Tips on how to start tracing your roots
Diane Milton Smith concluded her remarks with a warning: “Be prepared to get addicted.”
Marge Cleave quickly added: “... And to spend a lot of time in cemeteries.”
The two local members of the Moose Jaw Branch of the Saskatchewan Genealogical Society can certainly speak from experience. Both have spent a number of years tracing their family roots and offered tips from their areas of expertise to help beginners at a presentation at the Moose Jaw Public Library.
“There are so many sources of information, it can be hard to know where to start,” said Milton Smith, who is the vice-president of the Moose Jaw Branch.
While there are numerous web sites and databases available, Milton Smith offered some practical, old fashioned advice: start with your living relatives -- parents and grandparents -- and see how much they can tell you. Milton Smith has been tracing her family roots for more than 20 years and has found relatives going back to the 1700s.
“You always want to find out more and see how far back you can go,” she said.
The first meeting of the Moose Jaw Branch was in 1970, but in the digital age it seems that more people than ever are searching their family histories.
“I think commercially, it’s been advertised more,” Milton Smith said when asked about genealogy’s increasing popularity. “Before that, there wasn’t so much online. So, you had to go to the record offices and make copies of things.”
While commercial sites like ancestry.ca have a lot of information, there are also plenty of free resources available as well. World War 1 records are online at Library and Archives Canada and the World War II records are being digitized. British birth, marriage and death records are available at ‘findbmd.com’ while Information Service Corporation (ISC) has a number of Saskatchewan records online. The local branch has photos of gravestones archived and has digitized all local 21st century obituaries and are adding obituaries from 1970-98 every week on its web site (http://moosejawgenealogy.com). Milton Smith, Cleave and Diane Clarke all showed some of their own research using the census, marriage, birth and death records during their presentations. “There are times when you think you aren’t making any progress and you look back to where you were five years earlier and think ‘I learned a lot,’” said Clarke. In their presentation, they cautioned to be skeptical of what you find out -- the census is not infallible. It was collected by humans, who are capable of making mistakes and could be incomplete. Marriage certificates can also be inaccurate. Milton Smith said that some note that the bride was “full age” which is to mean 21, but that doesn’t always mean that was their actual age.
They also said to keep track of all of your sources, some less obvious sources can provide a wealth of information. Cleave mentioned Dr. Barnardo’s Homes charity that housed many orphaned children in Britain. She sent away and received extensive records of her husband’s grandmother including her entire file from Barnardo’s including her picture.
Newspapers, school yearbooks and even wills -- if they can be tracked down -- can add valuable information. “If you can find a will, you see who they left money to and you may have a whole other family you don’t even know,” Milton Smith said.
While Milton Smith cautioned immediately not to expect to find you are a descendant of royalty, increasingly long-buried family secrets -- like illegitimate children -are being unearthed as DNA testing becomes available to the masses.
Milton Smith said she found some distant relatives on one side of her family based on DNA testing and was able to contact them.
“The DNA is still there. That’s what is fascinating. There’s still a blood link even though you don’t know these people at all,” she said.
Much like digital records did 20 years ago, DNA databases are likely to aid genealogical research as they grow. “I think it might be really helpful for adoptees if they find a match,” Milton Smith said. “They may not find out exactly who their parents were, but they may find some cousins or other relatives that they can match-up with.” Far beyond a list of dates and names, the joy of the research is in the details that you learn about your ancestors and the details that may resonate in your own life. It can bring the past to life in unexpected ways.
“My one set of grandparents came from this little village in England and my sister has gone to live there now. I was working in the garden and the church clock chimed and I thought ‘they heard that, the exact same sound,’” Milton Smith said. “It gives you a funny feeling. It can be very emotional.”