I remember this photo of my father’s mother’s family from my childhood tucked away in my father’s boxes of old photos. I always loved it even though I never met one single person in it. And, aside from my grandmother (back row, second from right), I didn’t know their names. But for years I obsessed over it and eventually my father made me a copy as a Christmas gift. Knowing that this was a photo that I’d always love, I took it and had my first professional framing experience to make sure it was displayed in the best way possible. I’m glad I did that because in every home I move into, it’s the first photo that goes up.
However, despite having a copy on proud display in my home, I still didn’t know the names of the people. Growing up I had heard bits and pieces of my family history from my father but there was never anyone around to really solidify his stories; most of his immediate family had passed or were scattered all over the world. And it seems like, unlike most French people – my ancestors like to move. Their restless or opportunistic natures had them going from city to city and country to country which, in the 1800’s, didn’t leave for a lot of documentation. He could tell me about his mother and a bit about his father’s side of the family but nothing really more than a generation back for him. When I was about ten, my father gave me a present that was truly memorable; it was a huge (2’X5′) book of some photos of my childhood with dates and a few stories put in and most importantly a family tree that he had started. It wasn’t very complete – there were a lot of first names, no dates and there wasn’t anything past his mother’s mother but it was something.
Maybe it was being young, maybe it was because it was just names on a page, but it didn’t really resonate with me at the time what this was – or what the possibility of it was. I didn’t connect the people on the page to my family. I didn’t look at the photo above and figure out names. I didn’t think of any traits I had that might also belong to people on that page or how I could possibly be living a life that they somehow did, too. And I never found out; the family tree that was supposed to be a project for my father and I, ended up just remaining a page in a book that got tucked away and forgotten for a long, long time.
To some that have totally connected families this might seem ridiculous but I didn’t have a connected family. I had my parents, once in awhile I saw my mums siblings and parents and that was that. There wasn’t continuous stories being told and photos being shared. There was no Aunt Irene that people said I looked like and I didn’t go to visit cousins in the spring. Often I felt like my little family came from an isolated incident. I think that’s why I loved the photo so much. I’ve always wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. To have roots.
A couple of weeks ago I was stuck sick in bed for several days and began watching a new television show about ancestry called, Who do you think you are?. After a couple of episodes, I was completely addicted to the idea of discovering all the people in my family as far back as I could and learning all their stories. So I signed up for Ancestory.com, plugged in all the names I had, and off I went.
I have to say, this site was more than I thought it would be because it has access to a whole bunch of digital archives. If you’re lucky enough to need records from a place that has scanned them in, you can search and actually see that document online. If someone else is searching your family tree, you can see that and possibly learn more names or connections you didn’t have. Best yet, it keeps it all organized in a way that, for a visual yet analytical person like myself, makes it easy to follow and track.
However, despite being very helpful with hints and searches, there can be challenges which requires you to be somewhat of a detective. The challenges I came upon were the fact that in researching my father’s side, everyone was French and devout Catholic. This meant that often families would have 8-10 children, several wives (often they’d die in childbirth) and most of the children would have names of their parents or grandparents and these names would all be variations of Marie, Jean, Veronique and George. Plus, being in small villages, brothers would marry sisters of other families or cousins and end up all sharing names. Looking through records to find names of new family members was therefor really, really hard. I’d sometimes add someone only, after reading several other documents and putting details together, would I learn that they actually weren’t a part of my family.
The other challenges were that during several different wars, parishes were burned down and documentation was lost. Also, some of the family went to new countries for opportunities during the 1600, 1700 and 1800’s, which meant having to look beyond church records and into history books.
I’ve been working on all of this rather obsessively the past two weeks and what I’ve discovered has had such an effect on me. I’ve been able to combine the facts I’ve found with the stories I’ve heard the the historical research that I’ve done to learn that, despite not having a lot of family around – I am part of a large and long family history. I have traits that come from somewhere. I learned that my interest in travel, in moving for opportunity, for seeing the world, for doing – that isn’t something random. It’s genetic. I always thought I was the only one in my family that loved this but I see I come from a long line of people who did this. That most of my family has a long history of farming or fishing in some of the most beautiful places – and almost always by the seashore.
I also learned that my father’s family comes from Trinity in the Channel Islands and La Rochelle – two things I didn’t know before starting this and two things that made me very, very happy. On both French sides they were always looking to better themselves and did a lot of small things in big world moments.
I also learned who every person in that photos was.
This has been such an important thing for me to do that it’s actually inspired a couple of trips for me this year – to go and see some of the countryside where my family is from and combine their stories with my own. Because it’s time for me to begin creating and adding stories to my branch of the tree.
My Family Researching Notes & Tips:
Even if you’ve never had an interest in your family tree – and even if you haven’t had an interest in your family – I highly recommend doing this even if you don’t do it without Ancestry.com (the site just made it easy for me to visualise the tree, keep track of and find info because they’ve digitized billions of birth, death, marriage and estate records. No, I do not work for them, I do not get kick backs for writing about them, I just used it personally with great results). It’s so much more than I can express.
All the things you’ll learn about your family and yourself, well, that’s worth a few hours of research.
What’s important to note for Ancestry.com is that I’m not sure it’s great for European findings. It has been next to impossible to find Danish records although this can be in part because Denmark had most things recorded in the Church (no birth certificates) and Church records aren’t yet scanned. But even into the 20th century documents are still hard to come by. Same with the French documentation although a lot of parish’s surprisingly had things scanned in and recorded. The Channel Islands actually had a lot of records, the UK had a few and French Canada & Eastern America were really great. If a family member went to America, things were easy with passenger and census records.
Here’s some other things I’ve learned:
- Gather as much initial info you can – even if it’s just guesses from people. Birthdates (even just ‘about 1900), place of birth (even if just the country), death and last names are so valuable and really help you get started. After talking with some friends about doing this, I’ve learned that so many of them don’t even know their parents birthdays or their grandmother’s maiden name. Find out as much as you can – even if it’s just people guessing.
- Names often get recorded wrong. When my French relatives moved to English speaking places, their names were always changed. Mostly because when the French person said something, the English person would write it as they heard it. People didn’t fill out their own info generally pre-1950.
- Names on Ancestry.com can be wrong. Some tagging records there might read the actual scanned record wrong and then tag that record wrong. Example: the actual document from 1841 would be written in beautiful italic scroll, might be faded and might be in another language. So someone might read the name ‘Marie’ as ‘Mary’ and tag it as ‘Mary’. So when you search ‘Marie’, click documents that say ‘Mary’ just incase. I almost always click documents and actually read them instead of just the computerized info that pops up.
- Names are important for finding family members – especially for older families. On my Danish side, it was common to take the surnames as the first names. Mr. Neilson would name his child Neils. On the French side, they almost always named their child after themselves or a relative (and most likely a grandmother/grandfather or a brother that had passed). This was both a good and bad thing. I had a relative with a name that stood out but then I was able to discover a new part of the tree because one man future down also had that as a first name. So if you know one branch of your family tree and they all have a group of names and you’re trying to say, find the parents of that branch, looking for a bunch with similar names vs. something that’s way off will help eliminate potential branches.
- Look at the scanned document – especially if your family has a common name. As I said, there are a lot of French people with the name Beauchamp – there are a lot more with the names Marie or Jean. So when you’re scanning a site and see a name, looking at the actual document will really help. Marriage certificates have been the most helpful to me because I can learn who the parents of the bride & groom were and sometimes I can learn if a parent had passed away (so I can look to see if they remarried). The Census has helped me learn vocations, where their parents were from, and people who lived in the house. Never take info for granted – really study those documents. It really helps to either connect or eliminate a potential new family find.
- Don’t assume that someone else who is researching your tree got it right. This is especially critical when using Ancestry.com where you have the option to see other trees and add people/info to yours. I’ve found on several occasions that people just added people without doing the research because if they actually researched, they wouldn’t have added those people. And if I hadn’t researched, I would have added those people, too.
- Record everything you can – every detail, every document, every story. You might find that these help you eliminate certain people, help you when you think you’ve reached a dead end or let you know when you’re on the right direction. I’ve had to go back to certain documents several times to help me with finding family.
- Stick with one part of the tree, finish it as much as you can, then move on. Otherwise you’ll get names all jumbled and mixed up.
- Keep it high-level. I look for pedigree – who was my father’s, father’s, father’s father or my mother’s mother’s mother. I start adding children if I need help in finding more about the parents (like, if the child was married, I’d look at their marriage record to see the parents names, or look up a census record to see if their mother, a widow, was living with them). If you get too caught up in just recording the children or offlinks of family, it can be overwhelming and confusing at first.
- Patience is key. It can be really hard to keep people straight, to look through every document (especially if it’s not in your native tongue) and to deduce who’s who. Don’t think you can sit down and hack it out in one night (like I thought!).
- A lot of births and deaths weren’t recorded pre-1900 so if you’re lucky to have Church records of baptisms, that really helps. Also, I had a written note from a Parish that my father had received years ago that said, “The Late Angelique” so I knew that she had died. But I couldn’t find any records except when her husband had remarried. I also had the date of her last child and I could surmise she’d died in childbirth because in those days, a man with children wouldn’t stay single for long. So look for clues like that.
- Pre-1800 a lot of men had several marriages because their wives would die in childbirth. My fathers side of the family was all strict Roman Catholic so they wouldn’t have divorced and would have as many children as possible. When looking at the dates of births, look for gaps. If there’s 2-3 years in between, there could be a chance a wife died in childbirth and the father remarried. This was almost always true in my family.
- A lot of children died, too. Most of my French family had 9-12 children but often only 7-10 of them survived. This was generally recorded in a census later on (10 children, 7 alive) but before that and in small villages, it simply wasn’t. This is also why I recommend not getting into childrens records at first – it’s hard to know who had offspring and who didn’t. You have to start looking for clues later on to see who was at weddings, recorded in a Parish event or who had lineage. And that’s time consuming.
- Guess the birth and marriage years. I found it to be true of my French family that they generally married between 18-20 and within the first year of marriage, always had their first child. So if I knew person A was born in 1900, I could guess that their parent would be born 1890. And that really helped in scanning records.
- Know your history – both your families and the area and time in which they lived. You’ll be able to get a lot of facts but it’s the stories that bring the tree to life. Why did your family move from one place to another? Why were so many people in your family dying at once? Why did you always hear about Aunt Irene? Knowing history just brings it all together. It makes the people real.
- If you need more information or more story, contact the local historical society or church/parish. I’ve emailed a couple to help me when I couldn’t clearly read a document (I attached the image, asked for clarification and they were able to look at the physical document – fantastic for very faded documents).
- Be careful of scams/databases. You’ll see this pop up a lot in forums and on web sites – people will share their database if you give them your email or pay money. Don’t.
- Filling out your census is important! I’d never filled out a census before and this year I was finally able to. Reading census records has been invaluable and key to figuring out family members, what they did for a living, and where they were from. So do yours if you get one!
- Get people involved! I wish I had people around to ask questions and deepen the connection. I also wished I had more photo and stories to share in case others are searching for the same people. And I wish I had people to share the stories I’ve collected with. I have shared this all with my mum who is visiting her mum next week and recording her with a video camera so that we can have a record of all the stories. And both of them are excited. Me, too.