Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Cost of Curiosity: Online Genealogy

Here's the weirdest thing I've spent money on lately: I paid $32 for a month's worth of access to

This started out rather innocuously. A friend was telling me about her family's small business and I tried to Google it. This led to a couple of results popping up that were from old New York Times articles about her relatives. It turns out that they had an interesting history and were prominent enough at one time to have made the papers, back when they used to publish lists of who'd just come in on ocean liners from Europe and who'd been tapped for secret societies at Yale. The family name was unusual enough that I started to see a chain of relationships, with deaths and marriages, and I sketched out a little family tree.

I told my friend what I'd discovered, and she was fascinated, and knew her other relatives would be interested too, especially her mother. She told me a bit more about their family, but said the traces wouldn't go too far back, as her great-grandfather had supposedly emigrated from Scotland and changed his name when he arrived. But I discovered someone else with his name who I suspected might be his father, and started to be even more curious. I moved beyond the NY Times results and began to look at genealogy sites, and with the limited results brought up by's free search, I thought I'd discovered something. I couldn't stand the suspense, so I registered myself for a free trial membership-- within minutes, boom, I was staring at a passport application from 1920 that proved that my friend's great-grandfather was born in the USA, and that the other man I'd seen references to was his father! Then I wanted to trace the family back even further, but to get access to census records from Scotland, I had to actually pay up front for the world membership. I was gritting my teeth about doing it, but I was dying to find out more, so I went for it, and sure enough I found connections to the family back as far as the 1841 census in Scotland.

I feel like I have a whole new hobby now! I wish I'd been a historian, or a detective or something, as I seem to have an obsessive curiosity and patience for digging through records and searching out possible misspellings of names, etc. I've printed out pages and pages of old newspaper articles, letters to the editor, passport applications, census records, passenger lists for Ellis Island arrivals, old phone directory pages, etc. It is amazing what you can find! My friend and I are going to put everything together in a binder and give it to her mom for her birthday, who I think will be amazed to discover that she had a great grandfather who was here in the USA doing interesting things, rather than being some long lost anonymous person in Scotland.

If you're wondering why I'd do all this for someone else's family, well, it's just because they were way more interesting and easier to trace than mine! And guess what, that's largely because they had more money! I have names of my own ancestors going back a few generations, but when you're looking for people with very common names who had 8 brothers on one side of the family, and 16 siblings on the other (!), it gets difficult, and kind of boring! No one in my family had the money to do any international travel and their social activities weren't noted in the papers, so there just isn't as much of a historical record beyond census data. But it was cool to see my grandparents listed on census sheets when they were little kids, almost 100 years ago!

As for the money I paid to dig into all this? There are some free sources of genealogical data, I guess, but I had a hard time finding any that were actually useful at all. Most are horrible to look at, full of broken links, and very limited in terms of what information they cover, or they just refer you to brick and mortar libraries where you can look at microfilm. is a piece of cake-- it has a great search tool, and lots of data is aggregated there, with very clear images of the original documents. The $30 was well worth it. If you've ever wanted to know more about your family tree, give it a try!


Anonymous said...

I am sure the New York Public Library has as one of their databases, you might even be able to access it from home with your NYPL card for free.
The librarians would definitely be able to look up that information for you.

FB @ said...

That is REALLY cool..

I'd love to do that for my family but one of my parents is adopted so the trace is kind of weird... plus records weren't that hot back then *sigh* where they were from that is

Anonymous said...

I got into it a few months ago. You can find out quite a lot of info just through the free trial. What I love are all the scanned documents. I even found a newspaper clipping of my aunt's wedding announcement on there!

guinness416 said...

The mormons, via their ancestry offices and their website (familysearch) has a ton of info available for free. I'm native Irish, no American in the family at all, and they still had plenty of data related to my ancestors.

Be careful, it's truly addictive ... but a lot of work too, I'd love to take 6 months off to really focus on digging deeper.

CT Mom said...

I wish we had only spent $30 - hubby is obsessed with tracing his family, and he's spent over $350 so far. One of the more interesting items - going back about 7 generations, his family tree doesn't fork: 2 cousins married each other. Explains a lot :-)

Tiredbuthappy said...

Yeah, I know a lot of archivists. It's fun stuff.

This reminds me of when I found references to a friend's family in a government documents library. His grandfather had been part of the Communist Party, and I found him in the records of the House Un-American Affairs Committee. It was such a thrill for me to find, and so much fun to show the family.

Bitty said...

Thanks for this. I was going to ask about ease of use, but you addressed that at the end. I know my local library has an Ancestry subscription, but I also know that I have to be in the particular branch of the library to use it.

Still, it's near my home.

My mother's maiden name is Crockett and we are allegedly related to Davy, but no one living knows how; the one person who claimed to know died 20 years ago. Trying to search using just Google is frustrating and fruitless, so someday in my spare time, I will definitely look into this.

Anonymous said...

I work for and I'm glad you're having fun with the site. It really is amazing how quickly you can take records all the way from a 1920 passport application to the 1841 Scotland census!

By the way, you mention that you are printing things out to make a binder for your friend's mom. That's terrific. I put some documents together to give to my dad at his birthday.

In case you didn't run across it, has a tab that will take your family tree right from the site and auto-generate a book, complete with all of the records you've saved and photos you've uploaded. This is a free tool, and you can either print pages for free on your own printer, or you can order a bound book of your own creation.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

The preview version didn't look so crazy. Sorry 'bout that!

frugal zeitgeist said...

I don't know how well that would work for me; I'm first-generation American. Some years ago, though, I went to Scotland and spent an afternoon in the records office of a little two-stoplight town in the highlands. I found an amazing amount about my ancestors, and it was a truly rewarding experience.

****Veteran Military Wife at Life Lessons of a Military Wife**** said...

It is addicting...especially when you find long lost relatives and some neat tidbits, like a long lost Civil War diary describing what our ancestor went thru! We also have slaves in our family, and a few years ago, I set up a meeting with our oldest relative, granddaughter to a slave (she's almost 100) and the plantation owner's fourth great was priceless..and couldn't have been done without and, not to mention the message boards on! What would we have done before the internet?

Anonymous said...

My little sister is our family geneaologist and she has set up a really cool family tree with photos and everything! It's almost magical to me to see these people that I am related to (although long gone). And that unusual feeling of having roots and tradition in our root-less, tradition-less American society!

Anonymous said...

I started at the free trial with and have gone on to 2 world-wide 3 months sessions. Without them I would never have been able to trace both sides of my family back 8 generations. My brother-in-law did husband's side of the family and has had lots of help from living relatives.

My best tip to anyone interested in their geneology - start NOW with living relatives. I have no parents, aunts, uncles left. My cousins don't care and so have been no help at all. Added to that, I have not lived within 500 miles of any relatives for 45 years so was never able to participate in holidays and family gatherings where family stories were shared and photos taken. Bellen