Thursday, September 9, 2010

Researching the family history. . .is it fact or fiction fodder?

As a writer if you want to write a realistic story (even if it is fiction) you do your research. You research clothing of the 18th century. You investigate military black sites when writing about the CIA and human intelligence. Writing a story on baseball? Then you’ll probably find yourself at a baseball game, maybe even trying to sneak into the dugout to sit on the bench with one of the hotties hugging wood.

I recently began doing research on my own family’s history. Let me tell you…there are a whole lot of story ideas that can come from your own family closets. Heck, the freaky names alone will give you a good laugh. I have an Antipas Gilman in my family tree. Antipas? Is that short for antipasta? What about Minnie Moon Markusen? Seriously! Does that not sound like a woman who would sit across the room and spit into a spitoon?

My great-grandparents on my father’s side helped build the town of Anthon, Iowa and even had a run-in with Frank and Jesse James. How cool is that?

OH! Anthon, Iowa is also the town where the tallest man is buried at 9 feet 2 inches. What a great tidbit you could throw into a story or tell your children one day.

So how do you do this family research?

In the case of family history, and that is the focus of this little blog post, it is a lot of talking with family members and internet research.

Whatever you do, don’t believe everything your family states unless they have it in writing. That sounds so terrible, but it is true. For the longest time, I understood my great-grandfather on my mother’s side to be Tom Gillman. Well, when my grandmother did a little digging into paperwork, we discovered that his full name is Joseph John Thomas Gillman.

Back to family history exploration. First, let’s start with where can you create your family tree as you go along?

There is a website called that is absolutely free. Yes, you can pay for the professional version but it is not necessary if all you want to do is input names, dates, relationships, images of the relative. One nice feature of this site is that you can share it with your relatives so they can add other relatives and information to help your project along. You can, of course, purchase family tree software like Family Tree Maker.

Now for the actual research. Many people have asked me which sites I joined or subscribed to, which equates to fees. Are you kidding me? No, you can do this without a cost.

There are websites such as that allow you to put in a name and possible dates of marriage or birth, the location of where they may have lived, who their spouse or parents were and then hit search and check the results. If other people have been doing research on the same line you will sometimes find that the family and/or pedigree information is available.

Note: Be cautious of giving too much detail because you could be absolutely wrong. For example, my great-grandfather’s last name has always been spelled Gillman, but in fact the name has been modified or misinterpreted down the line from what it was when the family came from England. In the states it started as Gilman. In England it was spelled Gylman or something like that. Use soundex when possible.

Remember I said don’t believe it until you see it in black and white? Well, perfect example is a birth date or place. Be open to the fact that the year could be plus or minus a couple of years.

Other sites you can use for researching family history. Search the surnames, the trees, the archive lists, the forums, message boards. None of those require you to pay a fee to do your investigation.

What you will find is a string of other people asking the same questions as you about the same people and who may have actually found the answers. If you’re real lucky, as I was, you may actually find someone who has half of a family branch already documented. If that happens, be sure to send them off an email and thank them for their effort. I sent Fred Cohoon an email thanking him for identifying so many of my relatives on that branch and offered to send him more information from my family that he did not have documented at the time. What a great way to meet long lost and/or unknown relatives. is great for searching names and getting an idea of when someone may have been born or died, and where if you are unsure, and even possibly tell you the name of a parent or spouse. To go any further will cost you a fee. I have not gotten that desperate yet.

A truly wonderful site that will lead to other sites is The USGenWeb Project is a group of volunteers working together to provide Internet websites for genealogical research in every county and every state of the United States. Part of my family is from Iowa so I went to USGenWeb is non-commercial and fully committed to free access for everyone. There is even a WorldGen project so you can search across the globe.

USGenWeb is a where I found some very good information about relatives because I could search by state. I could search obituaries, state census data, old newspapers like Talk about great fodder for fantastic fiction!

Don’t forget that these long since deceased family relations have to have been buried somewhere. Yeah, a tad morbid I know, but. . .it’s a starting point to find names and dates and another point for searches. Try to search for a grave. Most states have a grave site for you to search such as and is another site that you can do name searches on and has some great forums where you can once again follow other people’s efforts in tracking families. Link for forum searches is

I will tell you now that this kind of research is addictive. You will find yourself in front of your computer with 5 minutes to spare before you have to pick up the kids from school doing any number of search combinations to find that one name that has eluded you. Watch out! You may just forget the kid at the bus stop.

Ultimately, when you find out that your family branch came from Barbadoes and helped build a town in Iowa, or that a bunch of them sailed over on a ship from England to be early settlers and the family behind Gilmanton, NH then all sorts of ideas will start to run through your head. If nothing else, you will learn way too much about your family along with reading some very interesting stories of not so well known relatives.

Have fun and happy hunting!


Anonymous September 9, 2010 at 10:21 AM  

I am now friends with a cousin whom I met through Let me explain, this cousin's great-grandfather and my great-grandfather were brothers. When my great-grandfather died, my great-grandmother and her children were shunned from the family. Now, thru research I've discovered a whole side of the family history that was unknown.

It really is addicting and so much fun. Enjoy. I know I did.

Gina Leuci

L. Olech September 9, 2010 at 10:58 PM  

Both my parents searched their 'trees'. Love the little boat my mom's family arrived in. The Mayflower!

And I love some of the names. I acutally have a distant relative named Cinderella... No, she wasn't a pumkin farmer or a princess! Perhaps its where I get my passion for great shoes, though...

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