Genealogy without Ancestry

Genealogy without Ancestry is about how I managed to find my ancestors and document their lives without the assistance of commercial ancestry websites.  It is not that I necessarily opposed spending money when necessary in researching my past, it is more that I object to the blatant disinformation that circulates throughout these sites.  I have therefore had to find various ways to engage with any number of public, and private, archival entities in order to access genealogical and family historical information without succumbing to the click bait methodology espoused by commercial ancestry websites.  But to do genealogy without using commercial ancestry websites can be difficult, time consuming, and frustrating.

And therein lies the problem, commercial ancestry websites are enticing because they advertise that it is simply a matter of ‘typing in a name’ and letting the search engines do the leg work.  If you wish to avoid the difficult, time consuming, frustrating part of the activity then commercial ancestry websites are the way to go.  On the other hand, you will also miss those moments of exhilaration when for some inane reason all that work and tears pays off, when you just found  Grandmama’s funeral notice tucked away in the corner of some far away country’s newspaper.         

Unfortunately, over the years researching my family’s history and chasing ancestors, both real and mythical, I have learnt that it does  not necessarily follow that commercial ancestry websites will be of any benefit. In fact, on a number occasions I have experienced both contradictory and unfounded data purporting to be the authentic line of descent contained on these sites.  More on this aspect later.  

Further, apart from the gross errors contained in these records, errors and omissions which more often get repeated by others engaging with these sites, commercial ancestry sites charge substantial amounts of money to join and use.  It is perhaps timely to remember that commercial sites use the internet to earn money and not necessarily to cater for the enthusiastic researcher.  Ancestry sites often promote their  products with a free trial period but conspicuously make no mention of the costs involved after this period.  Such lack of disclosure should perhaps be a warning for the wary.  

Commercial ancestry sites also engage in a heavy advertising protocol both on the public media platforms and social media platforms.  The whole idea is to convince others that genealogy is easy and quick.  So, is there a way around these commercial organisations?  Well, Yes, but that is not to say that searching will be financial painless. Let’s face it, if you are serious about genealogy there are going to be costs attached. However, there are ways and means of obtaining you data with costing you an arm and a leg.


To Begin

The basic building blocks of any ancestry searcher are birth, deaths, and marriage records (BDM).  These are paramount in establishing any genealogy and are held by state archives.  Accessing them will depend on you own objective but a procession of such records will establish incontestable lines of ascent or descent depending of where one might start.  Accessing these items will entail some financial outlay, and the wider the search the corresponding increase in costs.  However, these costs can be kept to a minimum.

But before I begin there are some matters which many ancestry searchers fail to appreciate. In writing about my ancestors I am conscious that I am writing about those whom I have never met and who never imagined that anyone might, some two hundred years later, effectively put their lives under a forensic microscope.  My own personal view is to accept that my ancestors might not have necessarily approved of my intrusion nor of my forensic microscope.  How then  to respond?  My own response is to at least acknowledge my intrusion and then to do justice to the evidence thus found, that is, to faithfully and accurately document their lives as best I can.

Postcard image Millport unknown source

To this end I undertook a online university short course, Genealogy: Research your Family Tree through the University of Strathclyde.  It is a free course and covers material that one might hastily bypass in the eagerness to fill in all those blanks leaves on the family tree.  How then do we organise our work to justify the conclusion we make?

Essential genealogists work under what are known as Genealogical Standard of Proofs.  These standard of proofs    essential underpin family research.  This standard might be likened to what a reasonable person might expect given the material presented.  This ‘burden of proof’ particular refers to,

The exhaustive nature of the material presented,

That the data has been adequately analysed,

That conflicts and errors have been acknowledged then resolved or explained,

Sources have been cited and if not reasons provided, and The conclusions reached are reasonable.

That living relatives are not included in the public domain.

Reading through the list one might appreciate that the mantra of simply ‘typing in a name’ is something of myth at best.  Tracing your ancestors requires some serious considerations and goes beyond the ‘pub test’ criteria.  

Here is an example of what I mean.

Back in 2008 my father, then aged ninety-five, handed me a foolscap piece of paper on which he had constructed his, our, family tree. At the top my father had written the word ‘Cumbrae’.  But where was Cumbrae? In his youth my father told me he had stayed with his aunts and recalled them talking about Cumbrae and that their father had come from the Western Isles of Scotland.

Living in Australia I had limited resources apart from some maps.  A search of the Western Isles of Scotland failed to reveal an mention of Cumbrae.  Accessing Google Maps back in 2008 was of little help, again no Cumbrae.  

Here I learned a key lesson, family stories are coloured by the passage of years and the ubiquitous nature of language.  Cumbrea is in fact an island lying off the West coast of Scotland but that does not mean it is part of the Western Isles of Scotland.  I realise now I was relying too much on my father’s reference to ‘western isles’ and had been searching the myriad of islands that surrounding the western coast of Scotland.  Unfortunately, I had failed to look closely at the smaller islands tucked away in the estuaries, bays and firths.  When I did discover Cumbrae I found that it is located in the Clyde estuary closer to Glasgow that the Western Isles of Scotland.  Significantly, Cumbrae was so small that it simply failed to register on large maps.  In the meantime greater advances had been made in mapping, the use of satellites, software technology, and internet search algorithms, revealing the illusive Cumbrae and demonstrating how quickly and efficiently the information revolution has changed the world.