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Why is it that the older we get, we start to feel the draw of knowing our family history? Sometime last year I decided to sign up for the free 30 day trial at Ancestry.com. I think I had watched one too many episodes of “Who Do You Think You Are?” – that television series on TLC that allows celebrities to trace their roots. Of course, they always find something exciting like an ancestor who fought in the Civil War or a relative that was royalty in Europe. I haven’t found anything like that, but learning about people I’m related to is still just as interesting to me because they tell my story.
If you haven’t traced your heritage, I highly recommend it. It really is very simple to get started and although you can get lost in the details for hours, you can put together a basic family tree fairly quickly. I thought I'd share a few tips I've learned along the way.
I have not spent any money on my research. I started with the free trial on ancestry.com and gathered as much information as I could in the 30 days. Starting with my grandparents’ information, I immediately was able to start linking together pieces. Whomever you add to your family tree diagram will be available even after a free trial or paid membership expires – their names, dates of birth, place of birth, and other basic information. However, many of the resourced documents may not be – passenger lists, census, etc. If you don’t intend on keeping the Ancestry.com membership, you may want to download the documents for your own records while you have an active membership.
The next resource I found was familysearch.org. I had heard that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had an extensive genealogical database; I just never realized they took it digital. This is truly a free website. I used the data from the tree I built in Ancestry.com to fill in a tree here since many of my ancestors weren’t listed. You are building their database as you connect your pieces. You also can see who else has worked on specific details and contact them right through the site if you have questions on their data or just want to connect.
After getting an outline of my family tree, I was ready for the best resource – living relatives. I had lunch with my mom and Aunt Lorraine this summer and pulled out my laptop to show them what I found. I started by asking my first question and really didn’t have to say much after that. Mom & Lorraine were off on stories they had been told, memories that had been passed down, and relatives I still hadn’t connected. Then Mom gave me a huge surprise – somewhere along the line she had inherited records kept by her family. She spent a few years tracking down some of the family relations to fill in the blanks. This was back before the simple internet searches so there are letters written to and from distant relatives as they piece these things together. She also had several funeral cards for relatives dating back to the late 1800’s. When she married Dad, she started creating the same records for his side of the family. I have now scanned all of these and am working to attach the documents as resources to individuals within my Family Search tree. Since anyone can set up an account with them, they will find my documents attached as they trace their ancestors.
My newest resource is findagrave.com. Just like Family Search, the information has been built up over the years from other amateur genealogists so some results are more thorough than others. You may find a picture of the headstone, a full obituary, and/or pictures of the deceased. Others may be sparse on details, but can usually link you to a spouse, parents, siblings, or children to keep you building your tree.
Through this process, I've learned that 20% of my heritage came from Austria, but the remaining 80% can be traced back to Prussia (now Germany). In northwest Germany, my Great Great Grandpa Theodor Büscher was born 4 years and about 140 miles away from my Great Great Grandpa Gerhart Deitering on my mom's side. It took moves to the "new country" and many years, but thankfully their descendents found each other at the Plantation Ballroom in rural Iowa in 1952! Danke Schön!