Jul 22, 2019
Researching your family history can be a fun and rewarding experience, but many people do not know where to begin. I began my family research a few years ago after having my DNA tested. I was surprised by my DNA results and had very little knowledge of my own family’s history. I set out for answers and learned many research tips and tricks along the way. This blog post is designed to help you get started on your family research quickly and easily regardless of your budget.
First, contact your oldest living relatives and ask them to tell you as much about past generations as possible. Asking specific questions about each branch of the family will garner better information. Be sure to prepare questions in advance and take detailed notes of their answers. Elderly relatives who are here today may not be here tomorrow, so don’t delay. You don’t want miss the opportunity to speak to people who can share valuable information with you. I find that people are usually happy to talk about family history and phone calls in regards to this subject are more than welcome.
The holidays are coming up and this is an excellent time to discuss genealogy. I learned about my great grandparents and second great grandparents by bringing up the subject of genealogical research at a family gathering a few years ago when I was first starting my family research. My aunt even got out a box of photos that contained a photo of my second great grandfather and countless photos of my great grandparents. These were pictures that I did not have in my possession prior to this. Be sure to ask your relatives for any and all photos that they have of your ancestors.
Once you have taken notes from your relatives, visit the popular subscription websites such as Ancestry, My Heritage and Find My Past. Family Search is completely free and has an abundance of genealogical records as well. Ancestry, My Heritage and Family Search have a broad base of records spanning the globe whereas Find My Past focuses more on records from Ireland and the United Kingdom. Geneanet.org is another excellent website and costs only $12.50 for a three month subscription.
Public libraries often allow free use of Ancestry while visiting the facility. The Denver Public Library also allows library cardholders to access My Heritage and even has a “genealogist on duty” to assist family researchers on Tuesdays through Fridays from 10am to 1pm at no charge. You can learn more about the “Genealogist On Duty” program here: https://history.denverlibrary.org/news/genealoist-duty. The Denver Public Library (DPL) has a wealth of other resources to help you get started with genealogy. You can learn more by visiting https://history.denverlibrary.org/genealogy.
So, what if you don’t live in Denver? No worries. I just mentioned the DPL because I live in the Denver Metro area, but there are plenty of resources no matter where you live in the United States.
Visit your local library’s website or the library’s website for where in the United States your ancestors lived and search for “genealogy”. Many local libraries have newspaper archives which can be priceless in assisting you with your research. Obituaries often contain information such as a woman’s maiden name or will list other relatives such as siblings, spouse and parents. Many libraries will even conduct a name search in newspapers for you if you are unable to visit their facility. For example, my husband’s third great grandparents, Philip and Anna Catharina Klein, and fourth great grandmother, Anna Maria Klein, immigrated to Pittsburgh in the early 1850s before the family relocated to Philadelphia. I contacted the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh asking them to search for an obituary for Philip Klein’s mother in local newspapers. The staff is conducting this research at no charge. You can learn more about this service at the Carnegie Library at this link: https://www.carnegielibrary.org/research-overview/genealogy/research-requests/.
There are countless other resources available to you from the comfort of your own home. Cyndi’s List (https://www.cyndislist.com) should be one of the first places you visit when starting your research. This website provides links for various countries around the world including all 50 states. For example, let’s say that you wanted to learn more about records from Mexico. You would click the “categories” tab on the upper left of the homepage. Once on the “categories” page you would scroll down and click on the link labeled “Mexico”. You would then see a list of resources available on the internet for Mexican research. I recommend clicking on the “General Interest” and “How To” links once in this section.
If you know the name of the arrival ancestor (meaning the ancestor who first stepped foot on U.S. soil) then you may be able to find that person in immigration records. Ellis Island opened in 1892, but Castle Garden was America’s first immigration center. Based in New York City, Castle Garden was in operation from 1820-1892. You can read more about Castle Garden here: https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/ny-castle-garden-ellis-island/. You can also search Ellis Island immigration records at https://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/about-passenger-search.
Another resource worth visiting is House of Names (https://www.houseofnames.com). This site will explain the origin of many surnames and basic searches of first and last names are free of charge. More detailed information is available for a fee. This site has been useful to me on more than one occasion. For example, David Fairbrothers was my third great grandfather. He was born sometime around 1824 in New Jersey to James and Nancy Fairbrothers, both of whom were born in New Jersey. Researching early Americans can be difficult and I do not have any additional information on my fourth great grandparents. According to House of Names, the Fairbrothers surname was first found in Yorkshire, England and the first person who landed in America bearing this surname came to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1746. Now, I may or may not ever find any information beyond James and Nancy Fairbrothers, but at least I know the likely origin of their surname.
I will discuss additional resources and research techniques in another blog post, but you now have plenty of information to get started. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments at email@example.com.
This is the list of resources mentioned in this blog post:
Major Genealogy Websites:
Other Helpful Resources:
I have been a performing artist for many years. I started studying genealogy about three years ago after receiving my DNA results. I really did not know much about my ancestors since very little history had been passed down from both sides of my family tree. I certainly was not aware of any ancestors who made their living in the performing arts.
As a result, I was thrilled to learn about my fourth great grandfather, Henry Herbener, who came to New York State from Hesse, Germany with his family to escape the cholera outbreak in Europe in 1832. Henry was born on December 14, 1797 in Stadtallendorf and began studying music at the age of 13 years old. He performed under the direction of famous German composer, Louis Sphor, at the royal palace in Hesse. Henry became a well-known musical director, composer and professor of music in Onondaga County, New York. He performed at theaters in Buffalo, Canada and also toured several US states. The violin was his favorite instrument and he also played the clarinet. Henry was well-regarded in his community as a kind, ethical and talented person. He passed away on December 28, 1884 at the age of 88 in Minoa, Onondaga County, New York and was survived by two of his daughters, Maria Christina Osborn and Elizabeth Schepp. Henry’s daughter (and my third great grandmother), Catherine Herbener Altenbrandt, died years earlier in 1865 at the age of 30 years old.
Henry Herbener’s son (and my fourth great uncle), John Herbener, was also a professional musician. John was born in New York State in 1833. He relocated to Wisconsin Hill, Placer County, California sometime after 1850, most likely in 1853, to perform in theatres during the gold-rush era. There was a high demand for evening entertainment in these towns which created opportunities for professional musicians. Sadly, John Herbener died of disease on October 9, 1855 at the age of 22 years old and he is buried at the cemetery in Iowa Hill, Placer County, California.
The Herbener family were my mother’s ancestors, but it turns out that there were professional performers on my father’s side of the family tree as well.
James C. Welch, professional actor and writer, was my third great uncle. He was born in Philadelphia in 1850 and was the son of William Welch and Ellen Mulrey, my third great grandparents. The Welch family immigrated to America sometime around 1849, during the Potato Famine, and the family relocated to Philadelphia shortly after their arrival. The Welchs lived in the section of the city known as “West Philly” and owned an ice cream store/oyster bar/variety shop at 4632 Lancaster Avenue for many years.
Philadelphia rivaled New York as a vibrant theatre city in the 1800s and was a “tryout” city for touring shows headed to Broadway. The Walnut Street Theatre located at 825 Walnut Street was founded in 1809 and is the oldest theatre in the United States and is the oldest continuously operating theatre in the English-speaking world. It is a wonderful establishment and I had the pleasure of understudying at the Walnut Street Theatre early in my performing career.
I am still trying to locate more information about James C. Welch’s theatre career. I know that his personal life had its ups and downs. James’ six year old son, and his only known child, James Welch Jr. died of Pneumonia on April 27, 1883 in Philadelphia. Little James had been raised by his grandparents, William and Ellen Welch. I’m assuming that James and his wife, Maud, were unable to raise their son themselves due to touring and instability of employment. Little James Welch is buried at Cathedral Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Sadly, James C. Welch died of liver disease at the age of 51 on June 16, 1901 at the home of his brother (and my second great grandfather), John Charles Welch, at 4030 Cambridge Street in Philadelphia. James is buried alongside many of my Welch ancestors at St. Denis Cemetery in Havertown, Pennsylvania, located just outside of Philadelphia.
I like to think that my love of acting has come from my Irish immigrant ancestors and that my love of music has come from my German immigrant ancestors. I thought I was the only person in my family to have pursued a career in the performing arts and I have often wondered where this strong desire to perform has come from. I guess it is in my genes.
I will post another blog soon about how to research your ancestors. In the meantime, feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.