Just in case you missed the family history Q&A with our very own D. Josh Taylor AMA on Reddit, here is the recap of all the questions and answers. This was the second findmypast.com live Q&A where anybody was welcome to present their questions to Josh for expert advice on various subjects in family history research.
Reddit IAMA with D. Joshua Taylor
AMA Description: Hi, Reddit! I’m an expert genealogist. I am currently the lead genealogy expert for findmypast.com, and I have more than 18 years of experience in genealogy and family history research. I have worked as a genealogical author, lecturer and researcher around the world and am the President of the Federation of Genealogical Societies. I’ve been a family history expert for various TV shows including NBC’s and TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and the PBS series Genealogy Roadshow coming in September. Ask me anything and I’ll do my best to answer! Proof:http://www.djoshuataylor.com
Q: My grandmother and I were researching out genealogy and ran into a major roadblock. We’re african american and her grandfather was a white man with a pretty common first and last name. We have no idea when or where he was born. As far as I know, he wasn’t married to my g-greatgrandmother, but our family has his last name. Is there any hope at all for us?
P.S. We love Who Do You Think You Are! I was so excited when I found out it wasn’t cancelled, just moved channels.
A: There is always hope! For this one, I actually would suggest you have someone in the family submit DNA and do a comparison search.
Q: Why did you decide to study genealogy?
A: For me it was all about the mystery and the ability to link a family tree to history
Q: When you started to study genealogy did you look into your past? If so did you find something horrifying?
A: You bet! I found some interesting things – from horse thieves to American founders. Some amazing and heroic stories as well.
Q: what is the furthest back you have traced someones history back to?
A: The furthest back I have gone is 6AD – from a royal connection.
Q: Is it harder to get genealogy information for people of Asian descent?
A: It can require a different methodology, as some of the knowledge is kept in oral traditions and not recorded down. So a key step is to talk to relatives and write the information down.
Q: Have you traced back your own family roots? If so did you discover an ancestor who had a similar career in science/medical field?
A: I haven’t found any other genealogists, but have found a lot of farmers.
Q: What was the most unexpected thing you learned during your studies that changed your preconceived notions?
A: That our ancestors are really just like us – only living in a different time.
Q: I am adopted with not information about my birth parents but have always been interested in finding out more about my genealogy. How expensive and how difficult would it be?
A: It really can depend. Usually I recommend folks start with 5-10 hours of work (which can be around $250-$500).
For those working to open adoption records, you often need an attorney to assist (which can really add up). There is a great article on findmypast.com for adoption searches that should give you some good tips.
Q: My relatives came from overseas (Russia I think). It looks like my family name was changed – as I found my grandfather, his siblings, and what I believe are my great grandparents in the New York 1910 census through Ancestry.com. They had a slightly different last name.
I have no idea how to find more info on my great grand parents. Where they came from, birth/death/marriage certificates. My current family’s knowledge of them is limited to nonexistent.
Where should I go looking? What resources should I consult?
A: Spelling NEVER counts in genealogy. Usually our ancestors weren’t writing their own names, the person keeping the record was trying to spell them based upon what they heard.
Look for the immigration record (try searching first names with the variants turned on for the last name). Another key record to check would be the naturalization records to see if you can figure out which area in Russia they are from. With that information you can check out a site like FamilySearch.org to see if the records are online.
Q: I do genealogy as a hobby and I was wondering in your own life whether you find passing on your name or your genes more important?
A: I have to say I am not sure on this one. I certainly want to pass along the stories of my ancestors – and so want to ensure I have folks to pass them to.
Q: What’s the best way to find information about my grandfather’s arrival to the states and citizenship applications from the 1930s-1940s? I’ve been looking for months so that I can claim German citizenship but am at a loss.
A: That can depend on the state where he lived. You can contact a local branch of the National Archives (nara.gov) for information regarding the naturalization process he would have gone through and where those specific records might be.
For the arrival record, if he came through a major port like New York those lists are online at sites like FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com
Follow-up Q: Thank you, fellow Joshua! I’ll be sure to get on that. I was so excited when the Germans were able to get me a (modern) copy of his birth certificate within 48 hours of my email, and so disheartened when I could not figure out our own system here! Also, do you have any idea how to prove an ancestor’s religion?
A: Often I have to search multiple church records before I can verify someone’s religion, but even that just because they are married or baptized in a particular church, it doesn’t mean they attended there.
Sometimes newspapers will give clues as do city directories.
Q: What is the most exciting family mystery you’ve solved or discovered while researching a case?
A: I discovered a man who was a circus performer from 1850-1879. He was born in Illinois, discovered in St. Louis, and traveled all around the world (Russia, England, Italy, France, Australia) lived in Australia for a few years and died in Bombay, India in 1879. He is by far my current “favorite” relative!
Q: With the advent both of DNA and genomics AND computing, how do you your industry to change?
Is there someone out there helping to digitize the source documents you use?
A: I don’t think the need for someone who understands the records and how they relate to one another will every go away, but DNA will become a tool that we can frequently “tap into” for our research. It might be a case where the DNA studies actually leads us to research requests – after all the databases can only tell us genetic markers, it will be the genealogical research behind those lines to tell you “who” each of those markers were.
For digitization, yes there are several organizations out there who work to digitize and make sources available online – like findmypast, familysearch, etc.
Q: What is the creepiest thing you’ve found ex your grandad was a serial killer or mobster
A: I have found I am a descendant of the first man in America who was accused (and convicted) of murdering his mother.
Q: What USA records will FindMyPast.com be adding in the next six months – either in general terms or specific databases?
A: Well, I can’t go into too much detail, but with the recent announcement of PERSI you know that will be coming along soon – and more digitized images will be coming out with that.
Other records include additional vital records and records from the civil war.
Q: Hi, Joshua! I just saw this on fb – so glad for an opportunity to ask a question. My great-great grandparents are proving to be quite a challenge. I have conflicting information about her from various censuses, newspaper articles, records from her children, and obituaries. I’ve searched on every variation of the facts I can come up with on ancestry and familysearch.org and some local sites (New York) but I am unable to find her family or origin. What do you do suggest I do next?
A: Where about in New York are you researching?
Follow-up Q: They lived in Otsego County, then in Manhattan, then he was back in Otsego County.
A: OK, one thing to pay attention to in New York especially is the land records. Those are online at FamilySearch.org, but browsable – not searchable by name. Look for those who share the same surname(s) and study them in clusters.
Q: As an American researching your family history how hard does it become once you trace your family to outside of the U.S? Also, have you traced both sides (Father/Mother) or only one side of your own family history?
A: It can be hard – depending on where they are from. In many cases the hardest part is just knowing the town they are form in a foreign country, then discovering what records are available for that town or region.
I have traced both sides, mother and father.
Q: What is your best advice to those in “burned counties” when doing research? Also, did you ever think about obtaining credentials such as accreditation or certification?
A: For burned counties – best advice is to look towards local records that might help (church, tax, etc.). Sometimes a onsite visit really helps to understand what is missing and what isn’t.
I have thought about going after the accreditation and certification process. For me, it is a time factor right now – there not enough hours in the day!
Q: First of all thank you for doing this AMA. I have a couple questions about my family tree.
I started to explore my family tree on Ancestry.com, and I seemed to have hit a dead end. I can not seem to find the parents of my ancestor who came from England in 1635. And I have another relative which has different possible fathers listed, but the ages on all of them don’t seem to make sense, which makes me believe that I may have inaccurate information somewhere.
So, where should I start to look to find out more information when I seem to hit a dead end? And how do I make sense of a relative when all the information I have doesn’t seem to make sense? What do you do to make sure the information you are looking at is actually for your relative and not someone else with the same name?
A: Finding the origins of an immigration ancestor can be difficult. One thing to look at (depending on the region) are journals like The American Genealogist (TAG), and the New England Historical and Genealogical Register for articles that might give you some clues.
Online trees are often full of mistakes, especially those that connect to early colonial families. The best way to verify is to use original records (land, tax, probate, etc.) combined with other articles that might have been written and published in TAG and elsewhere.
When looking for folks who have the same name, it is best to build a profile of each person (i.e., what are their occupations, children’s names, ages, etc.) and then see if you can tell them apart in the records. In some cases Jr. and Sr. doesn’t mean father and son, it means the older one in a community that has the same name as someone younger in the community.
Q: About what percentage of white people would you estimate are related to Charlemagne?
A: I won’t give an exact percentage, but I would say A LOT. There are some claims that something like 70% or 80% of the current population of England is a relation of Edward III (some even take that higher -http://www.dur.ac.uk/a.r.millard/genealogy/EdwardIIIDescent.php) and Edward III is a likely descendant of Charlemagne.
Q: Im trying to “prove” my native american ancestry for school. Where do i start?
A: One of the best places to start is with a DNA test, try a company like 23andMe or FamilyTreeDNA.
Q: How would you compare your services at findmypast.com to other genealogical sites?
A: There are differences in the way that you can search, though one of the big comparison points are the records themselves. One thing findmypast has, due to its strong UK roots, is a very solid collection from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales (including newspapers from the UK). With the full US census and a growing collection of US vital records and other sets it is becoming a great resources. Findmypast is also the new home of PERSI, or the PERiodcial Source Index. Other sites will have valuable records (and as a genealogist, I have to use them all) because some records are only available on site or another.
Q: What, in your opinion, are the best resources to use for research into family history?
A: For records, the Census (every 10 years from 1790 to 1940) is a great place to use as well as vital records.
For websites, findmypast.com and familysearch.org are great sites to get started with. Another great resource is CyndisList http://www.cyndislist.com, which has a huge collection of links to free and paid resources for thousands of topics.
Q: Josh, does FindMyPast.com offer reduced subscription rates for renewing a subscription?
A: Yes! FindMyPast offers a 10% discount to those who renew their 6-month and 12-month subscriptions. It is our way of saying “thank you.”
Q: As a professional, are there resources available to you that wouldn’t be available to the typical amateur in this subreddit?
Is the only different between you and me the fact that you know more about the subject after 18 years of experience ?
A: You can access the same records that I can – the main difference is learning what records exist and how to analyze them to come to a conclusion.
Q: In general, how hard is it to get Jewish genealogies from eastern European countries (including the former Soviet bloc) from before the turn of the 20th century?
Really, I’m hitting a lot of dead ends online, and I really can’t travel to the Ukraine or the former Galicia every time I see something new. Then there’s that whole destroyed records thing…
A: It can be difficult, as the records are often moved or destroyed. There is a great organization, the International Jewish Genealogical Society that might be able to help you out a bit more.
Follow-up Q: I’m in the same boat with the Galicia/Ukraine/Poland/Austria thing. I doubt I’ll ever get past my great great grandfather because even if I traveled out there, all the records are probably destroyed. We were the non-jewish half of the Galicia population so there’s even less records for us.
A: Never give up! Local churches and state archives literally discover records all the time.
Q: In a show such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” how many people are researched before you come across someone who will be interesting enough to make a TV show about?
A: It really does depend, you can find interesting stories in almost every person but it can take years. There are lots of researchers who work on the show, and each crawl a different line of the celebrities trees.
Q: How long do you think it will be before “genetic genealogy” goes mainstream?
A: I think it will be a few years. DNA and family history has made great strides over the past 5-10 years, but it will take a few more before we can build a large number of family trees that have been verified with DNA and research.
Q: Hi there! I know it’s probably complex, but in general, what typical methods do you use for your research? Also, how far back have you typically been able to go when researching families?
Thanks for doing this AMA!
A: Great ways to start are through census and vital records (births, marriages, and deaths) they contain great information and really get you started. Sometimes you will find that lines that go back to the 1600s – others to the 1800s it all depends on where they are from.
Q: Are there any specific ancestral nationalities/ethnicities that tend to be much more difficult to research than others? It seems that most resources tend to cover European/North American records, but have you had to research others as well for your work?
A: Areas that are impacted my wars and political struggles can be hard to work in, but not impossible. I have had to research families from the Middle East, China, Japan, Brazil, and a host of other areas. The key is finding the local repositories (archives, churches, or even individuals) in the town that might hold the records.
Q: When people ask you to do “family history research”, what are they usually looking for? All of their ancestors (I call itthe tree)? Their paternal lineage (one branch)? or, all the descendants of one of their ancestors (the pyramid)?
A: That is a “all of the above” answer. Some want a specific surname or line traced, others want their entire family tree looked at, and others are hoping to find just a parent’s name or maiden name they have been looking for.
Q: What do you see as exciting developments for the future of genealogy?
A: A great question! There are so many developments. One thing that will change the way we do research is the addition of DNA into our research. Also, there are more players in the commercial space, which means more records online and better indexes. Diving into some of those handwritten wills and land records will unearth a lot of mysterious out there.
Q: Thanks for posting, I have a couple of questions..
First, what have you found to be the best alternatives to the destroyed 1890 census? I have been fairly lucky that my relatives in Minnesota and a few other states show up in the state censuses in 1885 & 1895, but it still leaves some pretty good sized gaps.
Second, can you share some of the French and Irish sites that you have found useful? These are often the most difficult to research as there is just so little information online. I’m lucky that I am moving to the UK in a couple of weeks and will be able to make some trips in person, but when you are still in the states, it can be extremely hard to find anything online.
A: For the 1890 census, I use city directories as much as possible to fill in the gaps. Even smaller farming communities have directories in some cases that can help.
For French and Irish research, I haven’t done a lot of French work online though for Ireland I do use findmypast.com as they have a wonderful Irish collection. In person, you can visit the archives in Dublin (or PRONI in Belfast if your family is from Northern Ireland)
Q: What do you think about collaborative trees (e.g., WeRelate, WikiTree, FamilySearch, etc.). I really like the idea of one tree where people can work together without passing info back and forth, but I know others are not as enthusiastic.
A: I do love the idea of collaboration. I know some are afraid of others changing things, etc. but I know my tree at least
The one thing is, I true and put a part of the tree – or the specific family I am working on – on multiple sites, as I never know who is using what.
Q: Hi there and thanks for doing this. Can you suggest the most economical and thorough way for myself to do a DNA test? My grandfather was born illegitimately in Tasmania, Australia and no records exist for the identity of his biological father. A DNA test is my last option however before I make a financial outlay, that to me will be large, do DNA companies have support for Australia especially Tasmania? Cheers
A: A great question! It all depends on the size of the database they are testing against. I have had some great success with FamilyTreeDNA in finding relatives.
Q: Thanks for answering. I get a bit bamboozled trying to compare FamilyTreeDNA and 23andMe and if I had the money I would do both. In a nutshell, could you outline the pros and cons of both of them please?
A: In a nutshell, it all depends on the size of the database you are comparing against.
So I use 23andMe to break down someone’s genetic past (are they Native American, etc.)
I use FamilyTreeDNA to connect to other groups studying the same surname, or to see how I match in a larger genetic pool.
Q: Love the show! A few questions:
contacting (supposed) celebrity relations My grandparents published a ‘mini’ family history, which has a 2 sentence note that that branch of the family is related to a celebrity – Angelica Huston (John Huston). I looked up her (wikipedia) line and it doesn’t match with what I have, but of course the grandparents were quite adamant that it was true. Over the years I’ve toyed with the idea of contacting her and seeing if she was willing to share her information with me. Several things held me back – how to contact her, whether it would be an invasion of privacy, and just whether it would be a good idea. Any advice here?
Irish research I’ve got an extensively researched side of the family that traces our family to late 1700s Ireland (formerly Kings county, now Offaly). I didn’t do any of the research – it was just handed to me as the researcher isnow in her 90s. I have tried online to research but due to the age, as well as the dearth of Irish records, I’ve only hit dead ends. I know where very specifically, and I’ve toyed with the idea of visiting Ireland. But I’m worried I’ll get there and not know how to do the actual research. How to read the records. How to search, etc etc. Is this something I can learn about before going to Ireland, or am I just going to have to try it and put my feet on the ground? Is 2 weeks enough or am I dreaming?
Hiring genealogists Related to the above, I’ve though it might be more cost effective to actually hire a genealogist in Ireland. What’s the best way of doing this? Is there anything to watch out for?
That’s a lot of questions I know. Thanks for any you can help with!
A: Happy to help as much as I can.
I know a few celebrities who frequently get contacted through their management teams from those who apparently share family lines. My best advice would be to try and verify the work that you have rather than trying to make direct contact. You can always try contacting the management company, but I haven’t heard of too many getting responses.
For Irish research, there are so many missing records that it can take a real art. I would check out some of the Irish collections at FamilySearch.org and at findmypast.com to start with. If you visit, you might consider going with a research group – someone who can actually hold you hand while you are onsite doing the research. I know the New England Historic Genealogical Society offers research trip to Ireland every so often.
It can be cost effective to hire a genealogist in Ireland, and I would head to the membership director for the Association of Professional Genealogists to do so. Make sure that you clearly state what you are looking for and provide a complete list of what you have already searched (so they won’t duplicate it).
Q: There are lots of conflicting records, misrecorded names, name changes, children attributed to the wrong wife, etc.
How do you decide which record is accurate with, in most cases, such little additional information?
How confident are you, usually, in your completed genealogies?
A: This is where you have to verify with original records. As you point out, there are conflicting records and you can’t take anything at face value. So we always work to have 4-5 different documents to prove a fact – or at least a theory.
Some of the conclusions I can be quite confident in, others are just theories that we might never prove one way or another.
Q: How would you go about finding someone if you cannot find them past a certain year in US census records? I have looked for nearly 10 years and cannot find a relative on anything past the 1860 census (although he should have been on the 1850). By 1860 his father was not listed with the family, so I cannot ascertain what his dad’s name was…. is it a lost cause?
A: Not at all – head into the land and probate records from the area and see what you can find related to those families.
Follow-up Q: Problem is that they had just moved into the area for the 1860 census. I know what state they were in for the 1850, but not what area of the state… plus it is in the southern US where quite a bit of records were lost during the civil war
A: What other families moved with them? Southern US research can be a bit tricky, but it helps to research the neighbors, etc. to see if you can pickup your families.
Q: What’s the furthest back you successfully traced someone?
A: I was able to trace a branch of my bff’s family back to Bermuda in the 1500s. She was impressed.
What was the least furthest you’ve ever traced someone back?
A: I can’t get much further than the 1800s on any branch of my family.
What’s your most favorite free resource? Do you think Ancestry.com is worth the money? How do you feel about Familysearch.org?
A: That is great! The 1500s is pretty good.
I love FamilySearch.org as a free resource.
For paid resource, you really have to look at where the records are. A site like findmypast.com has a lot of great US and UK records. While Ancestry.com might have other records that you need. As a professional I really have to use all the resources that are out there.
Q: Do you have any favorite history books that gave you a greater understanding into the migration patterns of immigrants/residents of a country?
A: It depends on the area. There are some great books about New Englanders moving to the Midwest. I really do enjoy Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America.
Q: What was it that inspired you to commit yourself to genealogy research?
A: For me, it was my grandmother. She was an avid genealogist and I loved working with her to make discoveries.
Q: The 1830 Census is a roadblock for a few of my branches. With common names, I cannot locate the head of the household in earlier censuses, and birth records appear sparse from my online searches.
What suggestions do you have for tracing roadblocks in earlier American history?
A: Head to the land records in that area to fill in the gaps
Q: Will you figure out who my gggggrandfather’s father was? Just kidding
I’ve heard that most records are in fact NOT lost when people say they are and that the national archives has most all of them, is that true in your opinion (I do southern US work) and do you have any good strategies for finding and using these records?
A: I would agree that there are misconceptions when people say records were lost of entirely burned. A lot of them can be found buried in state, local, or even national archives across the US. The best way to locate them is to reach out to other genealogists. The FamilySearch wiki (wiki.familysearch.org) is one great resource for this as is the USGenWeb project (usgenweb.org)
Q: Have you seen the BBC version of Who Do You Think You Are?
I feel like it’s more entertaining than the NBC/TLC version but I’m not sure if it’s because the UK celebs have better relatives or that the show is much longer and they get to go into more detail. What are your thoughts?
Also, how does one get into professional genealogy? I enjoy it a great deal and I enjoy researching the family histories of others.
A: I have seen several of the BBC episodes – and it is a bit different (even the US episodes that are shown overseas have a few changes). I think some of it is the age of the series in the UK (I would say it is a bit more mature as a process).
As far as getting into professional genealogy, one of my first steps was to join the Association of Professional Genealogists <www.apgen.org> for some guidance.
Q: Is certification important in the field? Can you refer me to some resources and opinions on the importance of it, how hard it is, the benefits, etc.
A: There are a few articles published in back issues of the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly (http://www.apgen.org) that cover the issue.
It can be very important, depending on the type of clients you wish to serve.
Q: How can you do genealogy professionally?
A: There are a few different avenues to pursue. Most take individual clients on an hourly basis and work to trace their family trees. Others write and speak on the topic (and some do a combination of everything).
Q: What’s the process that gets old newspapers online? I( could) have a bunch of data about my family stuck in 100 year of local microfilmed newspapers, but it’s not indexed and it would take me so much time to find anything. What are the chances a random newspaper will ever be searchable online? Thanks!
A: It can be quite a process. Different companies are working to digitized different collections, so there are good chances you will find it online eventually. You can see the behind the scenes process of on our the findmypast newspaper collections on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fztYPGMrtkI
Q: What resources would you recommend for African American genealogy? I’ve got a 2x great grandfather who was born in GA before the Civil War so he probably was a slave. He was a Farmer when he moved to Texas, so he probably farmed before that. Other than that, I don’t even know how to go from there…
A: I recommend arranging as much information as you can find on him (via censuses, slave censuses, farm schedules, info derived from children’s death certificates) and siblings/peers, and then contacting the relevant historical societies for information on how they may help you (usually some cost involved). Start with the Georgia Historical Society (statewide) and also whatever county historical societies and genealogical groups are in the areas he was known to be from.