Letters: Family History Obsession


geneaologycollageDear Jess,

Thanks for all of the fun videos last week! They’ve made me think and laugh a lot over the last week.

This week, I’ve been crazily fascinated with genealogy. This is something I get really, really into from time to time. It started with a school project back in middle school. It continued when the internet became more helpful in high school. Then again a couple of summers ago, when I signed up for Ancestry.com (then forgot to cancel the account…which resulted in a bunch of money fading into history, along with my ancestors.)

My most recent family history binge was inspired by one of my favorite summer shows: “Who Do You Think You Are?” on TLC. If you haven’t seen it, the show follows one celebrity per episode as historians, genealogy experts, and librarians help them crack open family mysteries. This television version of sleuthing always involves traveling to the places where the stars’ ancestors lived, in the United States and beyond. It’s pretty much a fantasy of mine. (If you want to get a feel for the show, I suggest this season’s Zoey Deschenel episode; besides her absolute cuteness, the story they unravel during the episode is pretty fantastic.)

By the time the show aired its final episode, I had successfully resisted signed up for the two-week free Ancestry.com trial eight times—once per each WDYTYA episode. However, I was still left with that hunger to crack open the laptop and continue down the rabbit hole that is the family history search. Most of all, I wanted to learn more about the women in my family. If you’ve ever studied your family lines, you’ll know that following the men is usually easier. Unless you know or can find marriage certificates, it’s quite difficult to learn the females’ maiden names. Although I’ve done the genealogy thing a handful of times before, I’ve really only followed the easy/male lines. This was a time for women!

To my delight, I discovered that anyone can build their family tree for free at FamilySearch.org, a nonprofit family history organization operated by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Then I was like, “Duh.” The highlight of my trip to Salt Lake City last year was when Dale and I stumbled into the Family History Library while walking through Temple Square.

After signing up at FamilySearch, I spent a whole day tracking down my family. While the website doesn’t let you open up all the source documents that exist online, it does let you find the digital information within them. For example, I was able to download the 1900 US Census that listed my Great-Great Grandma, Rosina (Bertsch) Brandt, but only view the digitized text from the 1910 UC Census that lists her. Not a huge deal. If I want to see the original source document, the site tells me that I can sign up at Ancestry.com, or go to a Family History Center in my area (turns out the closest one is about 30 minutes away.)

A very cool feature of FamilySearch is that the site connects your ancestors to ancestry lines that other users have established. For example, once I established that Rosina was part of my family tree, the site automatically added dozens of her/my ancestors all the way back to the early 1500’s in Germany. How neat is that?

I know I’m gushing here, but I looooove this stuff. Let me share one story I discovered:

On my mother’s side, I noticed a strange occurrence with my Great-Great-Great Grandparents, Rosina’s and her husband’s (Friedrich’s) parents. All of them were born in Russia, but died in the United States. Before them, all of their parents were born in Prussia, but died in Russia. After a bit of searching, I found entire websites about these ancestors and people like them. It turns out that some of these family members moved from Prussia to help found German-Lutheran communities near Odessa, Russia (now Ukraine). Later, when the leadership changed in Russia, these Germans were told that they needed to enlist to fight in war. Apparently my family didn’t like that, so they and many other members of these towns packed up and moved to the mid-west of the United States. What strikes me about this whole situation is how tight-knit this community must have been for Rosina and Friedrich for them to end up married in the States.

I keep going down more paths with this, and I’m a bit addicted. Just yesterday, a friend invited us to a Polish festival in Portland, and I had to pick up my phone and continue down another family line that lived in what is now Poland. (Of course, true to my mother’s side, they were German-Polish.)

If I had all of the time in the world, I’d sign up to volunteer with FamilySearch.org. Anyone can sign up to help index records, such as old censuses, by downloading free software and giving time. Sometimes I just really like tasks that take my mind of things, and I think this would fit the bill, plus make me feel good about potentially helping other people find their ancestors. I’ll have to keep this in mind.

If all of my rambling has inspired you to look into your own family history, here are my tips:

  1. Get as much info as you can from your family. Having your grandparent’s and great-grandparents’ birthdays and locations, for example, can help you make the jump from present to the plethora of records that exist online.
  2. Find a website that works for you to build your family tree. It’s pretty obvious that I suggest FamilySearch (free!), but if you’re willing to spend the money, Ancestry is awesome.
  3. Save as you go. While the website will catalog your tree and documents, I’ve found it helpful to save copies to a folder on my computer when I can, so I can share them with my family.
  4. Google it. When you hit a wall, do what we modern folk do and Google the info you do have: names, towns, etc. This is how I found the websites dedicated to my German-Russian families’ towns.
  5. Try name variations. I’ve found that most names are recorded erroneously at least once, and many changed between the homeland and the US. I’ve found at least six variations of my Great Grandma Violet’s surname, Gonitzke, in just one day of research.
  6. Share! Part of the fun of genealogy research is to share it with your family. They might even be able to help you fill in the stories that aren’t recorded by census documents, ship rosters, and marriage certificates.

It’s been very fun to work on this during Murphy’s naps, and I know I won’t get the time to do it again for a long while. My maternity leave is dwindling. I imagine that my draw to this research is due to the fact that Murph’s in my life. Now that we are adding to the family tree, it seems especially important to take note of those who came before and celebrate them. After I get my fill of family tree building, I hope to learn more about the food and customs of these communities. There must be some interesting Russian-German or Polish-German food out there, right?

P.S. If you have access to HBO, I highly recommend Christopher Guest’s comedy series, Family Tree. In it Tom Chadwick (played by Chris O’Dowd, the adorable love interest in Bridesmaids) tracks down his family stories after receiving a box of artifacts from a recently departed aunt. It’s quite charming.


2 Responses

  1. Laura

    September 22, 2013 1:00 pm

    I have many things to say about this! First off, I LOVE Family Tree. Matt and I loved it from the first episode, and it doesn’t hurt that Chris O’Dowd might be my current celebrity crush. Secondly, I married into a family with one member who is obsessed with genealogy. Matt’s great uncle sends us packets and letters at least 2-3 times a week packed with genealogy. It’s all usually the same stuff, because, well, I think he’s losing it, but it was all fascinating the first time around! He has all these great old pictures of Matt’s mother’s family. It is pretty neat to see where you’ve come from and all the people out there that you are related to. He keeps requesting info on my family, so maybe I’ll see what I can dig up. 🙂

    • Linz

      September 22, 2013 2:17 pm

      Awesome! I love getting mail, and mail stuffed with genealogy tidbits sounds particularly delightful. (Chris O’Dowd is adorable. I love his voice, and I don’t even think it’s just because of the accent.)


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