Digging Up My (Extensive) Family Tree — And How You Can, Too

About three years ago, I was browsing random things on the Internet — no, really! — when I came across an online copy of the Hansen Family Tree. My parents had owned a physical copy, and I always found it fascinating to see how it gave me a glimpse into my ancestors, going back six generations to Michael Hansen, who was born in 1784.

The Hansen Tree was compiled in 1954 by a priest who must have done months, if not years, of painstaking research through documents, personal interviews, and not one single Google search. If he could put that much together without the benefits of modern technology, I wondered, how much could I find out with the entire internet at my fingertips?

So, one Saturday in April, I decided to give it a shot. Using the Hansen Tree as my base, along with the little bits I knew personally — which amounted to my parents, a little information on my grandmothers, and very little on my grandfathers, both of whom had died well before I was born — I embarked on my quest. After a solid several hours of searching, I was pretty impressed with what I’d managed to uncover:

Winter Family Apr-10-2013

That’s 23 ancestors — 24 if you count the unnamed “Mother of Michael.” My current count? Over 750…ish. (I can’t give an exact total, for reasons I’ll explain later.) Nearly all of it was found using resources on the internet, with the help of a couple of printed family trees that were distributed at recent family reunions. And it was all gathered without spending any money on the various pay sites or to procure government records.

Over those three years, it’s been a remarkable journey of exploration and discovery, and while I haven’t found anyone incredibly famous in my recent (400-ish years) ancestry — no Founding Fathers, famous generals, or other household names — there are a few people well-known enough to have Wikipedia pages, and I have managed to penetrate all the way back to Charlemagne.

Oh, and I’m the 5th cousin, twice removed of Justin Bieber. Which is actually pretty close, as celebrity relations go, much closer than my links to Angelina Jolie, Madonna, and Beyoncé, who are all in the vicinity of my 10th cousins. Yes, Beyoncé.

Where to start?

Let me start by giving you a few good resources for researching your family history if it’s something you think you’d be interested in. I’ll save the self-indulgent details of my ancestry for the end, if you’re still interested by that point.

As you can tell from the above image, I used FamilyEcho.com to produce a nice-looking family tree. It’s quick and easy to use, but is more of an “add-on” to serious genealogy research, as it doesn’t have a whole lot in the way of information tracking beyond the very basics.

For that, I use Legacy, which you can download for free and pay $30 for the full-featured version. (At this point, I probably should do that; the nice-looking family tree functionality is locked behind that paywall, which is why I use FamilyEcho.) The free version is still excellent for tracking not only your family but, essentially, where you obtained the information from. Three years and 750+ people on, I really need to know sometimes where I got a piece of information from if I find something potentially contradictory, or if I just need to refresh my memory to aid in future searches. Also, it’s got plenty of space for recording random and interesting details, such as how my great(x9)-grandfather Ange Lefebvre Descoteaux was a “Royal notary of the lordship of the Baie-du-Febvre,” which is probably just a fancy way of saying he was a very important pencil-pusher.

(I’ve got a discrepancy in the number of names I have accounted for in Legacy and on FamilyEcho, which is one reason why I give an uncertain “750+” for my number of ancestors.)

When I told someone I was looking for this kind of information, she suggested, “Have you checked with the Mormons? They’re crazy about genealogy.” Turns out I already had, using the excellent resources at FamilySearch.org to fuel many of my searches. In particular, they offer search pages specialized by state (or Canadian province), which can help immensely in tracking down localized information. Of special note: FS’s page of United States censuses, which includes links to images of the original pages.

Bartholomew and Ursula Riehle

Bartholomew and Ursula Riehle, my great-great-great-great-grandparents (courtesy of http://www.riehle.net)

And then there’s plain ol’ Google. You’d be surprised how much information you can scrape off the internet simply by searching for an ancestor’s name, though you might need to get creative if you have a common name to search for. Including a place you know they lived, such as “Minnesota” or “Montreal” can help narrow your results. Additionally, Google News search can help you find newspaper articles that mention your ancestors, while Google Translate can help you with documents written in a foreign language.

Overall, I’ve got about 60 links to various sources of information — too many to list here. Most of them are specialized to certain regions of the world or particular families, the sort of things you wouldn’t likely find too useful. I’ll get into a couple of those specialized sources that I’ll get to in a minute, but first, a few words about…

How reliable can you get?

One of the first things you’ll probably wonder his how reliable all the information you gather is. After all, there’s a lot of stuff on the internet, much of it of questionable veracity. If a site says you had an ancestor who was born on December 9, 1742 and married on June 10, 1763 and had three sons and two daughters… how can you know all of that information is accurate?

The answer is: You really can’t. Even original sources you would consider to be official can contradict themselves. Take the Census, for instance. Because it’s generally conducted in the spring, it might list someone’s birth year as being a year off. For instance, if a person was born in September 1912, they would be 17 in May 1930, and that’s what would be recorded in the census. This might lead some sources to say that person was born in 1913 (1930 minus 17). It might even be recorded that way on the census document, if it records birth years.

But the census-taker in 1920 might have been more careful and (accurately) recorded that person’s birth date as 1912. Or the census-taker in 1930 might have asked for year of birth (1912) and recorded the person’s age as 18, while the 1920 person records the age as 7. So the person would appeared to have aged 11 years between 1920 and 1930. If the person’s birthday is near the time of the census-taking, things can be even fuzzier. “Off-by-one” errors like this are fairly common, and I even found one instance of the (unquestionably) same person having an 8-year age difference between censuses!

A little thing I didn’t know until I started this research: In the U.S., people didn’t start filling out their own census forms until around the middle of the 20th century. Instead, a government employee would be sent to take the censuses in various communities. This could lead to a number of inaccuracies, especially in spelling. One ancestor of mine, Ephrosina Kessler Hansen, is recorded in one census as “F. Rosina.” This is something else to watch for in Google searches.

One other detail: U.S. Census records are sealed for 72 years, so the most recent one we have access to is the 1940 Census, which was made available in 2012.

Mathias Winter 1885

1885 Minnesota Census with my ancestors Matthias and Michael Winter

Beyond censuses, you have to play it by ear a little bit when judging the accuracy of information you find on the internet. In general, I treat “governmental” sources as quite accurate, even when they’re transcribed by other sources, such as FamilySearch. I tend to be pretty liberal with accepting dates, as well, figuring that the person who put that information on his or her website wouldn’t just make up a date out of thin air, but probably researched it — with access to better materials than what I have — and verified its accuracy.

In that same vein, I do treat individual-maintained “family sites,” such as this one, with a generally accepting eye, though I do try to verify at least some of their information with other sources. You can also scrape a little bit of free info off pay sites like Ancestry.com, and they might at least provide you with a direction to search, but since they tend to have a ton of poorly sorted information — unless you pony up the cash, of course — I treat them with a hefty grain of salt.

At the very least, try to use multiple “bits” of information to verify things. If you have an ancestor named “Michael Winter” who you know lived in Minnesota and find evidence of a “Mathias Winter” in Minnesota who had a son named Michael, don’t leap to the conclusion that you’ve found Michael’s father. Compare birth dates, exact locations (down to the city level, at least), and ideally find documented proof of their relationship, such as an obituary for Michael that mentions Mathias as his father and contains other known details, such as Michael’s wife or children. The more verifiable bits of info you can find linking two people, the more certain you’ll be that you found the right person. Nothing would suck worse than thinking you’ve found an “ancestor,” doing hours of research on him or her and then finding out that person isn’t really your ancestor.

Obviously, it would be great if I could travel all over the country, or the world, looking at documentation “in the flesh,” so to speak. But for only having the internet to power my searches, I think I’ve done a pretty good, and mostly accurate, job.

Two great resources

Which brings me to two of my primary sources, which have provided me with a ton of information that I’m generally certain is accurate. First is Genealogy of Canada. If you can find a Canadian ancestor via this site, it’s an absolute gold mine. Of my 750-ish ancestors, only about 100 are on my father’s side. The rest come from my mother, and a huge number of those came through Genealogy of Canada.

At first, I was skeptical of the site’s veracity, but if you look at the individual entries, like this one, you’ll find references to “prdh.” That’s an extensive and well-regarded genealogy catalog of Quebec, so I feel confident in the information it provides, even reproduced on another site.

Mom and Dad wedding

Dosylva and Eva Mongrain, married October 20, 1925

Another great resource for me was the work of genealogist Denis Beauregard. Dude’s a professional, so I’m inclined to believe what he has to say. I discovered his site via a Google search for one of my ancestors, which linked to his page on royal ancestors, only to find that the ancestor I was searching for was in his “rejected cases.” Bummer.

But then, while browsing his “green” list of verified cases, I found another name I recognized: Charles St.-Etienne de La Tour, who led a pretty interesting life on his own. He’s 12 generations up from me, and Beauregard lists him as:

Considered as safe (the link to the Salazar is documented and those Salazar have known high nobility)

Making my way up from him, I eventually did strike royal gold, in the form of Louis IX of France, a.k.a. St. Louis and my great(x22)-grandfather, going back 25 generations. Once you hit someone like that, it’s fairly easy to use Wikipedia or other encyclopedic sources to get information on his ancestors. In this case, I could trace my way back to Eleanor of Aquitaine (27 generations) and William the Conqueror (30), whose wife was a descendant of Charlemagne (40). Pre-Charlemagne ancestry is a little spotty, and may have been invented as a way to prop up Chuck’s status, but it’s probably fair enough to allow me to trace my ancestry to at least the 7th century. This is the other reason I say “750+,” as I haven’t gone to the trouble of adding all of these ancestors to my Legacy or FamilyEcho.

Granted, being descended from Charlemagne hardly makes me unique, as this article lays out. You’re probably descended from him too, making us extremely distant cousins. Still, discovering it for myself, and being able to definitively trace my lineage back those 1,200 years, is a pretty cool accomplishment.

Personal touches

I could go into many more details about my family tree, like how it folds in upon itself at some interesting times. Many of my mother’s ancestors came from the Acadia region of Canada and didn’t travel much as the generations passed, leading to many close-relative marriages; my maternal grandparents (pictured above) were 7th cousins, once removed, and I have one documented case of first cousins, once removed being married. That would be the equivalent of your son and your nephew’s daughter getting married. Don’t worry, that was a long time ago, and I don’t think I can blame the consanguinity for my quirks.

Then there’s this craziness:

Jeanne Chebra tree

Jeanne Chebra married Jehan Poirier and had a daughter, Marie-Francoise. Jehan was killed at 28 in the 1654 Battle of Port Royal, and Jeanne remarried Antoine Gougeon and bore him another daughter, Huguette. Three generations later, Jehan’s and Antoine’s great-great-grandchildren were united in marriage.

Well, I find it interesting, at least.

Here’s another one of my ancestors, Elizabeth Corse, who lived a remarkable life, one that was almost cut short when she was captured as an eight-year-old by the French during the raid on Deerfield in 1704. She and the others were marched 300 miles in the middle of winter; many, including Elizabeth’s mother, didn’t survive. She did, and assimilated rather well into French Canadian society, even refusing to return when her brother came to ransom her in 1730.

Most of all, though, I think this research has given me insight into what a remarkable person I am. No, I don’t mean that in any egotistical way. Instead, I see all of these people in my past and marvel at the unique coincidences of their various meetings, wondering how things would have played out if just one link was different. If Jehan Poirier hadn’t died, Jeanne probably never would have married Antoine Gougeon and that entire branch of my family tree wouldn’t exist. I wouldn’t exist. The randomness that makes me me or makes you you is truly startling to behold.

If you can come down from that lofty perspective and want to explore the unpredictable events that led to your rare existence, get started on your family research today! I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’ve started helping my girlfriend Megan do the same. She didn’t have a nice “seed” like the Hansen Family Tree to start with, and her mother’s maiden name is “Johnson,” which is a nightmare to search for, but we’ve still made excellent progress, finding several dozen of her ancestors, including a man named “General” and his phenomenal ‘stache.

I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have, and if you found this post via one of those random Google searches and think you might be related to me, leave a comment and I’ll be glad to share whatever information I can. Yes, that even includes you, Justin.

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