Saturday, March 17, 2007


I first got interested in digging into my family past about eleven years ago. Internet was relatively new then. Some research tools were available online -- just enough to get one interested in looking and getting started, but not enough to make the research easy. Too much time was still required to get "down in the weeds".

It was enough to get me started, but also misleading for a rookie. If one goes into such an endeavor without understanding the many nuances of genealogy research. I took some wrong turns and wasted many hours. I passed up leads that would have saved years of looking, because I was so certain that the information was wrong.

Much has happened in those eleven years. Most notably, the Internet has grown immensely more useful as more and more data is brought online and most importantly, indexed and searchable. This advancement saves hours of research and has enabled me to correct years of mistakes in relatively short time.

A second major advancement in genealogy research is DNA tracing. Once only an option for the rich, the tests are now affordable. For about $300 one can have both maternal and paternal lines traced. While this does not say anything about specific ancestors, it does help rule out some people and narrow the research focus. With DNA tracing, one can confirm if ones ancestors really did come from Ireland or other parts of Europe. I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in serious genealogical research. Here's where to get started:

As for my rookie mistakes, I made some classic ones. I've got relatives who still are stuck in the ruts that got me off track. First, spellings of names. While we have come to expect people to spell their name the same way all the time, that was not always the case. These days, with names tied to credit cards, social security and other identifying data, it is imperative to stay consistent. Also, most people in this country are at least literate enough to spell their names. Again, that was not always true. Be open enough to try many possible spellings of the same sounding. For example, when tracing ancestors through census records it is important to remember that the enumerator was the one entering the information and they may have spelled the name slightly differently, or completely different.

There are also deliberate changes. It was not uncommon in the 19th century for immigrants to change their names to sound more American. For example, one of my wife's ancestors is McCloskey. One would think, Irish. No. They adapted that spelling from Michialevski which was itself an adaptation from a Cyrillic spelling. So keep an open mind on spellings.

Second, dates are a big distractor. One may even have the family Bible saying that great-great grandma Edna was born in January 1869 and still be misled. It is easy to pass on the census record, or even marriage certificate that lists her birth year as 1868, or 1872. I found that one of my ancestors had a different birth year for 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900 and 1910 censuses. Keep an open mind on dates.

Finally, what made me think of such matters today? Well, if not for one of my ancestors, St. Patrick would not have become what he is. After all, he was originally a resident of Briton, not Ireland. One of my ancient ancestors is allegedly responsible for the raid wherein Patrick was kidnapped and made a slave in Ireland. That ancestor was a chieftain, brigand, pirate or king, depending upon which history you read. Niall of the Nine Hostages is an ancestor. DNA results link me to him even though the direct line has gaps between him and me as far as verifiable genealogical evidence.

I just thought it ironic that, as my family prepares to have an Irish meal tonight with a pint of Guinness, the mere fact that we are doing so is due the existence of a saint who wasn't even Irish, but who became patron saint of Ireland as a direct result of my ancestor's action. The knowledge that it was an ancestor who was responsible only came about as a result of recent advances in genealogical research.

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