Interest in genealogical research is more popular than ever, but where to start? Back in December, Adrienne shared her story and how MCPL’s resources played a role in getting her to the next level in studying her family’s history. She also gives some tips for customers who’d like to get started.
How did you become interested in researching your family’s roots?
“I’ve always been interested, especially since my father never knew his biological parents. We didn’t know his heritage or ethnicity. That was always something that was on my mind and my dad would often talk about not knowing who his parents were.”
“That was my inspiration. After watching 'African American Lives,' my dad did a DNA test in 2006. But back then DNA, tests didn’t tell you who your matches were within a broad database, it just told you your DNA or ethnic background. That was eye-opening and was a good experience for our family. My dad could cancel out what he’d heard and get a little closer to what his ethnicity was.”
What came next? We understand you had to wait for the census records to be released.
“Given the timing of everything I had to wait until 2012 to find the Census Records for 1940. Based on my dad’s age and what he knew about his birth mother, 1940 was the year she would show up in the census. So in 2012, I looked at those results and they confirmed what we already knew.
The US Censuses [per decade] are released every 72 years. I had a name, a state and a rough age. Based on those things you can usually find someone, I just had to wait until those records were available. Even before 2012, I’d gone to city hall in the city my birth grandmother was said to have been born in and we couldn’t find anything. We did our best, but the census records were the confirmation we needed.
After we found the census record, I kind of sat on the information for a couple of years. We didn’t really pursue it more.“
Then Professor Gates’ “Finding Your Roots” started…
Heritage Quest to confirm the census records again, and then I also used MCPL’s obituary research tool. After I found some family members, I also looked at my maternal grandmother’s parents, I kept going back as far I could, looking in census records to find out where their family originated. I hit a wall in the 1840s so I couldn’t find anything before then.”
That’s amazing you were able to go back to the mid-1800s! What other tools did you use?
“Eventually we used social media. My brother went on Facebook and started looking at the names of family members. He searched for people in the geographical area where the family lived, based on the obituaries. We started to find family members.
Were you able to connect with family members?
“When my brother reached out on Facebook, we were able to connect with some of them. Some family members weren’t so receptive and didn’t want to hear about the story of how we were related. But we did happen to connect to one family member, my father’s cousin, who was very open and asked questions and did the research to confirm that the facts we had were correct and we were probably related. After that, we did a DNA test, Family Tree DNA. We were able to take 2 people’s DNA and compare them to see if there are matches between them. It tells you how they closely you’re related, if you’re first cousins, second cousins, aunt, uncle, etc. We did that with one of my dad’s aunts and it was a match, so that was the confirmation our family needed. We only met them a year and a half ago.”
Wow, that must have been a powerful experience.
“Yes. We’ve met with some of the other family members independently. We went down to Virginia about a year and a half ago. And I did a DNA test too and my dad’s aunt came up as a match for me too. She’s older but she’s very spunky and lively!
What’s difficult is that my dad’s mother didn’t talk a lot, so she didn’t ever tell anyone my dad existed. They didn’t know she had a child. She didn’t have other children and never married, so they didn’t know any of this. She lived in New York City from 18 or 19 until she was in her 70s, so they didn’t keep in touch with her for many years. She moved back when she got older and they all re-connected.
She passed away in October 2015 before we got to meet her, just months before we found the family, so she never got to meet my dad. The irony is we were only able to confirm our connection to her through her obituary because it listed her life story. In her obituary, it said she had lived in New York City, where my dad was born, and had lived there for this many years, so that’s how we actually put together that this was her. So the obituary research was bittersweet because it proved that we found her. Everything lined up with her life story and my dad’s story. Unfortunately it was in her obituary so it meant she was no longer alive.”
How heartbreaking, that’s devastating... how tough for your family.
“But there were also some surprises. I found out that we have Puerto Rican heritage. We still haven’t identified my father’s father yet, and that’s something I’m working on now. We found out my father is of Puerto Rican descent, so that’s really cool. My dad grew up in New York City, he was born in Manhattan and lived in Queens, so he was around a lot of diverse people. They would always say, “You look Puerto Rican!” His Puerto Rican friends would say, “Oh, you’re one of us.” But he didn’t know, so he didn’t really identify as Puerto Rican and he wasn’t raised as Puerto Rican. We’re still looking into who his father was and where he was from. We found lots of DNA matches in the database. The majority of my family is from Puerto Rico, but we don’t know beyond that.”
Thanks for sharing so much about your family’s genealogical journey. What’s next? What would Henry Louis Gates do?
“We need to do the ‘Y chromosome’ for my dad and my brothers. You can do it on FamilyTreeDNA. We need to go find the Y chromosome and then where it and the family name come from. Once we do that we’ll be on such a good path; I can’t do it because I have ‘X’ but I think my brother and dad would be open to it. That’s what Henry Louis Gates would do!
The process is ongoing, but finding his mother’s family was a lot. We’re wanting to do more, but life gets in the way, it takes time, etc., but this is something we’re definitely going to do next. I’ve already had someone contact me asking if I knew someone they were looking for because we’re related, because you have a shared chromosome it’s like you’re family. It makes the world smaller, but you don’t want to give false hope. There are still a lot of questions that remain. It’s not easy, there is so much more, so many more mysteries.”
There will always be more questions so don’t get discouraged. Perhaps this is a good place to end. And finally, what are some tips you have for customers just getting started?
“You have to be emotionally aware that it’s hard work and you have to be strong, because you could be disappointed. And also, reaching out to people, they may not want to talk to you, so you have to be prepared to get some resistance and it may hurt a little. Be sensitive to others, even in your own family, because they may not like that you’re doing it. Not only that people you don’t know may want to reach out, but your family may feel uncomfortable.
census.gov. Personally I like our resources because they’re easier to navigate. Heritage Quest is set up nicely and I like the library’s interface. Obituary research is under newspaper databases. For example, the Washington Post can be found under the National Newspapers Premier database.”
Thank you Adrienne, for sharing so much of your story! It was fascinating and very moving. I’m sure customers will be inspired to take some first steps in starting their own family research.
In addition to HeritageQuest and a link to the National Archives, MCPL’s genealogy resources include:
- Links to online resources like Ellis Island’s searchable database of immigrant data and the Family History Internet Genealogy Service of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
- Polk’s City Directories for Rockville, Silver Spring, Chevy Chase, and other neighborhoods, telephone directories for Montgomery County, church records on microfilm, and more at Rockville Memorial Library
- Obituary research from national newspapers
- Local resources such as the Montgomery County Historical Society and contact information for the Montgomery County Public Schools Records Center
- Information on how to research the history of your house
And don't forget our books/e-book collection!
Did you know?
According to the "72-Year Rule," the National Archives releases census records to the general public 72 years after Census Day. As a result, the 1930 census records were released April 1, 2002, and the 1940 records were released April 2, 2012. The 1950 census records will be released in April 2022.
Select recent newspaper articles
They Considered Themselves White, but DNA Tests Told a More Complex Story (Feb 6, 2018; Washington Post)
What You're Giving Away with Those Home DNA Tests (Nov 30, 2017; NBC News)
With a Simple DNA Test, Family Histories are Rewritten (Aug 28, 2017; New York Times)
Who Was She? A DNA Test Only Opened New Mysteries (July 27, 2017; Washington Post)
Olney Library is planning a genealogy workshop in the coming months. Please check our Calendar of Events or call 240-773-9545 to find out when it has been scheduled. We hope to see you there!