DNA testing only reveals part of your story.
Climbing the branches of your family tree or digging around the trunk to find your roots has never been easier, and increasingly without the risk of uncovering a family secret or two. With an accumulating trove of digital data available online and mail-order DNA testing services providing more details, genealogists have a limitless supply of sources for locating their branches and roots.
But DNA genetic testing only goes so far. The genetic code, fascinating as it is, does not tell family histories.
“You never know what you’ll find when you start looking. You’re going to find something interesting,” says professional genealogist Bill Eddleman, research coordinator at the State Historical Society of Missouri’s Cape Girardeau Research Center. “But you need the story behind it. And that is exactly what the paper trail does.”
In other words, nothing beats good old-fashioned research and detective work, whether it’s combing through the State Historical Society of Missouri’s research library at the Center for Missouri Studies at 605 Elm St. in downtown Columbia, which houses the world’s largest Missouri collection own newspapers – some digitized – or dive into extensive family histories and other documents at the click of a mouse. SHSMO has subscriptions to the country’s top genealogy databases – such as ancestry.com – that are free for local public use.
Whether someone is new to genealogy or a seasoned family tree climber, a good resource to get started or to find out next steps is the Basic Genealogy 12-part video series, available free upon request from SHSMO. The video series is presented by Bill, with strategies and tips for family history researchers. Each video in the series examines a different type of record — from maps and obituaries to census records and county history records — detailing the type of information that can be found and how to uncover it.
There is also hands-on help from SHSMO library staff including Amy L. Waters, Senior Librarian. A Kansan native, Amy is an avid genealogist who has traveled to all 50 states and visited the graves of every US President. Both awards are related to her interest in learning about an ancestor held captive in the notoriously hellish Confederate prison of Andersonville during the Civil War.
His journals from this period are preserved at the Kansas State Historical Society.
“Probably the most surreal moment of my life was going to Andersonville and standing there and knowing that my ancestor was there and witnessed it,” adds Amy, “because the Civil War affected so much of American history. “
For family tree building, Amy suggests starting with ancestry.com in the SHSMO Ancestry Library. From this point forward, the search adds parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and more, using US census records to provide additional information. In some cases, birth and death certificates are available. Once the basic genealogy is in place for two or three generations, a search of obituaries, county records, newspapers, and even prison records can generate and confirm more of a family’s history.
Bill, who hosts the twice-monthly radio show “Tales of Days Gone By,” says genetic connections via mail-in-DNA testing can contribute a lot to genealogical activity, but this technology is still evolving. It has been tested twice with slightly different results. The first test showed that he has German and British ancestry that he knew. A second test a few months later also showed Scandinavian influences.
That shouldn’t be too surprising, he says. As more people submit saliva samples for DNA testing, the “pool” of samples increases the scope and depth of the results. This didn’t mean that the first ethnicity estimate was wrong, but that the second was more correct.
A PBS show on genealogy revealed that a man who thought he was quarter Armenian and half Italian found out the opposite.
“As it turns out, he’s not Italian and his Italian grandfather wasn’t his grandfather,” says Bill. In addition, the man discovered his African American ancestry, which qualified him to join the Sons of the American Revolution.
“Sometimes there are surprises,” explains Bill. “If you do, be prepared — or don’t.” He is aware of a few accounts of a family tree researcher who had suicidal thoughts when he found out that “Grandpa wasn’t Grandpa.”
To get to the roots of family connections — and in some cases to separate myth from fact — the stories must be found, whether it be in a written family history, a clipping from an obituary here or a newspaper advertisement there, the census records, or whatever other source. This is the part of the research that drives both Bill and Amy.
“The paper trail – that’s a lot more fun,” says Bill, who has traced a branch of his family back nine generations. An ancestor received a Spanish land grant in Missouri in 1802, just before Thomas Jefferson successfully negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. He’s still not used to being amazed when he discovers something new.
“It happens all the time,” he says.
A few years ago, Bill learned from a Civil War researcher that one of Bill’s ancestors was in the Mexican-American War and the man had the ancestor’s pension record. Using this information, Bill found his ancestor’s obituary, which claimed he rode as an escort for the famous Kit Carson during that war.
The pension file confirmed this as fact. Again, it’s good old-fashioned detective work that pays the most, says Bill.
“There’s so much coming out online so fast it’s hard to keep up,” he adds. “But you can’t get everything online.” And Bill warns, even online “facts” need to be verified.
Amy also testifies to examples of how she has helped prove or disprove family narratives going back several generations and sometimes spanning a century or two.
Recently, Amy has been intrigued to learn about the Depression-era migration from Missouri to California. This process also meant that many extended families were separated, and genealogists can help fill in these gaps.
However, Amy doesn’t do without DNA tests entirely: “Unfortunately, this all confirms how western, European and white I am,” she says. “You know, my chart isn’t very colourful. Not at all.”
She is also grateful that there are numerous services that provide genealogical information. But she prefers to do it herself.
“Part of my excitement is discovering the information and being the detective that puts it all together,” says Amy. “I find that interesting. I want to find it for myself. I want to make the connections.
Research resources at your fingertips:
The State Historical Society of Missouri’s Center for Missouri Studies at 605 Elm St. in downtown Columbia has a wealth of resources for genealogy, including:
Genealogists use newspapers to find information about births, marriages, deaths, legal transactions, business advertisements, and local events. Some newspapers publish full obituaries for local residents; others only print short messages. Birth announcements, marriage announcements and anniversary announcements can also provide useful information. Library staff will help you access the newspaper collection, some of which has been digitized on microfilm.
SHSMO’s Reference Collection includes a variety of published sources for genealogists. Cemetery records, city and county histories, city directories, family histories, autobiographies, college journals, church histories, newspaper indexes, and genealogy society journals are available. Researchers can search the reference collection through the SHSMO online catalogue.
These collections can include letters, diaries, scrapbooks, and photographs kept by families or individuals. Although these collections can be beneficial to genealogists, not every family is represented in SHSMO’s manuscript holdings.
The Society’s Genealogy and Family History Digital Collection includes several genealogical manuscript collections, including compilations of births, deaths, marriages and other vital statistics, as well as funeral home and cemetery records.
All researchers are welcome to personally use the resources of SHSMO. Stocks can be requested for use at any of the six SHSMO Research Centers, but do not circulate outside of SHSMO facilities and must be used on-site. Customers who visit SHSMO in person do not incur a fee for reference assistance or use of the collections.
Genealogists can also access the paid online subscription service AncestryLibrary.com for free on computers at SHSMO’s Columbia Research Center. All six statewide SHSMO research centers are FamilySearch partner libraries. This gives local users access to digital genealogical collections otherwise only accessible through a FamilySearch family history center.
Source: Missouri State Historical Society
Missouri State Historical Society Center for Missouri Studies
605 Elm Street, Colombia, MO