So, you are at a Foreign Service post, under-employed, missing your family, and feeling somewhat rootless. Have you ever wondered about your family history? If you have good internet access, now might be a good time to find out more about your ancestors, build a family tree, and enjoy some virtual “quality time” with your relatives in the process.
I got started researching my family tree from the U.S. while my husband was posted to an unaccompanied tour. I had always wondered about my father’s family, in particular, because of the unusual surname (Bembry). With my husband gone, I found that I had some extra time, but on the other hand, as a temporarily single parent, I needed a very flexible schedule. And so, I let my laptop take me back in time.
My first stop was the genealogy website Ancestry.com. This is truly the mother of all online genealogy resources, with a vast database of census, birth, death, military, property, and other types of historical records available for a monthly fee (there is a free trial.) It works together with Family Tree Maker, a genealogy software program, though the partnership is not perfect. The primary advantage to the Ancestry.com/ FTM combination is that records that you find through the website can be integrated and cited automatically in the program. However, if you hope to use FTM to maintain an online family tree at Ancestry.com, you will be disappointed. The program can export to Ancestry.com, but cannot synchronize information with it, therefore, it is difficult to regularly update your online tree once you have posted it to the site.
Ancestry.com membership also gives you access to a database of family trees compiled by other genealogists. This can be handy for narrowing down a search; however, these trees are compiled by people who may not be reliable sources. So, always confirm their facts before incorporating them into your own family tree.
Ancestry.com is a good place to start, but it is far from the only online resource available. Another excellent site is Cyndi’s List. This is a free clearinghouse website with thousands of links categorized by locality, by ethnicity, by type of record, etc. (More recommended websites are listed at the end of this article.)
Sometimes, the best way to find information is simply to Google it. There are thousands of volunteer-maintained websites on local history and genealogy. These sites can sometimes have broken links and other annoying technical issues, but are also great sources of local history and family research, Bible records, photographs, cemetery records, and other information that you cannot find anywhere else. For example, I found much of the information that I have on my maternal grandfather’s line, including photos of my great-great-great grandfather and his family, through a wonderful amateur website called the Sumner County Tennessee Genealogists’ Companion.
One of the nicest aspects of online genealogy is the cooperation among researchers. Often, websites will list volunteers who will do “lookups” in various local record books upon request. The same is true of local historical societies, libraries, and other organizations. Just ask, and ye shall receive (a small donation may be politely requested.) Or someone may offer before you can even ask! After I posted a request on a message board, a distant relative that I had never even heard of went to a county courthouse to find my grandparents’ marriage certificate, copy it, and mail it to me. No charge – as she said, what goes around comes around.
Before you get into serious internet research, ask your relatives for any information that they can provide. This can not only save you time in the long run, but can also be a lot of fun. My dad and his sister emailed me some wonderfully colorful stories about their parents, grandparents, and other relatives. I really enjoyed the conversation which not only taught me a lot about where I came from, but led to contact with distant relatives and a useful exchange of information. My aunt sent me a CD with dozens of vintage family photos that she had collected which really rounded out the family tree. Again, ask, and ye shall receive. Your older relatives will love being interviewed about their memories and will almost certainly be happy to provide whatever information and documentation they can.
As you compile your information, be sure to document everything. Include a link to the records that you find online, because the page may be nearly impossible to find again. Or, print the page using Adobe or One Note and store it on your hard drive. Remember that one day you will undoubtedly be asked to share or pass on your information and it needs to be concrete and verifiable.
Work backwards, thoroughly documenting each generation before moving on to the one before it. Take lots of notes. List all the facts about each family, because seemingly non-essential facts, such as sibling names, may be the key to making an earlier connection. I established a link between a Tennessee and a North Carolina branch of my maternal grandmother’s family based on the repetition of the given name “Isaac” over several generations, for example.
As you work back in time, try to learn a bit about the era in which your ancestors lived. This can not only help clear up mysteries, but provide a sense of where your ancestors fit into the bigger picture. Were they some of the first white settlers in their part of the country? Was their town devastated by the Civil War? Did they live shorter or longer lives, or have bigger or smaller families than was usual for the time? Facts such as these can add an additional dimension to your family history.
Finally, be prepared for surprises. My father’s family, the Bembrys, who had all been Florida sharecroppers as long as anyone could remember, turned out to be descended from a wealthy colonial North Carolina family. I found that we had Dutch and German roots in addition to the English, Scots, and Irish we had always known about. My journey also took a side trip into African-American genealogy when I discovered that my great-great-great-grandfather Bembry had at least one mixed-race uncle, also named Bembry, whose African-American descendants continue to live in the same general area as do our branch of the tree.
When I had reached a logical stopping point-one is never actually finished with this sort of project-I wrote up our family history as a gift for my father. He loved it, and especially enjoyed sharing copies at a family reunion. Since then, I have researched some of the female lines in the tree, found even more interesting information to add to the next version, and swapped more facts and stories with relatives close and distant. It has been a great way to bring us together across the miles!
Recommended Genealogy Websites
Largest subscription database of genealogical information on the internet. You can sign up for a U.S.-only membership, or pay a bit more for an international membership offering access to information from countries other than the U.S.
Now owned by Ancestry.com, Rootsweb is a collection of state and county genealogy websites and message boards. A great resource for documents that may not be found through ancestry.com searches, as well as connecting with distant relatives who may also be researching your family (this has happened to me several times!)
Run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), this site is a free database of vital records from the U.S. and other countries. Personal Ancestral File software, a simple program for organizing genealogical information, can be downloaded for free at the site.
Cyndi’s List, a free clearing house site with thousands of links to genealogy resources in many countries.
For U.S. cemetery transcriptions, there is no one central database. Here are two sites, each with a different database http://www.findagrave.com and http://interment.net. Local genealogy websites also have cemetery transcriptions that may not be included in the larger databases.
For American military records, try the National Archives, www.archives.gov, or for Civil War records the best source is the National Parks Service: http://www.itd.nps.gov/cwss/soldiers.cfm.
Kelly Bembry Midura is a Foreign Service spouse and AAFSW ‘s Content Manager.