Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States and a billion-dollar industry, but few people know what actually goes into tracking down ancestors—let alone putting information about them into any kind of context. Mental Floss talked to three professional genealogists to learn more about their increasingly in-demand profession, and discovered why they love weird last names, why they’re indebted to the Mormons and the Quakers, and how television is making their job more difficult.
1. MOST OF THEM DON’T HAVE DEGREES IN THE FIELD.
There’s only one accredited four-year genealogy degree program in the U.S.—a bachelors at Brigham Young University in Utah. Those who can't make it to Utah can enroll in certificate programs, such as the one offered at Boston University, where Melinde Byrne teaches. “A lot of people sign up [at certificate programs] thinking it’ll be simple,” she says. Unfortunately, lots of people then fail when they discover how much work the program really is. Learning how to use databases, evaluate evidence, document research, locate and search public records, and define genealogical terms is essential knowledge for genealogists-in-training. Other course offerings may teach about ethics in DNA testing, how to read historical documents in multiple languages, and the best methods for writing historical narratives.
But those who don't want to commit to a whole certificate can take advantage of other, less formal options, such as classes in conjunction with library science programs, lectures offered by historical and other societies, and week-long intensives at institutes around the country.
2. THEY'RE BOUND BY PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS TO CONDUCT "EXHAUSTIVE" RESEARCH.
Unlike, say, doctors or lawyers, genealogists don't need a specific qualification to practice. But they're still guided by professional standards—including the five Genealogical Proof Standards developed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, a non-profit in D.C. The five standards are considered best practices for coming "as close as possible to what actually happened in history," and include 1) "reasonably exhaustive research," 2) "complete and accurate source citations," 3) "thorough analysis and correlation," 4) "resolution of conflicting evidence," and 5) a "soundly written conclusion based on the strongest evidence."
Professional researchers may have differing opinions about what constitutes “reasonably exhaustive” research, but most agree that it means visiting archives and making sure to cover all the bases—for example, looking at not just a death certificate to confirm a name and age, but census, birth, and burial records as well, to build a fuller picture and to corroborate it. "If you don’t do all the steps in the genealogical proof standard, then the conclusions aren’t convincing," Byrne says.
3. THEY OFTEN DISCOVER THEY HAVE A KNACK FOR GENEALOGY WHEN THEY'RE INVESTIGATING THEIR OWN FAMILIES FOR FUN.
Byrne, for example, looked into her family’s history and discovered that “my own father and mother would never have met if my great grandmother in Alsace-Lorraine hadn’t had a goiter.” This medical condition led her to circumvent Ellis Island’s rigorous physical exam in favor of entering the country via Boston, setting a whole new family history—and her parents’ eventual meeting—in motion.
Genealogists will often continue to use their research tools on their own families later in their careers, too. Lee Arnold, who oversees the collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), has used them to research his family’s past. “One of my ancestors fought with the South Carolina militia during the Revolutionary War,” he says, and service records indicated that he’d “lost his horse.” To Arnold, who grew up on a horse farm, “That meant, I fell off my horse and he beat me back to the barn.” He later learned that the phrase actually meant that a person’s horse had been shot out from under him. These are the kinds of details that get people hooked on genealogy, according to the experts—“how their lives compare to mine, how … the things they did and didn’t do helped to form me,” Byrne says.
4. SOME OF THEM CHARGE MORE THAN $100 AN HOUR.
Genealogists are often hired by families who are curious about their past or hoping to join lineage societies such as the Colonial Dames; by specific libraries or archives; or by companies such as ancestry.com, who have genealogists on staff. Fees generally vary by experience and project, although they tend to start around $20/hour (for simple record searches) and go over $100/hour, with a mid-range of around $55 per hour.
Arnold says there are three levels of genealogical research he’ll personally take on: research limited to HSP’s holdings; research that takes him anywhere in the Philadelphia area; and “our Cadillac version, where we’ll get nana to talk to us about her life in the shtetl.”
5. THEIR RESEARCH SOMETIMES UNCOVERS FAMILY SECRETS.
Be careful what you wish for when you decide to go deep: “I always tell prospective clients, ‘This can be life-changing,'" Byrne says. "'You may find half-siblings and other relatives you never imagined existed.’”
HSP’s director of research services, David Haugaard, says that clients can be stunned to learn about family members who were deliberately kept hidden. "Within so many families there are people who are written off ... somebody might have [had] a mentally ill sibling who was kept secret. It's less common today than it was, so when people are doing genealogy, it's not uncommon to learn about people in fairly recent history [who were ignored]. You start to learn that the family was more complex than realized."
6. BIBLES CAN BE UNEXPECTEDLY USEFUL.
Genealogists use plenty of sources you might not suspect would be helpful. Family bibles, in particular, can offer a wealth of relevant tidbits, since they were once often used to record births, deaths, and marriages. Scrapbooks, tax and church records, land deeds, and the 1870 Census (the first to list African Americans after emancipation) can also be goldmines. So can letters, whether provided by the family or found in manuscript collections, which might causally mention a family member’s birthday or offer snippets about day-to-day existence. “You can gather lots of information from them in a real-life kind of way," Byrne says.
7. THEY OFTEN FIND MISTAKES IN ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS.
Genealogists know it’s key to consult paper sources—and to give a critical eye to the “facts” they offer. Arnold recalls a colleague becoming confused when an ancestry site listed her grandfather as white and from North Carolina, when she knew he was black and from Louisiana. “I was able to go into the original documents and see that they had been transcribed wrong,” Arnold says—a common occurrence for sites outsourcing work to other countries. (Another common transcription error: mistaking a florid handwritten 17th century S for an F.)
That doesn’t mean paper sources are error-free, of course. Sometimes mistakes were made in the original documents themselves: Census workers may have misspelled names or miscounted children; priests may have mis-marked birth dates on baptismal certificates. Pros know how to cross-reference all that, too … with more documents!
8. THE WEIRDER YOUR LAST NAME, THE MORE THEY LIKE IT.
“I often tell people we’re like private investigators looking for dead people—we know your ancestors have to be there; you didn’t just hatch from an egg,” Arnold says. “The problem is, it’s so labor-intensive for a common name; you could spend hours looking at the wrong Smith. It’s better if you have an obscure last name.” Names like Brown, White, Jones, and Johnson are especially tough—although matters can be made easier if family members had a distinctive first name ("Napoleon Jones" will be easier than "John Jones," for example).
9. THERE'S A WHOLE FIELD THAT DEALS WITH LEGAL CASES.
Forensic genealogists—like Byrne—apply genealogical tools and principles to cases with legal ramifications. In the process, they often solve mysteries. Byrne might track down a next of kin for someone seeking the heir to a family fortune, or to repatriate the remains of a soldier killed in action. One of Byrne’s colleagues helped a woman prove that the man who kidnapped her as a girl was not her father—and was in fact a grisly serial killer. Another forensic genealogist discredited a woman who claimed she was raised by wolves and that she killed Nazis while hiding out in the woods. Sometimes, Byrne says, the tip-off comes just from talking to relatives; in the wolf case, for example, “Her first cousin was still living and he basically said, ‘Misha always had such an incredible imagination.’”
The man thought to be the Golden State Killer and East Area Rapist was also caught using forensic genealogy strategies. Police compared DNA found at the killer's crime scenes with DNA test results from an unidentified genealogy site, and found a match with a user of the site. The user wasn't the killer himself, but by going through their family tree for potential suspect who matched clues in the case, police found their man. "The techniques used to find the Golden State Killer combined solid police work with genetic genealogists’ principles," Byrne says. "This is done routinely to reunite children and birth families, to identify the remains of KIA or MIA soldiers, and increasingly to identify John Does, Jane Does, and Baby Does."
10. THEY’RE GRATEFUL TO THE MORMONS …
A good number of online records exist thanks to the efforts of Mormons. For years, they’ve been sending missionaries to HSP and other archives to scan hundreds of thousands of family histories, usually in exchange for a royalty and free access to the scans for the society’s patrons. What’s their interest? Posthumous baptisms for the family members who weren't Mormon—so they can stay together in heaven. Genealogists agree the scans are a tremendous asset to researchers, with a caveat: Not even close to everything is scanned, and mistakes are also common. “You still need to use as many different paper sources as you can,” Haugaard advises.
11. … AND THE QUAKERS.
Some things make genealogical research a snap—for example, if your ancestors were Quakers. According to Haugaard, that’s because the Quakers were always issuing certificates; when someone moved, say, to use as an introduction at the Quaker Meeting in a new town, and also when they were kicked out of the community. “Lots of [mid-18th century] Quakers got in trouble for fighting, or drinking, or marrying out of unity, then were disowned,” Haugaard says. What that means is, “Basically, they kept great records.”
12. GENEALOGY SHOWS DRIVE THEM NUTS.
Grudgingly, Arnold admits that TV shows like Finding Your Roots and Genealogy Roadshow have “introduced people to genealogy and made it really hot—I mean, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an ancestry.com commercial.” But the shows have also given people unreasonable expectations about what genealogy can and cannot do. Byrne says, “People don’t understand that [the history] is not all laid out in front of you" as it typically is on TV. Arnold says he fields requests from patrons who ask him to “‘Tell me about my ancestors, just like that guy on TV did.’ They think it’s easy and quick.” In fact, what Arnold calls those “ta-da” moments offered by hosts like Henry Louis Gates Jr. are actually made possible by professional genealogists hired to painstakingly research ancestry over the course of days, weeks, months.
13. IT'S EASIER FOR THEM TO RESEARCH YOUR ANCESTORS IF THEY WERE RICH.
Ancestors with less money—who maybe didn’t own property or pay taxes—can be less likely to leave a paper trail. But employment agency, almshouse, prison, and orphanage records can get the research ball rolling, as can advertisements offering rewards for runaway indentured servants. Haugaard explains that charity society records also frequently provide details: Society workers would visit families and “make records indicating the woman of the household’s name, how many people were in the household, what religion they were, and what charity they received, like coal or groceries.”
14. PERSECUTED GROUPS CAN BE A MAJOR CHALLENGE.
Three groups of people looking for their roots make Arnold steel himself for some rigorous research. If the case involves African Americans, Native Americans, or Jews, “I know this is going to be a tough one,” he says. That’s because their records are often scant or nonexistent. Slaves often weren't allowed to marry (or their marriages were never recorded); Native Americans didn’t traditionally write their histories down; and Jews fleeing Europe during World War II often had all family records destroyed as synagogues and villages were torched. Sometimes, their papers were falsified in order for people to survive.
These factors make picking up someone’s trail difficult, if not impossible. “I had one woman come in to a talk I was giving and say, ‘How do I start? All my ancestors were killed in the Holocaust,’” Arnold remembers. “And I said, ‘Alright, then your ancestry starts with you. Document your life for your [descendants].”
15. THEY MIGHT ENCOURAGE YOU TO THINK TWICE ABOUT DNA TESTING.
According to Arnold, DNA test results can be sketchy. His own experience with DNA tests from seven companies yielded seven different results, some of them “bizarre”: “One said my family was from Tuscany, but I’m paler than a Presbyterian. Another said I was 5 percent African American. Another said I was Swedish—and that probably means that they found a gene from some randy Viking pillaging the Scots Irish 1000 years ago.”
Part of the problem is that DNA test kits are dependent on data from other people who have taken the tests, which means they are more accurate for some well-represented groups than others. (For example, an American with Irish background taking the test may get a more reliable result than someone whose ancestors were of Middle Eastern descent, since people from the Middle East tend be less represented in the database.) Also, different companies are working with different data sets, and using different algorithms—which can produce different results.
Haugaard also says that DNA testing may tell you some things you don’t want to know. He recounts a story about a man who connected deeply with his Irish heritage, yet DNA testing undertaken by his family showed he was Jewish, switched at birth with an Irish-American baby. “He passed away before he could learn that,” Haugaard says.