Monday, July 21, 2014

Online Family Trees

When recording the lives of your ancestors, it is essential to have at least two online family trees.  I always knew it was a great idea for everyone else, but for many years I resisted doing this myself.  I had traveled to numerous courthouses, spent countless hours in libraries, etc., and I was not about to let anyone else steal MY research.  I also knew that there might be errors, and I didn't want anyone copying my errors from tree to tree.

Several years ago I decided to try posting a private tree to containing just a small portion of my ancestry. It was so easy to search census and many other records, because Ancestry did it for me through their "shaky leaf" hint system.  The tree was easy to use, and I could access it from anywhere that I had an Internet connection. But then I decided to see what happened when I made my tree public. All I can say is WOW!  Yes, people copied my information from tree to tree, but they also found additional information that I copied.  Occasionally someone would catch an error.  When I corrected the error, I noticed that the other trees would, one-by-one, get changed to contain the new correction.  The best part came one day when a researcher had noticed a family Bible for sale on eBay.  She searched public trees for the ancestor's name and found my tree.  She notified me that the Bible of one of my ancestors was for sale. I won the auction and am now the proud owner of a Bible published in the 1700s. I never again wanted any private trees.

If you are going to have any DNA testing (and I hope to encourage you to do so), online trees are essential. I find almost all of my DNA cousins through, and my greatest discoveries have been made by comparing Ancestry public member trees. Almost everyone who is serious about their DNA research has a tree there.

There is no such thing as too many family trees. Post your ancestry on as many sites as you wish,but these two sites that are critical: and Here are why these two are important. is the best known website for family historians and genealogists.  Ancestry has a massive subscription base, and most subscribers have their own family trees there.  Once you start a family tree, you can search Ancestry's databases for records and attach the records to your ancestor's profile.  Ancestry even searches the most popular 20% of their databases and reports "hints" on your ancestor's profiles. Note that they do not search all of their databases, so you will want to do your own searching.  You can add photos, documents, and stories of your own to the tree.  And best of all, you can search other public member trees where you will find relatives who have these items about your ancestors.  I can't tell you how many great photos and other items I have received from distant cousins whom I never knew existed. All living people appear on Ancestry's trees as "Private", so their names and other information are not searchable. is a well established website, but its newest tree system, FamilySearch Family Tree, has only been around for about a year.  Instead of each person having his own tree at FamilySearch, everyone works on a common family tree. That means that we are not duplicating efforts. When you find a 1850 census record and attach it to the correct family, it never has to be found again.  Everyone will see the new record on the tree. The same applies when someone adds a photo or story to an ancestor's profile.  If someone adds a photo of one of your ancestors, you will not have to find it.  It will appear in your tree.

Please note that you cannot search for, or find, any living person at FamilySearch Family Tree.  Even if you give me your full name, date of birth, and ID number in the system, I still can't find you.  Even my own children can't find me on FamilySearch, so I can still tell them I'm 29 years old! All deceased people should appear in the tree only once, but because living people are not searchable, they may be entered into the tree multiple times. Each person adds all living family members to their portion of the tree so that they can view them. Once you've added your living family (who are visible only to you), you can search for the deceased family members and connect them to your tree.  FamilySearch's collection of digitized and indexed records is available directly from FamilySearch Family Tree, so you can connect them to your ancestor's profile.  In addition, you can add your own photos, documents, and stories.

If you do not have a family tree at one or both of these sites, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to do so.  Each system have different records and different technology.  You will leave a lasting family legacy by using both systems. You can create a tree for free at, but searching their records requires a subscription.  Everything at FamilySearch is free, just create an account and get started.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Foreigner

Ahhhh, China. What an experience.  I had studied a year of college Chinese, could read several characters, but I felt like a complete infant. Even getting off the plane and navigating the airport was scary.

I remember being in a shopping mall after I first arrived, not being able to read any of the signs, and nobody being able to understand what I was saying.  It was really tough (and almost degrading) to have to say to my daughter-in-law, "Emily, I have to go to the bathroom."  She stopped what she was doing, walked me there, and waited for me.  Imagine how that felt.

Everything in China seemed different. I expected to have difficulty with language, but I didn't realize how many things would be close to impossible without the constant companionship of my daughter-in-law--my personal interpreter. I couldn't take the bus by myself because I couldn't read the bus maps, couldn't read the rolling sign at the front of the bus that had the name of the next stop, and couldn't understand the bus driver call out the name of the stop. Of course, all transportation had the same problems. Taxi drivers didn't understand me, and I couldn't even navigate the streets on foot without being able to read street signs, names of shops, etc. When I finally took my first subway trip to go alone to a bookstore, it was a real accomplishment. But I did it!

Imagine going to the grocery store where you can't read what's in the boxes on the shelves. I didn't recognize 3/4 of the fresh produce.  There were hundreds of fruits and vegetables that I'd never seen, and the signs couldn't help me because I didn't read those Chinese characters. The meat department was bewildering with every part of dozens of animals were displayed.  I was often saying, "What's that?"  My daughter-in law would reply something like, "Pig's ear."

On a holiday for honoring ancestors, I had gone with Emily to visit her grandfather's grave.  We got on a bus that took dozens of people directly to the cemetery.  We all got off and the bus driver told us when to be back at the bus.  When we returned, the bus driver counted the people and discovered that there was one extra person. That person would have to get off.  He looked around to see who might not have been there before.  He looked at me, then asked everyone, "Was the foreigner here before?"  Everyone said yes.  I thought, "If there's one person everyone would remember, it's me.  I'm the one who stands out like a sore thumb." But of course, if there was one person to suspect of doing something wrong, that would also be me.  That's who I was here: "The Foreigner."

One day I was on a train traveling from Beijing to a beach city.  I was wondering why I was in China at all.  I am one of those people who believes that everything happens for a reason.  Why was I in China instead of somewhere else?  What was I supposed to experience there?  On that long train ride, I had nothing else to do but sit and think. I sat wondering what these interests of mine had in common: family history, DNA, old arts and crafts, antiques, China, food storage and preservation, heirloom seeds and gardening.  Then this thought came into my head, "Living like your ancestors." What?? So I thought about it. Well, obviously family history and DNA are used to discover who my ancestors were.  Learning to do old arts and crafts, learning gardening, food storage and preservation, and understanding the uses of various antiques would all help me to learn to understand more about their lives.  But China? What did that have to do with anything?  Oh . . . the immigrant experience!  I thought about the hundreds of struggles I had living in a country where I could barely understand the language and where I was definitely different from others.  Everywhere I went, people stared at me. I was studying Chinese constantly and not progressing fast enough. When I spoke, people still didn't understand me.  I understood a little of what it must have been like for our ancestors who came to America and didn't recognize the foods found there or how to grow them, who struggled to communicate, who struggled to fit in.

Then I knew.  I not only understood how to find ancestors, but how to live like them. I could teach people how to discover their ancestors in the truest sense--not just to find their names, but also who their ancestors really were.  This is my life's work.  I've been trying to learn about my ancestors since I was eight years old.  I've been doing genealogy of some sort since I was ten, and I've been doing it seriously, even obsessively (researching and teaching) since 1976.  And now, even though I am the author of two books published more than a decade ago, have lectured and written dozens of articles, ordered and evaluated hundreds of DNA tests, and have been the president of genealogical societies and the director of Family History Centers, it is time to really get started.