When I was a kid my dad’s half-great aunt put together a book entitled Frederick John Bauer and His American Wives. The book traced the geneology of the Bauer’s and the cover was graced with the picture of that dashing gentleman to the left. Yes, that is the Frederick John Bauer, the first Bauer to arrive in America (at least from my branch of the family tree), my great-great grandfather. When I found this book on the shelf one day I was fascinated by it. Besides the fact that my name was in print–in an acutal book!–I found the old pictures of distant relatives to be very cool. There was one of a nun, which I found funny for some reason, one of a sailor, and a few dressed like soldiers. Even the ones in normal clothes fascinated me as I thought about how long ago these pictures were taken and that these people were really my relatives. At that young age my interest and appreciation for history was already beginning to rouse.
Ever since then I’ve thought it would fun to do some family history research and put together a family tree. The problem is family research is a whole lot of work, mostly digging through dusty archives and making good use of the microfische machine down at the library. A lot of useful information is not always available in the town you happen to live in, seeing as how families tend to move around, so tracking down every little scrap of information can you have travelling all over the country, if not the world. Given the time involved in these pursuits, geneological research has been the work of retired folks for the most part. That is until recently. Using the power of the Internet, you are now able to do major family research from the comfort of your own home. About a year ago I started researching my family using Ancestry.com. I think I saw a banner ad for a free 14-day trial so I thought I’d check it out. Eight hours later it was three in the morning and I was neck deep in census records and immigrant ship passenger lists and loving it.
Here’s how Ancestry works: You start with what you know. I know myself the best so that’s where I started. I put in my name, birthday, my parents’ names and birthdays and my grandparents names. Ancestry automatically searches their massive databases (Databai? Databasum? What is the plural of database?) of records for people that may be matches based on the information you’ve given. They have scanned literally millions of documents such as census records, birth records, immigrant ship passenger lists, draft registration cards, military records, and oodels more. So for instance, for my great grandpa Horin who came to America from France in 1911, I found census records from when he lived in New Mexico, I found a California marriage index that helped me figure out what year he was married, and I found the passenger list for the ship he came to America on and even a picture of the ship! Most of the records you can view the scans of the original documents and actually see the names of your relatives as they were written down all those years ago. Ancestry also searches through other family trees that people have created and made public and will allow to merge people from those trees into your own, letting you take advantage of research done by others.
By the time I finally got to bed that first night, or morning, I had traced certain branches of my tree back hundreds of years. At some point you have to take your findings with a grain of salt as you are depending largely on reasearch done by strangers that you have no hope of verifying. But by-and-large I think most of what I’ve found has been legit. A great uncle on my mom’s side has been researching our family for years and in talking with him I was heartened to learn that we came up with many of the same conclusions, such as our relation to Thomas Dudley, a governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony back in the 1600’s and father of (apparently) reknowned American poetess Anne Bradstreet.
Researching your family’s origins is fun, but after a while continually looking at what amounts to a NCAA tournament bracket with peoples names in place of the teams can get a little boring. Ancestry allows you to add pictures and stories (text, audio, or even video) to spice up your tree and they also have a tool to help you compile your informaiton into a book that you can either print yourself or they’ll do it for you. They have a lot of other cool features and are constantly improving things. Even in the ten months I’ve been using Ancestry they’ve made a number of improvements to things like the search function and the interface.
You can contact other Ancestry.com members who may have information that can help you in your research and I’ve found everyone that I’ve contacted to be more than willing to help if they can. I even had someone send me a copy of a picture they had of a mutual relative, unsolicited and through the regular mail. People involved in family research are very much a community and are always eager to help out. You can invite people, such as other family members, to be contributors or just viewers of your tree. Invitees can view the family tree and I think upload pictures and stories for free, but in order to have the abililty to add or delete people and records I think they have to have a paying account.
Geez, after all this you’d think I was getting paid to promote this thing, but I’m not. I’ve just really enjoyed it and think that if you’re at all interested in learning more about your family its definitely worth checking out. A word of warning though, if you do take the free 14-day trial be aware that it is very addicting and when the freebie runs out, you’ll find yourself giving over your credit card number without even thinking about it. I did, but it’s been worth it.