{Family} My family secrets…and how I discovered them

Four FOF genealogists uncovered surprising family facts… Here they share their secrets and the sources they used to track down their ancestors:

1) Maureen Taylor

Location: Westwood, MA
Maureen Taylor, “The Photo Detective,” is an expert in finding the stories behind family photos. She once researched Meredith Vieira’s family tree for a Today Show segment and was named “the nation’s foremost historical photo detective” by Wall Street Journal editors. Her website is maureentaylor.com.

What is the most exciting discovery you have made about your family so far?
I have this great photograph that was torn into pieces and glued back together. I couldn’t find out much about it until I met distant relatives at a funeral. They told me the man in the photo was mostly deaf because he stood too close to a boat whistle as a child. They also said he was very difficult to get along with and stopped speaking to his sisters after an argument. It suddenly made sense why I had so much trouble finding out information from his descendants!

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from your research?
Researchers should prepare themselves for the unexpected since their relatives may have acted in different ways than we act.

What is your favorite research tool?
I love city directories. They really help when trying to understand the world in which your ancestors lived. I also use maps and study the clues in photographs. A single photograph can reveal so much!

2) Courtney Cannon Scott

Location: McDonough, GA
Courtney Cannon Scott began tracing her own family history after the death of her father in 1996. In 1997, she founded her company, Back in the Day, to help others with their ancestry searches. She’s written articles on genealogy and lectured on the subject for nearly fifteen years, African-American history groups and family organizations across the country.

What is the most exciting discovery you have made about your family so far?

To my surprise, some of my ancestors had a notable part in the history of the United States. Tower ‘Tar’ Adams, my maternal great-great-great grandfather, was a conductor on the underground railroad in Western Pennsylvania. Frances Viola Dawson Walker, my maternal great grandmother, was a teacher in the first graduating class of Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Hamilton E. Holmes, a distant relative was one of the first two African-Americans admitted to the University of Georgia. James Gersin Cannon, my paternal uncle served in World War II as a Tuskegee Airmen (one of the first black military airmen).

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from your research?
Once you start gathering names of ancestors, it is important to read history books for information about the times in which those ancestors lived. This makes historical research more personal, relevant and interesting!

Is there ever an end to your research?
I have had quite a lot of success in finding my ancestors, but I still have a list of places I need to visit in person for more details about my heritage. One adventure leads to another!

3) Nan Jones

Location: Seneca, S.C.
Nan was a U.S. history teacher for 32 years and served on the National Council for Social Studies. She is a regent for the Daughters of the American Revolution and teaches genealogy classes at her local university and heritage center.

What is the most surprising discovery you have made about your family so far?
This spring, through research on Ancestry.com, I found that one of my German ancestors was a friend of Martin Luther and was ex-communicated by the pope for his involvement in the Protestant Reformation. Today, I have a cousin who is a Lutheran minister! I also discovered I have an ancestor who went to jail for plotting to kill President Lincoln…. Can’t pick your ancestors!

What was your most exciting moment while researching?
I was doing research at a small historical society in central Pennsylvania. When I asked for information about an ancestor, a woman tapped me on the shoulder to ask why. It turns out her husband and I descended from identical twins. We were able to share information as far back as the Revolution.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from your research?
Research one ancestor at a time, otherwise family research can become overwhelming!

What is your favorite research tool?
For beginners, I like genealogytrails.com.  I use it for geography research. It’s organized by townships and surrounding counties so you know where to look for information.

4) Ann Middleman

Location: Westbury, N.Y.
Ann Middleman has been a genealogy hobbiest for several years. Hours of research have a paid off; she’s created a family tree and discovered distant relatives in Oregon, California, Israel, and Sweden. Last year she traveled to Poland to learn even more about her heritage.

What is the most surprising discovery you have made about your family so far?
There has been a lot of inbreeding in the family. It’s amazing we don’t have any hemopheliacs!

What was your most exciting moment you had while researching?
When I visited Poland last fall, I discovered memorials to people who perished during the Holocaust that were related to my family. It was news to me that I had relatives who died during that time.

Have you connected with family members you never knew as a result of your research?
I discovered a distant cousin in Israel. She knew a lot more than I did about several lines of our family who were killed in the Holocaust.

What research tools worked best for you?
Ancestry.com was a good source for me. A cousin found me because I had her grandmother on my family tree. Through EllisIsland.com I found an address listed by a relative as the place he was going to go to when he arrived in America. From that information I uncovered another whole line of the family. Then, I discovered more ancestors that were part of that line through JewishGen.com. I hired a genealogist in Poland to help find records I couldn’t retrieve myself. That expert sent me more information which uncovered even more relatives.

{Giveaway} Pocket-sized family tree

FOF genealogy guru, Rhonda Earley, is giving away 3 of her Pocket Trees. To enter, answer this question in the comments below: Where are your ancestors from?

Thank you for entering. This contest is now closed.

When FOF Rhonda Earley turned 50 she realized she didn’t have long to learn about her family. “I thought I better do research now while I still have my parents here to answer questions.”

Each day that year, after she dropped her son off at elementary school, she would head to the library to begin work on her family tree.

She was fascinated with her findings. “I found one of the letters my ancestor wrote home to Germany. I also learned that there had been a great deal of land in my family at one point, but, surprisingly, my father grew up poor,” says Rhonda. “That’s something I’m still piecing together.”

Rhonda would carry her computer around the library as well as poster-sized sheets of paper. “It wasn’t convenient,” says Rhonda. “I was running upstairs and downstairs between files, microfilm and maps. You need to be mobile.”

Sitting on the floor of the library next to a file cabinet, she had her A-ha! moment. “There’s got to be a way to transport all my research easily,” thought Rhonda.

The result was Rhoda’s Pocket Tree, which folds up to the size of an index card and opens up to a family tree that can go back nine generations.

“Besides being a great research tool, it’s a great keepsake to pass down to younger generations,” says Rhonda. “Imagine how cool would it be to see your great, great grandfather’s handwriting on a Pocket Tree.”

Enter to win a Pocket Tree. 3 FOFs will win. Answer this question in the comments below: Where are your ancestors from?

(See all our past winners. See official rules. Three winners are chosen at random from all those commenters who answer the question. Contest closes June 2, 2011.)