Untangling Your Roots
October 25th, 2015 by Victoria Hampton
Photo by Brandon Pomrenke

Photo by Brandon Pomrenke

Discovering who you are is all a matter of deciphering the origins of your genes

The story of our ancestors is sometimes a fickle recollection. While Grandpa may say his great-great-uncle practiced medicine in Vermont, your great aunt may think he bandaged wounds of fallen soldiers on the Confederate side of the Civil War.

Verbal history can unite a family with captivating recollections, but when it comes to ancestry, there are certain resources that offer definitive answers about where your family came from and how their history shaped your life.

Our ancestral roots are buried in the depths of courthouses, cemeteries and archives. These are the places birth and death certificates, land deeds, news articles, photographs and other historical documents are stored for safe keeping.

Accessing them was once a long, tedious, expensive and often frustrating process.

In the 21st century, we access our heritage differently. Genealogy has transformed into a technological and scientific discovery.

With the rise of technology, many of these documents are now available online.

Online databases and DNA testing are changing the way people get information about their ancestors, while professional genealogists, genealogy hobbyists and societies unite a community searching for answers about its heritage.

“Before you could do research online, you had to actually go to courthouses, had to go to national archives, so as I traveled to visit family I would stop at libraries and spent a lot of time at courthouses,” says Terry Rowden, a family history consultant in Willcox, Arizona.

Online genealogy resources are a combination of web databases such as Cindy’s List, Crestleaf and My Heritage, and resources that focus on specific historical topics, such as the American Civil War Research Database and Daughters of the American Revolution.

One of the main genealogy sites is Ancestry.com—the largest for-profit genealogy company in the world.

“Since we started in 1997, we’ve digitized 16 billion records,” says Jennifer Utley, Ancestry.com senior manager of research. “That’s the core of our site. Over the years, we’ve built really amazing tools for people to use: build their own family tree online, a new DNA product to find out ethnicity, and a new mobile app so you can take your family tree with you and share at family reunions.”

The site has acquired many genealogical resource websites such as Rootsweb, Archives, Fold3, Genealogy, MyFamily, Newspapers and Find A Grave, and genealogy software called Family Tree Maker.

The expansion has made it easier for genealogy hobbyists, including Virginia Roberts of Pendleton, Oregon.

“I subscribe to Ancestry.com and Familysearch.com,” says Virginia, a member of the Blue Mountain Genealogy Society. “There is just a ton of information online and great resources.”

Thanks to the rise in online genealogy databases and resources, people can now access their ancestry from the comfort of their homes. However, there are still individuals who teach the tricks of the trade and others who travel to the depths of courthouses, graveyards, libraries and other locations to recover ancestry information for people around the world.

Terry teaches classes at her local library. Using a PowerPoint presentation, she advises people on where to begin their genealogy search.

“Basically, I start with asking people, ‘What do you want to know, and how do you want to do the research?’” says Terry.

She has been leading genealogy classes for 12 years. She explains specific historical concepts such as immigration versus emigration, which is distinguished by entering a country or exiting a country; understanding resources online and in archives, courthouses and genealogy centers; and conducting research across all platforms.

“I teach them how to search on the Internet,” Terry says. “The hardest part of genealogy and the hardest to teach is how to draw clues from what you find.”

In her presentation, she shows census, birth and death records, and points out where important information is found. She also explains that searching can be done online and on a local, state and national level.

“A lot of paid sites you can subscribe to, but there’s national archives all over the country,” Terry says. “You can go and find records about that area. I give them tools.”

Terry Rowden, left, teaches people how to search for clues and draw conclusions about their genealogy at her local library in Willcox, Arizona. Photo by Wayne Crane

Terry Rowden, left, teaches people how to search for clues and draw conclusions about their genealogy at her local library in Willcox, Arizona.
Photo by Wayne Crane

Free resources such as community genealogy workshops can set ancestry enthusiasts on the right path to search success. Online resources are another great source for free information through the dedication of volunteer networks.

Brian Nichols manages the site Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness and has a network of volunteers that fulfills requests for people across the country. He started rebuilding the site in 2014 after it crashed, and the woman who ran the site died.

“The original had a little over 4,000 willing to volunteer,” he says, noting his stable now includes a few more than 600.

Genealogy has become Brian’s career. He also manages genealogyinc.com and mapofus.org, and state genealogy networks on Facebook. He earns money from advertisements.

While Brian’s work is based around a network of volunteers, professional genealogists are available to help people when they hit a brick wall with ancestry searches, are just starting or need help with genealogy documentation.

Her fascination for family history led Donna Bradley of Anza, California, to offer her services to the public.

“Back in the ’80s my grandmother was doing research on our family tree,” Donna says. “When she died, there were all these records she had given me, and there was a lot of fascinating stuff in there.”

The past 10 years, Donna has operated a genealogy business, People Pedigree.

No special degree or certification is required to become a professional genealogist, but experience is invaluable.

“I’ve taken some seminars, but at the time I was becoming a genealogist they didn’t have classes,” Donna says. “You learn from the school of hard knocks. I started off by doing my genealogy, and you get associated with other people doing genealogy and they hit a brick wall. Within the course of conversation I would tell them, ‘Well, try this.’”

Donna helps her customers continue building their family trees even in the face of road blocks. Requests for her expertise are split between national and international customers.

She uses many online resources, but notes that many times she has sat in jeans and a T-shirt amongst dusty records in the depths of courthouses or archives.

Genealogy professionals and hobbyists agree ancestry searches must stretch beyond web sources. The reality is, not everything is online.

“You have to do your outside research,” Terry says, noting not all records are digitized.

“Every historical record isn’t on Ancestry,” says Matthew Deighton, the company’s public relations manager. “With 16 billion historical records, we still don’t have them all, but we’re working on it.”

Ancestry.com adds about 2 million records each day, Matthew notes.

While online databases are expanding and open to interpretation, one resource cannot be misinterpreted: your blood.

DNA test kits allow people to discover their ethnic background. Once the test kit is bought, a person gives a sample of saliva and returns it in the prepaid envelope. It takes about 6 to 8 weeks for the results to be sent via email.

DNA testing can match people with relatives they may not know about through websites that use the data to help build family trees. It is a another good genealogy channel to make sure you are on the right path.

“I found out that my research was actually correct,” says Terry, who was told by her family that her great-great-grandmother was Native American.

Her research led her a different direction. She disproved the Native American connection through DNA testing.

“Sometimes the family stories can give you clues about where to go, but they can also be misleading,” says Terry. “I found a picture of great-great-grandmother, and she doesn’t look Native American at all. The only way to actually prove it is through DNA. DNA proved the research I found about my family was really correct.”

Genealogy can lead to a journey across the world, across the nation and sometimes just across town.

While large databases offer a global and national perspective on where we came from, localized resources can create an identity deeply rooted in the history of a community. This helps people understand the importance of their ancestry.

“I believe that finding out about one’s family history gives them a sense of purpose,” says Brian.

Whether through online research, a DNA sample, contacting a professional or talking to members of a society, genealogy continues to gain popularity and build a national and global community.

“People seem to be able to feel the connection,” says Virginia. “They aren’t really looking for being connected to famous people or royalty. They’re just looking for family.

“Through the years, we form relationships with people we would have never known otherwise.”