Every family has a story. But some of us need to dig a little deeper to complete our unique ancestral narrative. We might go “old school” by picking up the phone or flipping through courthouse records. Or perhaps make the most of the explosion of information available on the Internet. Or, as experts recommend, try doing both.
So, if you’re dying to know if you had relatives on the Mayflower or if your mother’s maiden name is German or Dutch, get busy. In today’s digital age tracing your roots has never been easier.
Start your Search
Step One: Interview
Crista Cowan, Ancestry.com corporate genealogist, says:
- Ask family members what they remember about their parents and grandparents. Write it all down.
- Search for old photos, birth certificates, newspaper clippings or military papers.
Diane Haddad, managing editor of Family Tree Magazine says:
- Start with what you know. Gather details such as where your parents were born, where they lived, and
what your siblings remember, then make a
chart with verified facts.
- Go back slowly, one generation at a time.
Step Two: Boot up
Once you’ve gathered the basics, hit the Internet, searching Google and Facebook to connect with living relatives.
Then, to begin growing your family tree, visit:
- Ancestry.com: Some 2.7 million subscribers use this site, which offers free how-tos as well as a paid membership service for an incredibly detailed search. (Hot tip: Check your local library. Some branches offer free access to ancestry.com paid services).
- Familysearch.org: It offers free access to the most extensive genealogy library catalog in the world, which was compiled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) but is available to all. Also offered: personal assistance at more than 4,500 family history centers worldwide.
Timothy Barron, 47, of Chicago had always been skeptical about a family legend that alleged that when his fourth great- grandparents, John Hollon Sr. and Charity Brewer, got engaged, Hollon traipsed off to the Kentucky wilderness to stake a land claim. Months passed and when Hollon didn’t return, his bride- to-be married and had a daughter with another man. Then, when Hollon unexpectedly showed up, Brewer dumped her husband and ran off with him.
A DNA match (compared via the DNA component on ancestry.com) with a newly found distant cousin, descended from Charity Brewer and the husband she married before Hollon’s return, proved the story was true. “I was utterly thrilled,” Barron says. “It was so rewarding to be able to go tell all of these cousins.”
Finding Her Son
Rebecca Louise McNeil was 23 and alone when the staff at a Catholic hospital in Ohio convinced her to give up her newborn for adoption. She later married and raised a family, but never stopped searching for her son.
This July, McNeil, 65, a retired secretary living in Toquerville, Utah, who had subscribed to Ancestry.com a decade ago, called a fellow subscriber who’d sent her a message through the website. As soon as Matt Lathrum answered the phone, McNeil knew.
“I fell to the floor,” she recalls. “I kept saying, ‘My son! My son!’” Lathrum, 42, drove two days straight from his home of Mesa, Ariz., to meet his birth mother. “He’s all me,” says McNeil, who was surprised that he looked so much like her. “No one could mistake this son of mine.”
Theresa McAllister, 60, who was adopted from an Ohio orphanage at age 4 and raised by loving parents, never thought to look for her birth mother. But after seeing the 2013 movie Philomena, which chronicles a search for a long-ago adopted son, McAllister decided to do some research.
For $20, she obtained a copy of her birth certificate, which listed her mother’s name, Dorothy Marie Scott Makepeace. To McAllister’s surprise, it also read, “other living children: 1.”
“I didn’t know I had a sibling,” she says. A simple Internet search for “Makepeace” in Butler County, Ohio, turned up William Makepeace on Linkedin. McAllister sent an email, which he answered immediately, saying: “I always wondered what happened to my baby sister.”
Brother and sister, who are looking forward to making up for lost years, had a joyful meeting at McAllister’s home in Pompano Beach, Fla. this past September.
Four years ago, Mildred Essary, 85, a retired real estate broker from Bakersfield, Calif., was researching her husband Roy’s lineage on Ancestry. com when she made a stunning discovery:
Her blonde, blue-eyed spouse was the sixth great-grandson of Moytoy, a prominent Cherokee chief known as “Water Conjurer” who ruled the town of Chota, Tenn., in the late 1600s. “It’s really added something to our lives, knowing about the Indian connection,” says Essary. “There’s no telling what we might find next.”
Fantastic Family Find
During her own family search, Diane Haddad, 40, managing editor of Family Tree Magazine, found a 1924 newspaper article about her grandfather, who grew up in an orphanage and put himself through college. “It was the first photo my family saw of my grandfather as a young man,” she says. She then combed through prison records in the Texas State Library to confrm an oft-told family story about her great-grandfather going to prison for bootlegging. It was true. But she also learned, to the family’s delight, that he had later been pardoned.
Celebs Dig Deep
Thanks to TLC’s TV show Who Do You Think You Are? Kelsey Grammer unearthed a connection to the Oregon Trail pioneers and Valerie Bertinelli realized she’d descended from King Edward I.
Zooey Deschanel found a brave anti-slavery activist in her family tree, while Kelly Clarkson discovered fascinating details about her third great-grandfather, a union soldier during the Civil War.
The new season, which helps celebrities delve into their often-surprising pasts, starts airing February 2015.