When Steve Ryan inherited a copy of a World War I-era photo showing his great-great-uncle Spence McAulay in the uniform of the Royal Scots — the oldest regiment in the British Army — he was intrigued. Ryan knew that the Scotsman had been killed in action during the war, but he didn’t know much more.
With just his ancestor’s name and regiment, the Newtown Square-based communications director sat down one afternoon to piece together McAulay’s story.
“Like any sentient 21st-century being, I started with a Google search,” Ryan said.
The search took him down the genealogy rabbit hole. Ryan hopscotched from forces-war-records.co.uk to ancestry.co.uk to the site for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, acquiring clues along the way. The first stop gave him McAulay’s regimental number, among other data; that unlocked McAulay’s service records, which helped him triangulate where McAulay was killed and buried in France. A few searches more and he was reading British trench maps.
“The first time I sat down to research this, I worked on it for three to four hours without even noticing because I was so engrossed,” Ryan said. “My wife was like, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
Researching your genealogy has grown increasingly popular in recent years, but the process can be overwhelming. There may be old photo albums you’ve never gone through. Maybe you’ve heard conflicting versions of a story from different family members. Or perhaps the thought of navigating the city’s archives is too much to handle.
Fear not. If you know where to start, tracing your family roots is easier than it seems.
When home DNA test kits hit the market about a decade ago, they sparked a renewed interest in genealogy. All of a sudden, it was possible to track down long-lost family members using biological information and the internet.
But DNA is the tip of the iceberg, according to Berwyn genealogist Sydney Cruice Dixon, who teaches genealogy classes at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The test’s breakdown of your ethnicity is actually the least useful part of your results, Dixon said. “What is helpful is being able to see your matches, if you have any, and figuring out through old-fashioned genealogy how you’re related to that person.”
Once you find a match, opening a line of communication may help fill in gaps on your family tree, Dixon said. But it’s important to supplement that with the basics of genealogy, like filling in a pedigree chart and obtaining records.
Tracing your family’s paper trail is the most challenging part of genealogy, but it’s also the most important.
Take it from Dixon, who had been researching her family’s history for years when she visited the National Archives in Washington in 2011 to examine her great-great-great-grandfather’s military records. When she read Joseph W. Clifton’s records for the first time, she was shocked.
Dixon discovered that Clifton, a Union soldier, had deserted his regiment twice during the Civil War and had been found guilty of desertion before a court-martial. He was sentenced “to be shot to death with musketry,” but his family and friends in Burlington, N.J., sent a petition to President Abraham Lincoln pleading for his life.
It worked — Clifton was sentenced to be imprisoned at Fort Jefferson for the rest of the war. While there, he contracted scurvy, which led to his family to seek executive clemency from Lincoln. The president signed the pardon one day before he was assassinated in Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865.
“His children knew, but this was not a story my family told,” Dixon said. She never would have known if she hadn’t rifled through the National Archives.
Birth, death, and marriage certificates, military and property records, and wills are valuable to budding genealogists. When going to an archive or library to root around for records, it’s best to have the first and last names of your relatives on hand, as well as rough timelines of their lives, including date of death or burial.
Philadelphia has a wealth of genealogical resources, including the Free Library and the City Archives. The library has census data, tax records, burial information, immigration lists, naturalization records, and old newspapers (and a guide to help you navigate those). The archives have birth, death, and marriage records through 1915, city directories from 1785 to 1935, business directories from 1869 to 1916, and more (if you’re overwhelmed, you can pay city archive staff to search for you).
And if you exhaust your local supply of records, you can make requests by mail to most historical repositories and archives — or visit in person.
Wherever you do your research, Dixon recommends starting with the most recent records, then moving backward. “You have a smaller chance of making a mistake and pursuing an incorrect family,” she said.
Pay close attention to details; even facts like the hospital your relative gave birth in can yield clues. While older documents may be difficult to read, the information they contain can be invaluable. “Look up terms you’re not familiar with,” Dixon said. “Make sure you’re really thorough.”
It’s also important to remember that records you find may have errors. “People made mistakes or gave incorrect information on forms back then, like people do today,” she said.
Interviewing family, friends, and neighbors can add color and crucial facts to your family history. Start with those whose memories are most fragile, genealogists advise, and ask open-ended questions. If possible, interview people together so they can jog each others’ memories.
You can ask about where they went to school, what they remember the most from their childhood, where they were when significant events in history took place, and also what they recall about the other members of the family. Your family members may not recall exact dates, but they can paint a picture. “Let them go on tangents,” Dixon said. “Let them talk about the details like what a car looked like or where shops were.”
Keep in mind that interviews can get emotional — you might be reopening painful memories. “Try not to react emotionally, even when shocking stuff is shared,” Dixon said. “That kind of reaction will cause them to clam up.”
If someone does shut down, having a friend do the interview may be helpful. A friend can also take notes, though recording interviews is easiest (but be sure to ask first).
Genealogy research can be an emotionally fraught process. Tragic stories can and do emerge in many family histories, so one must be prepared. Adrienne Whaley, president of the African American Genealogy Group of Philadelphia, recommends making sure that you have emotional support in place — family, friends, or professional help — before you begin your search.
African Americans routinely grapple with this scenario. “The emotional challenge of confronting this country’s racial injustice and intolerance … shows up in lots of different ways,” said Whaley, who has been researching her family’s roots seriously for the last decade.
“It could include discovering stories of racial violence in your family. Or having to look for your family members in property records prior to 1870,” when families transitioned from slavery to freedom, Whaley said. “Courthouses recorded white marriages in one book and colored marriages in another.”
But she added that the results are often rewarding, despite the emotional toll. Whaley found evidence on ancestry.com that one of her great-great-grandmothers owned land in the 1920s in Georgia; she had written a will passing it on to her children.
“It’s such a statement for a black woman to protect the legacy of her family in the 1920s, among the lynchings and violence,” Whaley said. “She was born as the Civil War was starting. It’s her land, not her husband’s.”
A 2010 study by Emory University psychologists concluded that researching your roots can boost emotional well-being, and that sharing it with your children can help them feel more rooted in their identities. Dixon agrees, adding that studying ancestors’ failures and successes can instill a sense of resilience.
“People think of genealogy as names, dates, and places, and their ethnicity,” Dixon said. “There’s so much more that you get out of it. You get a better understanding of the values and traditions that your family has and why they have them. You form a real connection with history. And you understand yourself better.”
Genealogy records abound online, but rarely in the same place. To dig into your family history, you’ll need to navigate multiple websites. Mainstream genealogy websites like ancestry.com and archives.com are good places to start, but there are many more specific sites — locally and nationally — to delve into.