Researching family history is another way I spend my time. It came to be a passion of mine byway of a general interest in US history. The passion magnified after my dad passed away in 2007. Unfortunately, his untimely death coupled with the deaths of my grandpa, aunt, and uncle, (all on my paternal side) has made my appetite for family history all the more difficult to appease. I’ve had very little to go off of that I could’ve gotten straight from their mouths. It is quite possibly for this reason why it has developed into the full-blown interest it is now. The hunts and discoveries literally give me feel-goods deep down to my bones.
Family history is really cool stuff. I’m surprised more people aren’t interested in it. Anyone that hasn’t done the research could very well be a direct ancestor of some kind of emperor or royalty and not even know it. What bad comes of knowing something cool like that? You’re right, not a damn thing—unless perhaps it’s like the time’s equivalent to Hitler. I guess that wouldn’t be GREAT news, but I would still be intrigued to know. It goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: most people should be aware that finding out you are of relation to royalty or people of prestige doesn’t mean you are entitled to that family’s estate or anything like that. So don’t get any ulterior motives here. Seriously though, wouldn’t you want to know anyway? I’m not saying that everyone should become family history nuts like me, but there should be some kind of innate curiosity to know more about your ancestors. You wouldn’t be here if not for them.
Tips: To Begin
I’ve gotten a lot of the vital information like names, birthdates, and locations on my maternal side in the late 19th-20th centuries straight from my mom. That’s pretty much the basic of what you need to know to search ancestry.com (and I’m assuming sites like it, but I’m an ancestry member so I will only speak for them). Entering basic information will get you records like census, marriage, death, military, and sometime my personal favorite—newspaper articles. From much of the census records (which are pretty consistently released every 10 years from 1850 and on) you can obtain information on household members; usually giving names of their parents, their parents ages and origins, and so on and so forth.
I have had a much, much harder time getting information on my dad’s side. Hawkins is too common a last name to search without very specific information. Luckily, the family is large enough that I have distant relatives who’ve done our genealogy as well, so I’ve gotten some information from them over the years. So, utilize the older family members if you are lucky enough to have them. They are the family backbone and would have much more vast information than public archives. Otherwise, I have done a lot of asking around at our family reunion each year for any gaps in information. But if your family is anything like mine, you’ll have to be able to differentiate folklore from fact. For much of my life, I thought the Hawkins’ got here by stealing the Queen’s gold and pirating a ship, illegally entering the U.S. Not true, but I definitely thought my family was cooler than yours ‘cause of it.
Tips: Spelling/Human Error
As opposed to these days, most censuses were done freehand. Interestingly, many modern-day last names with spelling variations (such as Peterson versus Petersen) are to the fault of misspelling within vital documents like censuses. This is super frustrating in contrast to the tech savvy, foolproof data collection processes we have now. I’ve found some pretty crazy interpretations of names and it can get really messy when information like birth and death dates don’t add up. Especially prior to the mid 1800’s, it was common for individuals to only have a year (or about) for their birthdate. A rule of thumb: the further back you search, the less accurate information is potentially going to be. The most accurate documents are going to be obituaries, death certificates, and cemetery records. Seek those out for accuracy and base any following information on those. They will save your life in terms of hours!
A little advice on DNA testing: you could be unearthing some skeletons in the ol’ family closet. I have read about other users that have discovered an ancestral product of an out of wedlock pregnancy—things the whole family was in the dark on. Go forward in knowing some things might be “better left unknown”. Not for me, I want to know the bad and ugly as much as the good. I want the truth.
The boyfrand gifted me the AncestryDNA kit for my birthday this past year. It’s all I wanted; the best gift ever. So I spit in the tube, sent it back, and anxiously waited for my results over the course of a couple of weeks. Before I tell you my results, I will first tell you the affirmations I sought after in testing my DNA. Well, I knew I was a great deal Swedish, so I was sure to find that in the results. I assumed some German but suspected I was generally English, as that’s where the surname “Hawkins” originated. I had also been holding out hope to find out what Native American tribe a paternal ancestor originated from. My family has hinted at a Cherokee tribe ancestor for years. I’ve even found out who it was and have a picture of her! However, through ancestry, I have found little promising information and no paper trail in regard to finding tribe origin (not surprising for the time period; a white man marrying a “squaw” was extremely disapproved of), so I held out hope that DNA testing would crack the case. Even just an acknowledgement that there’s some Native bloodline would be a step in the right direction. Essentially, I just wanted some science to back up my family tree.
My results were both affirming and disappointing at the same time. According to AncestryDNA, I’m a boring 99% English. About half of my ancestors originated from Great Britain. I’m something like 14% Scandinavian (that’ll appease my boyfriend’s VERY Norwegian family), and trace amounts are shown from West Asia (that’s the only real surprise). Not even a trace of Native American. I’ve done some research through the blogs of other family history nuts (like myself—only worse) to gauge the accuracy in these tests. They are constantly evolving, as they increase the amount of participants, they too increase the accuracy of matching people with others that have similar strands of DNA. While they are getting more and more accurate every day, I’m still not convinced that my results are exact. There’s got to be some Native American in there somewhere!
I did some more research in other testing options and found out there are something like 4 notable DNA testing sites that provide results on origin and ethnicity. I read that ancestry users can transfer their results to another company to obtain results through their pool of participants and potentially get a better read that way. Furthermore, giving them my DNA results increases their pool and will help to expand and exact results with other participants, so I paid to use their site too. The results varied only minimally. Even still, Native American wasn’t picked up through them, either. However, I am still glad to be a member of their site (FamilytreeDNA) in addition to ancestry because a 4th cousin found me on their site (we had matches in our DNA) and gave me an irreplaceable amount of information on our common relatives in Sweden! He lives in Sweden not far from where my Dad’s maternal side came from. Thanks to this other site, I have also recently gotten a break in researching my surname and that was a very exciting venture. I was able to affirm that my distant paternal relatives were among some of the first settles to the new land from Plymouth, England. Pretty cool!!
I’m still holding out hope that as either site’s DNA pools expand, I will get word that there was a match in my DNA to Native ancestry. Then, with those results, an area in North America will be distinguished as origin and I can go searching independently from there. Until that day comes, these little discoveries (like finding a 4th cousin) will keep me busy. That in and of itself is why I find the time and money well worth the search!
Below you can find just a few discoveries I’ve made while researching my family history.