Genealogy can be defined as the study of family ancestries or histories, or a record or account of the ancestry and descent of a person, family, or group. At least, that’s the official definition. One may think it sounds rather dull – just a list of names, but there are often interesting stories as well, if one digs hard enough.
I got interested in genealogy a few years ago, and now wish I had gotten interested a whole lot sooner. I had the chance, way back in 1980, to go to Germany with my mom to visit with her side of the family. I was just 18, rather shy (those who know me now may not believe that, but it’s true), and didn’t really speak much German (still don’t), and not having gotten into genealogy yet, passed up on the perfect opportunity to ask my maternal grandmother and grandfather about their side of the family. They have both since passed away, and now I can’t ask.
Where to start? Well, if your parents are still living – start there! Ask them about their family, their parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins. While you’re getting the names and birthdays, don’t forget to ask for the stories. I’ve started writing down my dad’s stories about his growing up in the Netherlands and posting them on my internet blog. My nieces and nephews read the stories online and then send questions to him for more info or different stories they vaguely remember him telling in the past.
My mom passed away in 2001, and while I hadn’t written them down at the time, I had already started asking her for stories about her growing up. I’ve started writing them down now, as best as I can remember them. In this day and age, it is so easy to record the stories, too. There are apps that will transcribe the spoken word into text (my brother Robert, in Vancouver, has that one on one of his gadgets), or you can video tape them telling the story and post the video clip.
Once you’ve spoken, or written, to all the living relatives you can find, the next step is to check the internet.
Thanks to the internet, searching for info has gotten way easier, and getting in touch with relatives overseas is also easier – and free if they have an internet connection, too. I have several cousins, some close – some distant, who are “friends” on Facebook and periodically add another one or two as I find them (or they find me). I got lucky with one such cousin, a distant cousin who happens to work at the archives in Horst, in the Netherlands, where volunteers are entering all the church and government records onto the internet. The website it genlias.nl and is free, and is an awesome place to look for records if your ancestors came from the Netherlands. They have a huge number of entries already input, mostly from 1800-1950 so far, and are posting more every week. With his help I was able to add a whole pile of names to my family tree.
One of the easiest ways to search on the internet, is to type one of the names from your list into the search bar, and place the name in quotes – “Penelope Pitstop” – this makes the search engine look for records that include both the first and last name. If you leave off the quotes it will bring up all records that have either name. If you get a lot of resulting hits, you can always narrow the search by adding, again inside the quotes, the year of birth or the place of birth – “Penelope Pitstop 1966”. Keep in mind that the farther back in date you go, the more likely there could be variations in the spelling of the names. In my family, there are lots of Peter Houben’s. Peter may show up as: Piet, Pete, Peter, Peeter, Pieter, Petrus (the latin form), or Pierre (the French form). And that’s just the first name!
How do you know who is a second cousin or a third cousin once removed? Well, the easiest way is to show you the chart.
It’s actually quite interesting when you examine your ‘tree’ to see if or when cousins marry each other. At least in my family, there are a fair few instances of 3rd or 4th cousins marrying. (Now I know why we Houben’s look so much alike – it’s all that inbreeding – lol.) I think, if I remember correctly without looking it up, that one of my 7th great-grandparents had a son who was a 6th great-grandparent, and a daughter who was also a 6th great-grandparent. They each had kids, who had kids, who had kids, who married each other… so what looked like two separate branches on the way up, suddenly merged into one branch.
I haven’t run into anyone particularly famous yet, but who knows, maybe tomorrow.
Watch for the next installment of this column, when we will go into some of the more popular genealogy websites that are available.