Over that past two years, my mother’s journey to discover her family history and learn more about her father’s childhood has taken many twists and turns.
From Butler to Lancaster, Pennsylvania and numerous points in between, we’ve poured through documents at county courthouses, scanned countless miles of microfilm at local libraries, and trekked through cemetery after cemetery, collecting clues along the way.
We were fortunate that most of our destinations were within a day’s drive, and that we had the time and access to transportation to make those trips. But in many cases, we returned home with a new set of unanswered questions and no one to provide the answers.
Here’s where Ancestry.com comes in.
Early on in our search, mom signed up for one of their free 14-day trials (at that time, in the height of the Great Recession, neither one of us had a couple hundred dollars lying around to buy a subscription).
While Ancestry is a great resource for finding copies of Federal Census records, and for other similar records, the site offers much more — access to millions of other Ancestry members and their research. And many of them are extremely generous in sharing their knowledge and advice to other members.
Unsurprisingly, we ended up purchasing a subscription, which has more than paid for itself in connecting us with family we never knew or had lost touch with.
Take the man in Las Vegas who I refer to as my mom’s “Cousin Dale.”
During our first day of searching mom’s family lines, she discovered that there was a member who had recorded a significant amount of information about the Ensmingers — mom’s father’s family. We decided to contact him to see if he had any info on my mom’s father.
Not only did “Cousin Dale” respond quickly to our inquiry, he also shared access to his family tree, coached us on some genealogy basics, and encouraged mom when she ran into some early roadblocks.
Then there’s Clarke in San Antonio.
Several months later, as I was conducting one of my random searches, this time for any clues that would lead me to the name of my great, great grandfather and husband of Hannah Ellen Frantz Merriman, I came across a photo for an “A.L. Merriman” posted on a “Find A Grave” memorial that was listed on Ancestry. The man in the photo had a strong resemblance to the photos of my grandfather in the 1920s, so I decided to contact the Ancestry member who posted the photo.
It turns out that Clarke’s mom and my mom are cousins, and that mom vaguely remembers Clarke’s grandfather, her Uncle Lee, coming to visit when mom was young. Even more exciting, Clarke was able to solve the mystery of the “Mysterious Mr. Merriman.” Turns out, old great-great granddad’s name was Keller Smith Merriman.
Since we established our link, Clarke and I have continued to share our discoveries, exchanging old family photos and other found treasures, such as the postcards I we discovered a few weeks ago. A half-dozen of them were from Clarke’s grandpa Lee to our shared ancestor Hannah Ellen Frantz Merriman.
Clarke is heading east this summer to visit his mom who lives in Maryland and we are planning to meet in person while he’s in the area.
And then there’s Cheri, in Florida.
During another of my searches I came across a photo of “Albert C. Ensminger.” I knew my mom’s uncle was named Albert, and once again, there was a resemblance to my mom’s father. When mom confirmed that the photo was of her uncle, I sent a message to the person that posted it. It turns out that Cheri was building a family tree for her grandmother-in-law…my mom’s cousin Ruth who we thought had died in the 1980s.
Thanks to Ancestry, the two cousins have reunited and are getting to know one another all over again.
I will say that about half of my inquiries to Ancestry members are never answered. Either the member isn’t active, or they are overwhelmed with requests.
Or they are just weird, like the kooky woman who posted in an Ancestry forum recently that she is offended when people contact her, because she doesn’t like them “stealing” her work. I fervently hope that I don’t end up being related to her…
But most of the people I’ve contacted — from the woman who posted a copy of an obituary for my great-great grandfather (on my father’s side), to the nice man who made a note on one of my public trees that a person I had listed as deceased is actually still alive, and helped me contact her — have been exceptionally generous with their time and knowledge.
My most recent experience began with an Ancestry member who reached out to me.
Barbara in Massachusetts has been researching her family for decades, and was instrumental in researching a book on the history of the Vogeley family of Pennsylvania. She spotted some info that I had posted on my public tree (my grandfather Ensminger is the Vogeley connection through his grandmother, Annie Vogeley) and contacted me to see if I wanted to collaborate on any research I was doing.
Barbara has been a wealth of information, and has corroborated — and corrected — many of the datapoints I had documented in my Ensminger and Vogeley research. But more than that, she’s provided mom with the contact info for yet another Ensminger cousin, this one living in Ohio.
We’ve reached out the Ohio connection in the hope that she may be able to provide some answers to our lingering questions about my grandfather’s childhood.
And maybe we’ll solve another family mystery.