Genealogy websites and high-tech DNA tests help amateur historians trace their family roots back multiple generations.
Story by Andy Austin
Like many kids growing up, I loved to spend time with my grandparents. In addition to major family holidays like Christmas and Easter, I would sometimes spend a week with them during school break, giving me a change of scenery during the long summers.
My paternal grandparents lived in Muncie, Indiana, just off the Ball State University campus in a tidy little house on a corner lot with beautiful roses and flowering trees. My grandfather, Frank Austin, a retired accountant, and my grandmother, Hattie Mae Osbun Austin, a retired secretary and homemaker, renovated the small bungalow to create a tastefully decorated home full of old books, antique furniture, and most intriguing to me, beautifully framed photos of family members going back several generations.
Far from being musty old black and white photos of nameless ancestors, the photos depicted people and scenes that had real stories, stories my grandmother would recount as I studied the photos on their living room walls. She would tell me stories of her childhood, of her four older siblings and their adventures growing up on a farm in Ohio. There were photos of great-grandparents, second and third cousins, family homes and picnic reunions with a huge cast of smartly dressed relatives now long dead.
I became fascinated with the tales of my grandmother’s upbringing, living through wars and the Depression. She would talk about her memories of food prepared for large family gatherings — of traditions that she felt were important to keep alive — and I would take in all these family stories with the earnestness of a student of history, feeling the weight of their meaning for my family. Somehow, even as a child, I knew that someday it would be my responsibility to help preserve these photos and their accompanying stories.
After my grandparents passed away, most of their photos, letters, birth and death announcements and other documents chronicling our family history were passed on to my father, Robert Austin, a retired commercial photographer and now a spry 91-year-old amateur genealogist. After his retirement, he began to preserve old photos and letters and to research more about our family history, creating a detailed family tree tracing our roots back more than eight generations. What started as an effort to copy and share old photos soon became a passion for discovery, leading him to travel to archives and libraries around the area in search of clues, of names and dates to fill in the missing branches of our family tree.
Online and in-person
My father is not alone in his quest to research and document his ancestors. Genealogy is a growing obsession for amateur sleuths and armchair detectives everywhere. Family history research is the second-most popular hobby in the United States, according to articles in Time and USA Today by author and former Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez. In 2018, a survey compiled by AARP found that more than 85 percent of its members — U.S. adults 50 and older — were currently researching their family history. More than 100 million family trees have been created on genealogy research website Ancestry.com, and more than 15 million people worldwide have taken DNA tests through services like 23andMe and the National Geographic DNA project to discover more about their ancestors. There are even television shows like “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Genealogy Roadshow” that have millions of viewers in the United States and air in several countries.
Interest in genealogy is growing at least in part thanks to the internet and the availability of online historical records. It used to be only historians and professional researchers who had access to the data. But you no longer have to take a trip to a county courthouse or a musty library to find birth and death certificates, marriage licenses or property deeds.
“Prior to Ancestry, most people researched their family history by writing letters to records offices to obtain documents,” says Crista Cohen of Ancestry.com. “Finding an answer to one research question could have taken months, or even years. When Ancestry launched its website in the mid-1990s, many people felt it was a game-changer because suddenly they had immediate access to millions of records online.
“Now, two decades later, with more than 20 billion records available online and more than 100 million family trees created by members, Ancestry has completely enhanced and refined the way that family history research is accomplished.”
Finding the documentation to support genealogical research is only half the battle when trying to trace a family tree. While there are many free sites on the web to research your family history, there are advantages to subscribing to a paid service. Being able to record and share the information is also important.
“The search engine on Ancestry can help you discover even more in the extensive collection of census records, birth, marriage, and death records, immigration records and more,” Ancestry’s Cohen explains. “You can quickly locate documents and images that help you fill out your family tree and discover meaningful stories from the lives of the people who came before you. Instead of handwriting charts and making copies for everyone in the family, you can simply share your online Ancestry family tree with any person in your family. They can then access that family tree from any computer or mobile device.”
My father has used Ancestry to compile and share our family history. For each member of our extended family, he has created personalized binders that contain the parts of the family tree most relevant to each individual, complete with photos, dates and relationships. He has been able to incorporate other genealogists’ research into his own. Branches from other family histories that cross ours provide more information to fill in missing data. As more and more members add their own names, dates and photographs, my father is able to add to his work with more information being added daily.
Another popular method of tracing your lineage is DNA testing, first brought to the mass market by National Geographic and its Geno DNA Ancestry kit. According to the National Geographic website, the project is a multiyear research initiative that uses cutting-edge genetic technologies to analyze historical patterns in DNA from participants around the world to better understand shared genetic roots. Expanding on National Geographic’s kit, there are several newer services available to test DNA and provide relevant genealogical data.
Companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA provide at-home testing kits that utilize saliva submitted through a collection tube and returned via mail. Those seeking data related to their family history can obtain a variety of information depending on the services they select. 23andMe offers several testing options that provide information ranging from geographic lineage to tracing relatives.
“You can trace your lineage to more than 1,000 regions worldwide through your DNA,” says 23andMe’s Scott Hadley. “Our Ancestry Composition report analyzes genetic variants across all chromosomes to provide a breakdown of global ancestry by percentages. The average customer can trace their DNA to at least five different regions from around the world. The service also includes DNA Relatives, an optional tool matching you with close or distant relatives based on shared DNA. Ninety-five percent of 23andMe customers participating in DNA Relatives connect with a third-degree cousin or closer relative.”
While DNA testing can provide data to augment genealogical research, it is important to note that there are actually three kinds of DNA tests that can be useful in tracing family history. The first, autosomal DNA testing, can help reveal our biogeographical origins (ethnicities) and connect us to living cousins.
The second type of test is called Y-DNA and traces the Y chromosome that is passed from father to son. It is useful in tracing paternal lineage. On the other side, a Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test is used to trace a direct maternal line. Depending on your research goals, you may want to explore all three kinds of tests.
With all the information provided by the DNA found in your saliva, privacy can be an issue. When employing a testing service to process your sample and generate data, the handling of your personal information is important. Investigating how a testing service uses your information is the first step.
“We employ robust authentication methods and restrict access to our systems through policies and protocols,” says 23andMe’s Hadley. “We also employ software, hardware and physical security measures to protect the computers where customer data is handled and stored. In addition, we do not share any customer’s individual information unless they have provided a separate written consent in order to do so.”
My father and sister have both submitted samples for DNA testing, and the resulting information helped my father fill in gaps in his research. While there was nothing shocking in the information that was uncovered by the tests — our family is not related to any famous actors or world leaders that we know of — it is interesting to read the reports and delve further into the migratory route our ancestors followed on their way to the Midwestern United States.
So many of us have a fascination with our own personal history — where we come from and those who preceded us. While we cannot truly define ourselves based solely on our family tree, understanding our connections to the past is a first step in understanding how we fit into the larger picture.
My grandmother would be amazed at all the new ways to collect, store and share family histories, and I think she would be pleased that the photographs and stories of her life are being preserved and passed on to future generations. Those beautifully framed images of smartly dressed men and women will always be available to future genealogists looking to make a connection to their past.
For the majority of beginners, the internet and the library provide the most accessible sources of information about family history. Popular internet websites for records include:
- Fold3.com (specializing in military records)
This story originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Kiwanis magazine.