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Genealogy in the Digital Age: Uncovering Your Family History

Jeff Anderson
By Jeff AndersonNovember 27, 2013

Whether you intend to build a comprehensive family tree or just want to understand your family’s roots, it’s easier than ever to research genealogical records in the digital age.

Genealogy is the technical word for tracing your family history. It is an ancient art, having been practiced since the dawn of civilization. In fact, primitive forms of genealogy would have been the crux of early societies, which were often grounded on kinship based structures and that practiced religions centered on ancestor worship. As societies developed, monarchs, aristocratic families and even religious leaders were legitimized by being able to demonstrate their blood lineage.

During the 20th century, genealogy was embraced by hobbyists. Books like Roots (in which an African American author traced his ancestry back to the days of slavery) popularized genealogy and showed that genealogy isn’t just for people with wealthy families or noble ancestry.

The genealogy hobbyist can take on the role of a researcher and detective, using evidence to create a story or to discover surprising facts — a role that many find engrossing and endlessly fascinating.

Connecting the Generations: Building Your Family Tree

3 Generation Family
Genealogy is a perfect inter-generational activity. Grandparents and their grandchildren can work together to fill out a family tree or research biographic details about relatives. Some of the benefits of genealogy as an inter-generational activity include:

  • A  context for older relatives to share their stories with younger generations
  • Promotes the preservation of family identity
  • Teaches research skills and computer skills to children
  • Teaches children about history in a uniquely personal and captivating way

Best Ways to Research Family History and Discover Your Roots

Much genealogical research can now be done online and a wealth of information is available at no cost. Instead of rummaging through bins of microfilm, you can simply punch in names and birth dates to start finding information.

Types of records that are searchable online include:

  • Census records (U.S. Census records are sealed for 72 years, at which time they are publicly available. The 1940 census records were unsealed last year.)
  • Birth, death, and marriage records
  • Religious records (baptisms, christenings, confirmations, bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs)
  • Military records and draft records
  • Land, deed and property records
  • Voter registrations
  • Passenger manifests (particularly for ships carrying immigrants)

Some of the most popular online genealogy databases with these records are:

  • FamilySearch.orgFree | A free searchable archive of genealogical records maintained by the Church of Jesus Chris of Latter Day Saints
  • MyHeritage.com: Free | Another free database and family tree builder
  • Ancestry.com: $30.00 per month | Ancestry.com is a subscription service but has significantly more records than FamilySearch.org. A two week free trial is available.
  • World Vital Records: $90.00 per year | A competitor of Ancestry.com owned in part by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen that offers access to its archives of 3.6 billion documents for $90 per year. A seven day free trial is available.

These websites not only allow you to find interesting records, but include tools that allow you to build your family tree, collaborate on research and share with others.

A Case Study: My Mysterious Grandfather

In preparation for this article, I undertook some genealogical research of my own on my paternal grandfather, a rather shadowy and mysterious figure who would have been 101 years old if he were alive when I was born.

Before starting this research, I only had the faintest biographical sketch of him:

Peasant farmers in Sweden are pictured. Famine and poverty led millions of Swedes to flee to the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

John Anders Anderson was born near Gothenburg, Sweden in 1882 and immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s. During World War I (1914-1918),  he fled to Canada to avoid an unpopular draft. He married my paternal grandmother in St. Maries, Idaho in the early 1940s when he was already quite old (he was 63 when my father was born), and ultimately had three children with her. He was mostly absent, spending his time working in logging camps as a lumberjack in Idaho and Eastern Washington. His logging career ended when (as I was told as a child) “a tree fell on him and he was crippled.” Thereafter he became a pinochle hustler, a career that also found him generally absent from the family household. When he did visit, he would bring playing cards as gifts to his young children. He passed away in 1955 when his three children were still young.

That’s about all that was known about him.

Aside from the rumored stay in Canada, details of the more than four decades between his entrance to the U.S. and his marriage to my grandmother were unfilled, and I knew that finding any information about him would be a challenge. One of the foremost challenges is that the surname, “Anderson,” is one of the most common in the United States and the most common surname in Sweden. “John” is an equally common first name in the U.S. and throughout Northern Europe. There also tend to be more records surrounding wealthy families than immigrant-laborers like my grandfather.

While the United States is filled to the brim with “John Andersons,” there are only so many John A. Andersons in the United States who were born in Sweden in 1882 and who lived in the American West. Using some of the websites above, I was able to uncover some fascinating information about him.

What Surprises Will You Find?

A hookman in the logging industry moved felled logs with primitive tools.

I attempted to trace my grandfather’s history starting from the 1940 census when he was 58, and looking backward each decade until 1910 (the first year that he would have been in the United States for the census):

  • 1940: His 1940 census records found him listed as single and living as a logger in the logging town of Orofino, Idaho. He listed his occupation as “hookman” and his industry as “logging.” He stated an annual income of $1,238 (equivalent to about $21,000 adjusted for inflation). So far, everything checked out.
  • 1930: In 1930 at age 48 he seems to have been single and living in San Francisco and employed as an elevator operator (it beats lavatory attendant!). While I had not known that my grandfather lived in San Francisco, I was aware of my grandmother having lived there, and it was certainly not out of the realm of possibility that he had previously lived there.
  • 1920: The real surprise came in 1920. By all appearances the same John A. Anderson appears to have been living in San Francisco, and married to a woman three years his senior with an 8 year old child. Why was he single again in 1930? Did anyone of my family know of this life?

Finding this previously unknown bit of biographical information, I wondered if I may have misidentified my grandfather and conflated two people with the same name. Or might he have led a completely different life in the four decades he lived in the U.S. before meeting my grandmother?

Looking deeper, I was able to conclude that either the John A. Anderson in San Francisco is my grandfather or that my grandfather was not counted in the censuses of 1930 and 1920.

  • The SS New England that brought Swedish  immigrant John A Anderson to Boston in 1901.

    1910:Since he immigrated between the 1900 census and 1910 census, this is the earliest census which would have included his records.In 1910 at age 28, John A. Anderson was single, living in San Francisco, and working as an iron worker.

  • 1901: A John A. Anderson who was born in Sweden in 1882 was on the passenger manifest for a ship christened the S.S. New England that arrived in Boston Harbor in 1901 loaded with Swedish immigrants. According to the manifest, he had $13 to his name, no place of destination, and no family in the U.S. He was affirmed as healthy and free of contagions.

I asked my dad whether he thought I had uncovered legitimate information or whether I might have indeed conflated my grandfather with another John A. Anderson. After all, more than a million Swedish immigrants came to the U.S. between 1860 and 1910. As noted above, he had a common name, especially for Swedish immigrants. Accordingly, my father expressed some skepticism about my research but admitted, “You may have found the real John.  There was plenty of time for a whole second life.”

While some of this information is searchable, other parts of the records are only accessible when viewing the scanned copies of old paperwork. This could be viewed as a challenge to your search, but in some respects it provides much of the enjoyment. Poring over

Handwritten census records
copies of these faded old documents, many of which are handwritten, intimately connects you to the past in a way that mere data cannot.

Admittedly, the information I found raises more questions than it answers about my paternal grandfather, John Anders Anderson, but that is part of the pleasure in tracing your family history. It can be likened to peeling an onion. Just when you think you have reached the core, another layer of complexity unravels before you.

This research outlined above took only a few hours, and one can only imagine what a dedicated undertaking over a series of days might find.

Tips on Genealogy Research Online

There are many detailed guides online designed to help novice genealogical researchers, but here are a few simple tips to help you get started with your search:

  1. If you are trying to build a family tree, start with facts that are known with 100% certainty. Use the known facts about the present and living family members to work backwards in time through generations.
  2. Be skeptical of dates on documents from the 19th century and earlier.
  3. Be aware that data which is transcribed from handwritten records (this includes all currently available census records) may have inaccuracies due to transcription errors. Consult the original documents to affirm accuracy.
  4. In the search forms of genealogical databases, use as much information as you have to ascertain accuracy. For example, in my search, a query for “John Anderson” would have brought back millions of records and finding the right individual would have been hopeless. With a middle initial, birth year, and place of birth, I was able to identify the right individual with a reasonable degree of certainty.
  5. Lists of births in a family Bible

    Don’t limit your search to online databases. Consult family records such as:

    • bibles that contains lists of births and marriages
    • newspaper clippings
    • diaries, journals, and letters
    • photos
    • oral histories
    • family trees that may have already been started by other relatives

Additionally, the Wikipedia article on genealogy is a superb introduction to the subject.

DNA Testing to Trace Your Ancestry

Genetic testing is on the cutting edge of genealogical research. A number of websites offer mail order DNA tests that can tell you what part of the world your earliest ancestors may have come from. You can trace “the migration paths your ancient ancestors followed hundreds–even thousands—of years ago.” You can even see whether you have Neanderthal ancestry. (DNA evidence has conclusively proven early humans hybridized with other hominids which are now extinct, including Neanderthal’s and Denisovans). Your DNA may tell a very interesting story indeed. Geneticists and genealogists have been able to determine that 1 in 200 living men are direct descendants of Genghis Khan, the infamous Mongol emperor and conqueror. Many Americans are surprised find that they have traces of Native American ancestry or from other ethnic groups which they had never suspected. Sites that offer DNA tests to determine ancestry include Ancestry.com ($99) and National Geographic ($140).

Note that these DNA tests are quite separate from the private health-related DNA tests that purport to tell you your risk for various diseases, such as 23andMe, which has recently come under fire from the FDA and been ordered to stop selling DNA tests.

What Did You Find About Your Family?

If this article has inspired you to do some research of your own, or if you have already researched your family history, we encourage you to share any insights or useful tips you found during your search in the comments below.

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Jeff Anderson
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