Looking for foreign relatives or ancestors

This item appears on page 42 of the December 2012 issue.

Sarah Gilson of Hanover, New Hampshire, had an information request for ITN subscribers, so we asked you for the following.

If you have attempted to trace a branch of your ancestry or find lost or unknown relatives outside of the US, let us know the types of resources you used. Which websites proved helpful? Did you look for records of baptisms, marriages or land ownership in a church, courthouse or library? Where and approximately when did you conduct your in-person search? If you visited a graveyard, do you have any advice on doing that? What sort of expenses were involved in all this? Upon discovering any relatives, how did you contact them and how were you received?

We received many enthusiastic responses from devoted searchers and will print them over several issues. We thank all who wrote.

“Who Do You Think You Are?” was a TV show that aired on NBC in 2011-2012. Each week, to trace the family tree of a celebrity, the researcher would sit down at the computer, click a couple of keys and find the information wanted. It was good television, but it was not true to life.

To find your ancestors, you’re going to have to put in a lot of long, tiring hours, for the most part. Just keep digging. If you’re lucky, you’ll hit the jackpot.

Two smart purchases are a very good magnifying glass (some records take a lot of scrutiny) and some kind of audio recorder.

Start by having your oldest direct ancestors (grandparents?) tell you everything they know about where and when they were born and who their parents were and where their parents were born, where they died, etc. Have them go back as many generations as they can. Record what they say.

DO IT NOW. Most people wait until they are middle-aged to start researching their roots. By then, many relatives who could have been information sources are gone. Sometimes a family member has a family Bible in which they have recorded births, deaths, marriages, etc.

Online, I like Ancestry.com as a starting point. It has all kinds of data, such as census records, death records, etc. Searching the US records costs about $155 per year; including foreign records costs more.

You can find other websites by doing searches (for example, “Italian genealogy”).

If there is a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon church) in your area, see if they have a public room for researching family records. They are a great source of information. (With records of people of many faiths, LDS Family History Centers are units of the Family History Library, run by the LDS Church. For a list of the 4,500 Family History Centers in 88 countries, visit www.archives.com. — Editor)

Census records are also a good place to start. The 1940 census was released in April 2012 and contains a wealth of information.

If you can find an immigrant ancestor listed in the 1920 census but not in the 1910 census, it probably means he or she came to the US after 1910. Then you can use US immigration lists to try to find when and where that person entered the country. Not everyone came in through Ellis Island; some came in at Philadelphia or through Canada or (as my wife’s Irish grandfather did) by jumping ship from a vessel after working as a crew member.

If you know where an ancestor was born, married and/or buried, get a copy of the birth, marriage and/or death records, if possible. These might mention parents and other information that you need. These kinds of records can be obtained from the bureau of vital statistics in the state in which you’re searching. Genealogy has become very expensive, however. Once free, the cost of a record of a birth, death or marriage can run $15 to $50.

If you’re a beginner, I suggest purchasing some good books on genealogy research. See if your local library has a genealogy section.

I personally do not recommend using a professional genealogist unless you’re flush with cash. I used two different genealogists years ago and found that their information wasn’t always correct. Also, much of the work they are going to do for you can now be done, yourself, on the Internet. If you do want to hire a professional, check his or her credentials carefully.

There are a few good software programs for genealogical record keeping. I use Family Tree Maker, costing $40-$80 when not on sale. It tends to be a bit complicated, but if you read the book (which I never do), you should be able to understand it. I use one version for several years before getting an updated version, as each is increasingly more confusing and takes time to get used to.

I’ve found that there are two basic types of genealogy researchers: the “purist,” who demands that everything you publish on the Internet be absolutely correct and documented, and then my type. I get as much information as I can and publish it on RootsWeb, along with my e-mail address, then I wait for people to either throw rocks at me or validate my data*. This can be done through your Family Tree Maker program as well.

I’ve traced my father’s family history in the United States from the 1600s and my mother’s family from 1752.

My advice is to do as much as you can, and when you hit a brick wall, take a break. You’ll probably find another source that you haven’t yet thought of. Once smitten by the genealogy bug, you’ll never give up. After 25 years, I have 18,000-plus family records in my database!

Dean Ab-Hugh
Apple Creek, OH

*As Mr. Ab-Hugh brings to light, the content of some genealogy websites should be regarded as raw data and, when sources are not cited, not necessarily the final word. Whenever possible, corroborate information using additional sources.

My search for my paternal family roots started when I took a beginners’ course in genealogy offered by the Solano County Genealogical Society in 1994. I learned to research sources such as the National Archives and the Family History Center of the LDS Church.

Through the Hungarian/American Friendship Society (the society is no longer active, but archives are available on the website), I was able to ascertain the current name of the city I was looking for in what is now Hungary. (My Dad’s family referred to themselves as German.)

Researcher Dezso and his wife, Kinga (left), with Norine Matteson.

The only place name I had to go on, which I got from an uncle, was Oberradling, Austria, which today is Felsõrönök in the county of Vas, Hungary. The largest town in the vicinity of Felsõrönök is Szentgotthárd, in western Hungary where it borders Austria.

I wrote to the tourism bureau in Szentgotthárd asking if there was anyone who spoke English who could help my husband and me peruse the records when we arrived the following year. I used a Hungarian phrase book and clumsily wrote the letter in both English and Hungarian.

I received a reply from a 65-year-old retired gentleman, Dezso, whose wife had been an employee of the tourist bureau. He asked me to send him all the information I had on my family. Not only did he check the official records and record the information, he visited and took photos of my living relatives, most of whom were third cousins. He did this by going into neighboring towns on his scooter.

In August 1997, my husband, Tom, and I took Grand Circle Travel’s “Eastern European Vacation,” including the Vienna extension. After the Vienna visit, we met up, as planned, with my two sisters and brother and their spouses, rented two cars at the Vienna airport and drove south to Szentgotthárd, where we met Dezso. Tom and I were invited to stay with Dezso and his wife, Kinga, while the others stayed at a pension.

With Dezso’s help, we had a very busy day meeting and spending time with a relative in the town of Csorotnek and several third cousins and other relations in Szentgotthárd. They took us to the local church and both the old and new cemeteries, where we saw a number of graves of family members.

At each visit, we were served sweets, wine, cognac, etc., and talked at length with family members. The hospitality of these folks was unprecedented, and I obtained a great deal of information from them and continue to keep in touch.

Through them I located another cousin in Canada. Without the time and dedication of my researcher, translator and, now, friend Dezso, I would not have much of the information that fills a large loose-leaf binder as well as my computer program.

I would be remiss not to mention the merits of the various genealogy programs on the Internet, such as Ancestry.com. Nor would I dismiss a trip to Salt Lake City and the LDS Church library; I am not a Mormon but highly recommend their services.

Norine Dolgos Matteson
Vacaville, CA

Two free websites are good places to begin an online search for ancestors.

Rootsweb offers forums on surnames, nationalities and other subjects.

Cyndi’s List provides a multitude of links to useful genealogy sites.

Kent Shamblin
Beaver Bay, MN

Using the sources mentioned below, I was able to trace my mother’s parents’ families back to France in the 1600s, going back nine generations on my grandfather’s side and seven generations on my grandmother’s side.

I completed my research (if you ever do) in 2011, after doing it on and off for 10 years or so. Many genealogy records are now digitized and indexed. That was not the case when I started, so I quit several times for years.

Through a membership to Ancestry.com ($200 per year), I accessed the following resources:

• Quebec, Vital & Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1967 (also online) — a collection of baptism, marriage and burials records from Roman Catholic churches in Quebec. (My family is Catholic.)

Although the records are in French, they are indexed in English. I don’t read French, but after looking through a few you can puzzle out the names and usually the dates.

French women maintained their maiden names, which is wonderful if you are doing genealogy, as you can find their burial records under their maiden names.

• Tanguay’s Dictionnaire Généalogique des Familles Canadiennes Depus la Fondation de la Colonie Jusqu’a Nos Jours (also online here) — containing information about births, marriages and deaths from the 1700s.

• Canadian censuses, listing each household member’s name, sex, age, birthplace, occupation, etc.

In addition to Ancestry.com, I used…

Programme de Recherche en Démographie Historique — from the University of Montreal. There is a fee of $25 to use this site, but it has transcriptions of baptisms, marriages and burials and lists each person at each ceremony and his/her spouse (if applicable) and parents plus whether each was single, married or a widow/widower and even if someone was deceased. (For example, it might list the deceased spouse of someone who was present at a baptism.)

• The Quebec Federation of Genealogical Societies — has information about each person’s birth date, country of origin, parents, father’s occupation, first mention in the country, occupation upon arrival, wedding date, wedding place, spouse, death, burial and more.

In September ’11, I visited the church in Le Bic, Quebec, where my grandfather was baptized and my great-grandparents were baptized, married and buried. I contacted the church by e-mail before visiting, and I took all my records with me so I could show them to the deacon. He met with me, showed me the original records and gave me copies he had made for me, then he took me on a tour of the church and graveyard.

It was an incredible experience to actually find my great-grandparents’ tombstone.

If visiting a graveyard, I would definitely recommend taking a copy of the burial certificate or whatever other information that you have regarding the death.

The most wonderful experience was actually standing on the land in Canada that my first ancestor from France, Pierre Michaud, owned in 1695. I had found an old map and the information online on a genealogy website. The museum in Kamouraska, Quebec, had information about Pierre, and the curator was able to tell me exactly where the land was. Not much had changed; there were no buildings or parking lots, and there was a clear view to the St. Lawrence River.

I already had the records from Canada before making the trip there. The trip was just a special treat.

Sherry D. Gilson
Virginia Beach, VA