Online records are a huge resource now, but nothing beats family stories handed down from generation to generation.
WHILE FINDING your family history can be just a click away, getting to the real heart of your ancestry may be trickier — but no less rewarding. Local genealogists say family researchers shouldn’t stop at DNA testing sites like Ancestry.com and 23andMe.com, because they only tell part of the story. Board-certified genealogist Diane Gravel of Thornton, president of the New Hampshire Society of Genealogists, said a wide network of lineage societies and services can help people dig deeper to “really put the flesh on the bones” of their history, and maybe even get younger generations curious, too. “When you start to put character with each of those names, that’s where it really starts to come to life, and you have something to tell your grandchildren about that they might even listen to,” she said. State- and local-level resources at the society, nhsog.org, include nh.gov/almanac, with information on famous New Hampshire residents; sections on town, land, probate, and court records; library special collections; and historical societies and community profiles. Other links include familysearch.org, ArchiveGrid (oclc.org), and archive.org, known as the “Internet Archive,” a free digital library with access to everything from movies to pictures to outdated web pages.
The art of conversation
But genealogists say it’s just as important to simply have a conversation with a grandmother or an uncle. “One of the best starting points is conducting oral interviews, talking to our oldest relatives, and recording their histories, exploring every clue that may lead to credible evidence,” Gravel said in an email. Robert Cameron Weir of Dover, chairman of the society’s publications committee, became interested in genealogy when his older relatives started to pass away. “It was kind of too late. You don’t miss it until it’s not there anymore. People should really start getting interest, if they’re going to, when they can still ask questions of their oldest relatives. That’s the golden opportunity.” He said those unwritten histories could provide some important clues. “It’s easy enough later to go through and order vital records from the state, death certificates, birth certificates. You can always look at Census data. But if you only do that, in your research, you end up with a skeleton of a family tree. It’s just ‘so and so begat so and so.’ If you really want to put flesh on the bones, to really flesh out the story, and then understand a bit of the lives of ancestors, you need more than that,” said Weir.
Where to start
So where or how should you start? Gravel said court records can be key. “I’d start with vital records (at familysearch.org), then probate. Those are where you identify the errors — when wills are filed or when people die without leaving a will, then their estate is probated, and the descendants are still named. Land records are wonderful. They’re not just deeds. If someone is declared ‘non compos mentis’ and can’t take care of themselves anymore, those types of records are found in there.” Erin Apostolos of Alexandria, Meredith Public Library’s director and the society’s recording secretary, agreed that online resources are a game-changer for researchers, amateur and professional alike. “It’s made life so much easier for genealogists. You can go so much further now than you could, unless you wanted to drive and fly all over the place — especially with familysearch.org. They are the ones that have a big push of getting their entire collection digitized,” Apostolos said.
Apostolos said her own search revealed a connection to Giles Corey, her nine times great-grandfather. Corey was accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials and pressed to death in 1692. The only person to receive that sentence, Corey was officially absolved in 1712. While the history is gruesome, Apostolos admits it was an exciting detail. “It wasn’t great for him, but it was cool for us. I said, ‘Oh, I can’t find any Mayflower link.’ They were like, ‘We went to the Salem Witch Trials. That’s way better than the Mayflower.’” Apostolos is also trying to learn more about her great-grandfather, who she said was murdered; and her mother’s uncle, who was killed in World War I. Weir made some discoveries of his own: his great-grandfather was adopted; one relative was struck by lightning in the 1860s; and his grandmother once lived with the daughter of a Civil War veteran. Weir, who claims German, Polish, Irish and Scottish roots, was sobered to discover a family member was a slave owner. “It’s kind of startling when you first see that. We think of New England as being the part of the country with clean hands, but you go back into the 1600s, early 1700s, there was slavery in New England.” But maybe Weir’s most surprising discovery was finding out he’s a direct descendant of King Æthelred the Unready — Weir’s 29th great-grandfather. “He’s essentially the one who screwed it all up for the Anglo-Saxon kings,” he said. Gravel, whose family roots are in Georgia, said one ancestor fought in the Civil War and was taken prisoner at Cumberland Gap, Tenn. “I remember a section in the official records that said they threw down their muskets and wept. And I remember when I saw that, I just got a chill because it made it so visual. And that’s what a lot of these records do.” Her search also brought some devastating revelations. “(On) my father’s side, there were Klansmen, there were the plantation owners, one of whom was a beekeeper. (There were) several Revolutionary War soldiers. One woman was a midwife. I’ve tried to find more records on her. But unfortunately, the man who had the family Bible passed away and his children didn’t keep the Bible.”
May 8 conference
If all those resources and stories seem overwhelming, the society’s virtual conference Saturday, May 8, can be a good place for beginners. “It’s a wonderful jumping off point for all things genealogical,” Gravel said. The conference, titled “Hidden Spaces and Earthly Places: Forging the Online Trail,” features author Cyndi Ingle, creator of Cyndi’s List, a free categorized index of more than 330,000 resources with links to genealogical research sites, according to her bio with the Association of Professional Genealogists. Gravel highly recommends her as a resource. “She really digs deep into the online search. I took a week-long institute course with her a couple of years ago on internet research, and I thought I had a pretty good grasp of it, but you don’t know what you don’t know. And she’s a really good speaker.” Themes at the conference include: “Cyndi’s List in Practice,” “The Hidden Web: Digging Deeper,” and “Pin Your Ancestors Down With Google Maps and Google Earth,” which references mapping resources and Google tools. “Google Earth — that’s a very intimidating tool for a lot of people,” Gravel said.
Beware of mistakes
But online genealogy also comes with a caveat. Gravel said one mistake can get replicated, and unchecked it can lead you down the wrong path. “Credibility and accuracy are ongoing problems in genealogical research, especially given the abundance of online, undocumented family trees. If a name even remotely sounds like it fits with their family, (researchers) accept it as legitimate, and they’re off to the races. These trees get copied and pasted over and over again, perpetuating the same misinformation ad infinitum,” Gravel said in an email. Still, what if all those links and resources don’t give you answers? Gravel said there’s still more places to look, like account books, diaries, and other family papers. “There are manuscript collections all over the country. And there’s a website called ArchiveGrid that indexes manuscript collections in libraries all over North America.” “I mean, you’re never really done, are you?” Apostolos said. “I wish I had known about all these records in high school, I would have been much more interested in history,” said Gravel. The National Society of Genealogists’ 2021 Virtual Spring Conference is Saturday, May 8, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Visit www.nhsog.org/events for more information. Meredith Public Library offers visitors access to ancestry.com, HeritageQuest, familysearch.com, and AmericanAncestors.org, the database for the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Visit www.meredithlibrary.org/genealogy.html for more information.