The Surprising Things I Learned Researching My Ancestors
Tracing family genealogy is popular, easier than you think — and may yield some intriguing information
Most of us who are no longer young are well aware of the Internet’s disadvantages. We’re familiar with the loss of privacy, the replacement of careful critiques with glibness or downright rudeness, the wasted time watching silly videos, the decline in contemplative reading and writing, the constant exposure of our children and grandchildren to the depths of the culture — not to mention the expansion of their (and our) bottoms.
The list could go on and on. But those of us old enough to remember library card catalogs, typewriters and sometimes-interminable waits for snail-mail communications are better equipped than our juniors to appreciate the wonders of the Internet as well.
I had my first “Eureka!” moments in this regard some eight years ago, when setting out to work on a family-history book. My first inspiration for this daunting task was Somerset Homecoming, a true story about discovering one’s heritage written by a descendant of slaves. More personally, I wanted a way to counteract the negative, simplistic caricature of Americans that's so prevalent today in Western Europe, where I live.
To my surprise, I found that all those years with the card catalogs made me ideally suited to conducting research online. Unlike our parents, who can be intimidated by computers and their googolplex of information, and our children, an alarming number of whom seem to accept Wikipedia as God’s own truth, people of our generation have the right balance of comfort with computers, skepticism when it comes to sources and old-fashioned patience to make effective use of the Internet as a brilliant investigative tool.
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Tracking My Ancestors
The generous payoff in intriguing facts and unexpected insights that accompanied my family-history research was another, tremendous, surprise. Like many Americans, I spring from mostly humble people with a variety of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. I had failed to ask questions of my grandparents when I could have, and only on one side of my family did I have anything more to work from than a few concrete facts and anecdotes.
I knew, for example, very little about my father’s grandfather, whom my father never met: just his name (Peter Berns), the name and birthplace of his future wife, that he had been born somewhere in or near the Ruhr Valley of northwestern Germany (perhaps Mönchengladbach), had died in Chicago and had relatives in Peabody, Kansas. Otherwise, my father couldn’t tell me much more about him than that he had been a stickler for the German language, never realizing that his American-born sons deliberately made mistakes to tease him.
When I began my investigations, I had no idea where or how far they would lead me. Yet with the assistance of Google and emails, and with the dogged determination of a detective following a trail of clues, I was able to track him and many other ancestors across states, countries, continents and an ocean. I discovered where they had come from, when and how they had left, plus I resolved several family mysteries — all from the comfort of my Munich home and within the space of an intense six months, an unthinkable combination in the pre-Internet age.
Back to the Farm
Starting with my best clue, I began my virtual search for my German-born great-grandfather at the city archives of Mönchengladbach. I also tracked down websites describing the 19th-century history of my great-grandmother’s hometown of Sabula, Jackson County, Iowa, and others focused on Peabody, Kan., where some of my great-grandfather’s relatives had ended up. As I accumulated scraps of information about both ancestors, I felt like I was slowly filling in a large puzzle whose completed image I did not know.
The Mönchengladbach archives pointed me to a larger regional archive, which contained the record of a Peter Berns, born in 1854, who emigrated to North America in 1873 from a little place called Neukirchen. When I received a copy of his death certificate from a vital-records index in Chicago, which confirmed his birth date, I knew that the teenager who emigrated from that small town was in fact my great-grandfather. Eventually, with the aid of a Neukirchen historian, I succeeded in tracing him to the exact farm where he was born.
I gained access not only to a copy of his birth certificate but to copies of an extraordinary series of hand-written Prussian documents — preserved in local archives — related to his emigration as an apprentice merchant. I unearthed his family members’ names and the history of the farm where generations of them had labored and also learned why so many Germans from the area left for America in the second half of the 19th century (overpopulation, limited available farmland and few job possibilities).
Assisted by a German emigration museum, I learned which ship my great-grandfather had taken from Hamburg to New York and precisely when he had landed (April 16, 1873). Using online American census records, I located his future wife in Jackson County, Iowa, in 1870, listed as a child with her Prussian-born parents, and discovered her again — this time in Hanover, Kan. (which, I would learn, was my great-grandfather’s eventual destination) — in the 1880 census.
Even more interesting: I read contemporary descriptions of the part of Kansas where my great-grandfather ended up, near-virgin territory where towns were being founded and settled by intrepid and enterprising German immigrants, many of whom had fought in the Prussian Army as young men.
Some, including a man who would become related by marriage to my great-grandfather, served during the Civil War as local cavalry or militia members, caught up in occasional skirmishes with Indian braves. I found the idea of these former infantrymen in Prussia’s famously regimented and disciplined army adapting to Indian-style warfare in their middle age especially intriguing.
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In Their Own Words
By Googling the name of a known New England ancestor, I unearthed a wealth of personal genealogical websites that — in concert with one another — helped me follow one of my Yankee ancestral lines all the way back to Puritan Massachusetts. Amazed to discover that a distant relative had been a witness during Salem’s witch trials of 1692, I read his testimony in the trial transcripts, now available online.
Without leaving my desk, I dipped into a mid-19th-century diary preserved in Harvard University’s archives. Google had pointed me to the diary, which included several mentions of a New England ancestor’s name. To my surprise, it also contained a fascinating letter describing my Salem relative’s daughter-in-law, who died in 1820 at the impressive age of 101 in a tiny New Hampshire town:
In the year 1793 being unable to take care of herself, she gave what little she possessed to the town, and from that time to her death, a period of 27 years she was supported by the town. ... Possessing a character, remarkable neither for chastity or any other virtue, she had the reputation amongst the superstitious of being a witch. … [T]he poor old creature lived undesired, and died unlamented, having cost the town for her support some two thousand dollars or more.
Via email, I corresponded with a librarian in a small Maine town where other New England ancestors had lived more recently. She helped me find a letter by one of them, who served as quartermaster of a Maine regiment during the Civil War. Reporting on the crucial battle at Port Hudson, La., in 1863, he wrote to his family on June 1 of that year:
The negro regiments fought desperately. When their guns became so heated that they could not use them they threw them away and fought with their knives. No regiments on the field showed more bravery or fought with more desperation. They stormed one battery and took it. The secessionists here are exceedingly disappointed in the result of their fighting, the loyal men elated.
Such raw and moving historical snippets were the unexpected treats in my quest to discover my family’s origins. They and countless others I uncovered during my research not only provided me with solid historical facts but also showed me how even the most common people’s lives have intersected with and helped to shape past events — both great and small.
Through the process of recovering parts of my family’s history, I came to understand that the ordinary people I sprang from and many others like them were not so ordinary after all. This revelation, impossible without the vital assistance of the Internet, made me, I realized, a kind of historian myself.
Tips for Researching Your Ancestors
- Cyndi’s List, a genealogical-research site, is a great place to start investigating your family history. It contains many thousands of useful links — to census records, libraries, museums, antiquarian societies, archives and indexes of vital records, etc. It also includes links to well-known sites like ancestry.com, where at least some information can be gleaned without paying a fee, and to the Ellis Island website, which offers a passenger-search option as well as useful tips for conducting genealogical research.
- Historical societies or museums are common in many if not most older American towns and usually have a website staffed by enthusiastic volunteers who take pride in their local history. Everyone I contacted was more than glad to help, as were numbers of paid employees at archives and historical museums at home and abroad.
A freelance writer, editor and translator in Munich, Germany, Emily Berns Heyser published her family history in 2007.