Thursday, February 9, 2012

Those Other Ancestors You Didn't Know You Had

On the first episode of the new season of Who Do You Think You Are, Martin Sheen searched for information about two of his uncles. One, on his mother's side of the family took him to Ireland. The other on his father's side of the family took him to Spain. Chances are you are not going to hop on a plane and head for Europe any time soon, especially since you are reading a blog based on frugal family research. So what is the one thing we can learn from this look into Martin Sheen's ancestry research and stay within our budget.

The answer is simple and, oh so, important. Collateral Ancestors. These are the ancestors not directly related to you. Direct ancestors are your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on. Collateral ancestors are those who fall into the categories of aunt, uncle, or cousin. This can also be referred to as sideways or cluster genealogy.

Many people who set out to research their family history only want to know who their
grandparent's parents were and that is fine. It is better than having no interest at all in your family. But one day you are going to come across that one particular record or set foot on the same ground where your ancestors walked a hundred years ago and all of a sudden you will want to know more. And how do you find that "more"? By looking at all the other people who made up their lives.  

This is what led Martin Sheen to an amazing discovery about the possible reason why his mother came to this country. Her brother was involved in the Irish Civil War in 1920 and it is possible that this was a factor that prompted her to leave Ireland. (This was not included in the final production, but you can find it in the deleted scenes on the NBC website. It is definitely worth watching and adds much to Martin's Sheen's story.)

So where do you find these collateral ancestors? The best place to start is census records. Let's take a look at the 1930 census. Here you are going to find your parents or grandparents and all their kids! One thing I love about this census is Column 9. Do you have a radio set? This was a big thing back then. Hey, I was born in 1940 and it was still a big thing when I was 10 years old. Then, of course, we got this thing called television with a few 15 minute shows and a lot of test patterns. Today,  things change so fast  that I think it would be impossible to have a Column 9 on any census form! 

But this is important: the 1930 census lists the relationship of each person to the head of the family as of April 1, 1930. This is going to give you spouse, daughter, son, grandchildren, brother, sister, mother, father, and various other relatives. These are all clues as to what is going on in the extended family and, trust me, at this point in time after the Great Depression, there were a lot of extended families. City directories around this time period are also great sources for locating family members. 

In my opinion, the biggest brick wall in genealogical research is that you don't know "what you don't know". And many times the solution to this problem lies with those other relatives and family friends  that you think don't play a major role in the story of your family. But everybody counts. No one is a minor player. 

Your grandmother's next door neighbor could be a relative or a friend who traveled from Europe to this country on the same ship. Clue: Country of origin.

Your dad's stepmother could be his mother's sister, a very common occurrence in the 19th century. Clue: Your grandmother's family and maiden name.

Witnesses on a will or baptism certificate could be a relative. Clue: Maiden names which can be very difficult to find.

Informant on a death certificate. Clue: Could be a family member you didn't know existed.

Letters and diaries. Clue: Will most likely talk about other family members. Best are Civil War letters that often talk about others on the battlefield and family and friends back home.

The possibilities are endless. It is important to remember that people - not names - create a family. And all of those people contribute to your family history. They will come together, disconnect , and reunite in the most unusual ways as Martin Sheen discovered when he decided to walk in the foot steps of his ancestors.

Next: What is free, what do you have to budget for, and how do you do that.

Don't forget to watch  Who Do You Think You Are on Friday night, February 10, 2012 at 8 pm Eastern/7 pm Central Times. Marisa Tomei will take a trip back into the past to investigate a family mystery.  We will see how her experiences can be applied to your family research.

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