Ancestors and Family Trees, Part Three: Clearing the path

The Johnstown Incline. (A little too steep for me!)

NOTE: Click here for Part One or Part Two of this series.

Let’s face it: unless you are a professional genealogist – or a librarian – the┬ámethods and resources used to research your family tree will be unfamiliar to you. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to understand.

And no matter how effective your searching is, part of it is luck of the draw. How many other researchers have cleared the path for you? If someone else has researched your tree, or has worked to document and archive information in your area, you’re far more likely to succeed in your searching.

And one of the reasons I wanted to write this series of posts in my blog is to sing the high praises of the people who cleared the path for me.

I live in Chicago now, but I was born and raised just outside of Pittsburgh. And both of my parents were born and raised near Johnstown, Pennsylvania. You know – mountains, railroads…..the setting for All The Right Moves and Slap Shot, and oh yeah….major floods every 60 years or so?

Johnstown may not be the biggest city in the country, but aside from its rich history and its beautiful mountains, it also can boast one of the best organized, best documented mother lodes of genealogical resources. In the entire country, folks.

I’ve looked at other cities and done research for ancestors or relatives in almost every area of the country, and the Cambria County genealogical project puts most others to shame. I have yet to find a resources with as much depth and detail as this one. (And lucky for me, at least three-fourths of my tree is in Cambria County!)

There are so many people who make great contributions to the project (and who have helped me personally) that I couldn’t name them all. But a big hats off must go to Lynne Canterbury and Diann Olsen, who are leaders of the efforts in Cambria County.

THEY WANT YOU: If you are interested in genealogy, it’s really important to get involved not just in your own research but to help the genealogy project in your area.

I know the people I’ve mentioned above appreciate the praise, but more than that, they need help. If there’s a genealogical group doing this kind of research in your area, I can guarantee they are an all volunteer enterprise. They can use a set of eyes or hands to help.

What would you do? You might be entering names and data into a spreadsheet. You may be asked to read a few issues of an old newspaper and document any names and events of local citizens that appear in print. Or if you’ve a wiz at HTML, you may be asked to help build a Web page.

I’d like to especially encourage any younger armchair genealogists to get involved. Many groups have a limited number of volunteers that are elderly, and in order to keep these projects alive and viable (with new ideas, new technology and new energy), people must continue to get involved.

Next: The final part of this series, with some suggestions from my friends at the CamGenPA project.

Ancestors and Family Trees, Part One: Laying the foundations

Over the next several days, I’ll be featuring a series of posts here in this blog that are all about genealogy and family tree research. I’ve got a lot of information to share and will hopefully create an interesting space for discussion.

But before I explore those details, I wanted to start at square one: Why are we searching? How are we searching in today’s social media landscape? And what is, anyway?

As people, we’ve been creating family histories and genealogies for centuries. Families in China and in some European countries regularly have genealogies dating back to the 12th century, while some date back even farther.

But there’s no doubt that researching your family tree has become a popular trend over the last few years. That’s probably due to one of several shows on television raising people’s awareness of the art of genealogy.

This year, there was NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are, an adaptation of a successful British series that’s been running for a few years. That show profiles notable public figures and traces their family histories. This past season profiled Susan Sarandon and Lisa Kudrow, among others.

There’s also several shows that have been done for PBS by Professor Henry Louis Gates. He’s done a series on African-American family histories, and in this past year, also profiled (in the show Faces of America) notable figures – Meryl Streep, Stephen Colbert and American-born Queen Noor of Jordan among them – tracing their histories back centuries.

But if you didn’t see either of those shows, it’s almost impossible to have missed the commercials for the primary Web site for genealogists: In the last year, commercials for have been a constant fixture on TV.

I’ve seen a lot of material for beginning genealogists that teach you some of the traditional methods and try to give you tips on how to search online. But I wanted to discuss what people’s expectations are when they begin searching – and whether is a good tool for everyone.

What is has been around in one form or another for about 30 years. They’ve become more visible on the Web, and evolved into the site we see today, in the last five to ten years.

In its current state, it’s pretty user friendly, especially for beginners. (I briefly tried the site in 2005, and it didn’t seem to have nearly as much information nor was it as user friendly.)

There are mixed opinions about some information on, particularly the information that draws from other users. (While a substantial amount of Ancestry’s information comes from the Census as well as death indexes and other government databases, a significant portion also draws from the family trees of other users.)

I draw the comparison to Wikipedia: Wikipedia is a wonderful project, and it’s got a great deal of information that’s really, really useful. But it’s best used as a starting point – if you’re a kid doing a book report, it would be unwise to use Wikipedia as your only source. is a little different than Wikipedia in that it’s also a repository for information. So you really have to be careful what you save to your tree – and verify those details. (We’ll get into that in greater detail in another post.)

I don’t want to discourage anyone from using – I’ve made some really great finds on it and have probably saved hours of time I might have otherwise needed to spend sifting through microfilm in a library.

How Serious is Your Search?

Another thing you should really think about before jumping into a search is what you’d like to accomplish.

Why? Well, is a useful site, but it’s also about a dollar a day to use and access all of its resources as a paid member. Information from other sources can also cost money as well. It’s not always terribly expensive – I’ve ordered obituaries from libraries for $3 a piece – but if you’re searching for hundreds of people on your tree, those costs can add up.

Some people just want to be “casual” genealogists. They might just want to go a generation or two back in their own immediate family. Maybe they’re trying to find Grandpa’s WWII service information, or want to see grandma’s name in the census. In that case, it would probably be easier to go to a local library. Many libraries have free access to Libraries also have other resources that come with a library card, like access to HeritageQuest.

You can also use (from home), which is a database used by and that was created (and is maintained) by the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

Local libraries might also have a yearbook with pictures of your parents or grandparents.

But if you get the “bug” to do a more serious search – and it’s pretty contagious – you’re going to want to go farther back. Just understand a few things:

  • It’s an investment – of time, of money, of a lot of reading and analyzing.
  • If you’re looking for a project with a definitive flow, or a definitive ending, this one is NOT IT.

When I really jumped into this project five months ago, I knew I would be immersed in research and putting the pieces together. I had no idea that only five months later, I would have almost eleven hundred names on my tree!

For me, though, what I get in return is worth the effort. I’m learning more about my family every day, and seeing and understanding new things about my parents. I’ve learned of the existence of family members that prior to this year, I didn’t even know existed!

And I’m creating something that my siblings, their children, and all of my extended family can draw from.

At the end of the day, understanding and learning about other members of my family also makes me understand a bit more about myself. And that’s a great gift, too.