Discover your family tree online

Learn how to start your web-based genealogical research with tips from Ancestry.ca.

Genealogy pictures: family wedding

By Heather Camlot

For most of my life, I thought my father’s family was small – just him, his brother and sister, their children, and then their grandchildren. I heard names of other people, but never understood how they were related. I heard stories of great uncles and aunts, but as I never met any of them I figured they were no longer around and that their family lines just stopped.

How wrong I was.

When Ancestry.ca approached WorkLivePlayCafe.com with a story idea, I said sure. I had played around on the genealogy site years ago but never got very far. But as delving into family history becomes more popular and increasing numbers of historic records become digitized and available online, it seemed time to take another look.

Getting started

To begin, Lesley Anderson, Partnership Development & Content Specialist with Ancestry.ca, suggests the following steps:

  • Start with information you already have: write down what you know and talk to family members, especially older ones who may be able to share family legends that will help in your research.
  • Create a free family tree on Ancestry.ca. Begin with yourself and add your parents and grandparents.
  • Record as many details as you know about each individual.
  • If you don’t know the exact information (such as date or place of birth), take your best guess – vague clues can lead to amazing finds.

The site cross-references your names with the seven billion historical records in its database, including census and voter records, military records, immigration and travel records, schools, directories and church histories. These records “can include information not only about the individual but also others they were living with at the time, where they lived, what they did for a living, where they came from and how,” explains Anderson. If there is a match, you are alerted with a flashing green leaf in the corner of your entry.

By clicking on the leaves for my paternal grandparents, I came across the Quebec Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), which contain their marriage contract with their very own signatures, and the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry, which details their burial dates, cemetery, even burial plots. You can add any relevant information you discover to your tree with a click of the mouse.

Emailing with strangers

My cross-referenced list also offered other family trees.  You can imagine my surprise when I came across a photo of my grandparents on a stranger’s family tree. I had so many questions – topmost being “Who the heck are you?” – that I worked up the nerve to email her via Ancestry.ca’s Member Connect.

Connecting with others is key, says Anderson. “One of the most common hurdles is trying to trace your family tree back to a region or area for which there is currently a lack of information available. Sometimes people can find the missing information from their tree by finding it in someone else’s, like a distant or long-lost cousin. There are countless cases of Ancestry.ca users discovering relatives they didn’t know of by finding similar names in their family trees.”

My distant cousin Corinne Endler Mitchell more than happily shared everything she knew and had from her research, including photos, family trees, descendant’s reports and tips (see below). I sent her information to my family, and my father in return shared his childhood memories of meeting Corinne’s grandparents, who in fact used to live around the corner from him, and called his sister to sort out further family details that we could all use.  This “offline research,” be it via family members or local archives, is another important step that can help fill in missing pieces, says Anderson.

“At the end of the day, everyone has a story,” says Anderson. “Everyone has their own reason for researching their family history. For some it is a desire to better understand where they came from and understand the events in their family’s past that ultimately led them to where they are now. Others may have a desire to share and pass on stories to future generations. I think people are interested in understanding what makes up their personal story.”

For me, researching my family tree has been a real eye opener, one that has drawn in the past with historic, never-before-seen photos and coloured in the present with an unknown extended family. Reunion anyone?

Sidebar: Corinne Endler Mitchell’s tips to researching family history

In the several emails Corinne and I sent back and forth, she always included information about researching family history. Here’s what she had to say:

  • Call as many people as you can and ask a lot of questions. There are a lot of people out there who are very willing to share their knowledge, skill and advice.
  • Start by searching full names, but be aware that there can be several spelling variations and transcription errors in the records. Advice an experienced genealogist passed on:  try a “starts with” option. Using Gil*k would bring up Gillick, Gilik and Gilick, for example.
  • Know your background; while there are few records from places like Ukraine and Russia, if you’re from the United Kingdom, you may be able to trace your story to the 1500s.
  • When reading found documents, be sure to check all the pages and look for other family members, such as when looking at passenger lists and ocean crossings.
  • Look into purchasing Family Tree Maker, made by Ancestry.com and linked to Ancestry.ca, which not only allows you to build your family tree but also generates multiple layouts or charts, as well as detailed descendant reports so you can see a snapshot of a single line of the family.
  • Search other sites to enrich your research. Try Multicultural Canada, Steve Morse, Collections Canada, FamilySearch.org, Find A Grave, Google News Archive Search, and  Automated Genealogy.

First published January19, 2012, on WorkLivePlayCafe.com.

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