally unaware of is that we had a paternal aunt; all of us only knew about the three sons of my paternal grandparents, but in 1913 they had a daughter. FamilySearch.org led me to a 1914 death certificate issued in Philadelphia that showed my grandfather and grandmother as the parents, with their address and all of their demographic information correct, but indicating that my aunt died on April 1, 1914 at the age of seven months. The cemetery where she is buried is listed on the death certificate, and that will be an obligatory visit the next time we visit Philadelphia. The cause of death listed was an archaic term, but a little online research quickly defined the cause of death; now, almost a century later and with modern medical knowledge, my wife used her medical training and experience to deduce the likely cause of death from a childhood disease that was little known in 1914, but is now well understood.

On my maternal side, I found the census listings for my maternal grandparents starting in 1920. The names and ages of the household members were all correct, except for the spelling on my maternal grandfather's first name; he passed away before I was born, and I never knew him, but the census showed his first name with a European spelling, not the more Americanized name which my family and cousins knew him by. I also found the municipal "wedding registrations" from almost 70 years ago for two pairs of my aunts and uncles with FamilySearch.org displaying the actual pages of the city wedding registry.

FamilySearch.org claims to be the largest genealogy organization in the world consisting of 4,500 family history centers in 70 countries. It is a free service provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to the website, "All are welcome ... We encourage all people to seek out their ancestors and preserve their family histories. Because interest in family history is not limited by culture, ethnicity, or religious faith, we welcome all who wish to discover more about their family and their heritage."

There are many other websites that provide genealogical information, many of which are free, but some require a paid subscription. A comprehensive list of the 50 most popular genealogy websites with their respective popularity rankings is maintained by ProGenealogists at http://www.progenealogists.com/top50genealogy2010.htm. ProGenealogists is the commercial research division of the most popular genealogy website, Ancestry.com. About 80% of the listed websites are free, but many of them require registration in order to make full use of their services.

For those who may want to compile their family tree information into some type of manageable database, there are several excellent free genealogy programs, as well as several commercial programs. My favorite list of the free programs is Gizmo's " Best Free Genealogy / Family Tree Software" list at http://www.techsupportalert.com/best-free-genealogy-family-tree-software.htm. This list displays about a dozen of the top free genealogy programs, all of which have been community evaluated and rated. Links are provided to download each of the listed programs, along with some hints and tips on their use.. According to the Gizmo ratings of the free software, the free version of Legacy Standard is the top choice of the community (a commercial version is also available), followed by Gramps, and Family Tree Legends. Anyone interested in compiling family tree information will likely find one of the free genealogy programs adequate.

There are several local organizations that meet to discuss genealogy and search techniques, and they may be a worthwhile activity for those who may want to do more than they can on their own. With dozens of free genealogy websites providing genealogical information, and several free family tree software utilities, anyone interested in researching his roots may do so.

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