Hey, Are We Related?
May 1, 2009 12:25 PM   Subscribe

with all this internet connectedness, I've met a few different people online (either through facebook, twitter or geni) who share my not-very-common last name, and we've tried to determine if we're related by relating some of the oldest relatives we know who share the surname, but usually we don't find any overlap. As a genealogical novice, what should my next steps be in trying to find out if we're actually distantly related or if some clerk at Ellis Island just liked to give a bunch of French/German immigrants the same last name?

I've used Geni, and most every relative I have an email address has joined, and we've filled in as far back as everyone living can remember. Poking around at familysearch.org (which I learned about from a previous AskMeFi) I have been able to confirm some birth and death dates and locations, but I'm not sure where to go next. Do we just keep filling out our trees and hope for a match?
posted by jrishel to Human Relations (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You could all do a DNA test

Genealogical DNA tests have become popular due to the ease of testing at home and the various additions they make to genealogical research. Genealogical DNA tests allow for an individual to determine with 99.9% certainty whether he or she is related to another person within a certain time frame, or with 100% certainty[citation needed] that he or she is not related. DNA tests are perceived as more scientific, conclusive and expeditious than research alternatives, although they are limited by restrictions on lines which may be studied.

There are a number of firms that do these. Google for "genealogical DNA."

This will tell you if you're related, but it won't tell you how. To learn how you're related you need to follow standard genealogy methods, researching old records, etc. This can often turn into a lifetime obsession, so be warned.
posted by bondcliff at 12:41 PM on May 1, 2009

Best answer: I've had success with the annual census records. Once you locate a relative you can then go back or forward and try to locate them again, see how the family has changed, etc. Ancestry.com has a great collection of the records.

You could also see how many of you are willing to do genetic genealogy at a place like Family Tree DNA. The 67 marker test would tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt if you are related to these people or not. Put it this way - my results are closest to a man with the same last name as my great-grandmother's third husband, and not her first husband whose last name I carry.

Lastly, records: public library's generally have a very helpful reference department capable of looking up obituaries. If you know death dates check for an obit at a nearby library. They often have great details. Birth, marriage, and death certs can also be very helpful. You can get those from state vital records offices.
posted by jwells at 12:43 PM on May 1, 2009

go to the mormons. they have the largest collection of geneology records. ancestory, geneology.com, and pretty much all the rest of them are owned/run by the church or members of the church. there should be a church history center close to you (just call your nearest branch and they'll tell you where). you just go in (or make an appointment, maybe? it's been years since i've been) and a nice old lady or old man will help you.
posted by nadawi at 1:14 PM on May 1, 2009

here's more info

that whole "provide temple ordinances for them" could spook you, but unless you buy into the mormon's theology, it really means nothing (if they don't already have the name of deceased relatives of yours that you give them they will put it on a list and some 16 year old kid will stand knee deep in water, then an adult male will say the baptismal prayer thing with your relative's name and then dunk the kid under water).
posted by nadawi at 1:18 PM on May 1, 2009

Well you could do a search at Ellis Island to see which if any boat your ancestors came over on.
You could do a search at the US census (Where I found my relatives listed under a misspelled name). Or you could become a LDS and use their vast geneological libraries.
posted by Gungho at 1:19 PM on May 1, 2009

gungho - their libraries are open to everyone, member or not.
posted by nadawi at 1:37 PM on May 1, 2009

You might be interested in reading this short blog post by my dad about his experience using Family Tree DNA (a service that's already been linked and recommended in this thread). I thought you might be interested in knowing they're legit, and at least one customer was satisfied.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:38 PM on May 1, 2009

... or if some clerk at Ellis Island just liked to give a bunch of French/German immigrants the same last name.

You can rule out that possibility. The clerks at Ellis Island didn't change immigrants' names. Of course, that's not to say that your surname wasn't changed at some point. I descend from a Dutch family named Van Eps who changed their name first to Van Knapp, and then to Knapp. But they are not paternally related to the other Knapp families in America. Likewise, genealogist Megan Smolenyak married a man named Smolenyak, but the two are not closely related.

Still, geneticists have found that "sharing a surname significantly elevates the probability of sharing a Y-chromosomal haplotype and that this probability increases as surname frequency decreases," so, given the rarity of your surname, a DNA test may produce useful results. But only good old-fashioned genealogical research will tell you how your families are linked, and where they originated.
posted by Knappster at 1:38 PM on May 1, 2009

Be careful when using the LDS database. It's not accurate or reliable. Anyone can post any information they want there. The first person to post gets naming rights, whether their information is obtained from research or oral history, or just a guess.

As far as anyone living now remembers will probably take you to 1900, or maybe the late 1800's. Then, as others say, it's a matter of digging. Where did your ancestors live. When did they go there? Why? Where did they come from? Who did they travel with? What church did they belong to? Where did they marry? Were marriage bonds posted? It's very easy to find relatives connected 7 generations back, but you have to start with verifiable information.

Census records are valuable, but can be discouraging (if someone isn't home the day the census is taken, they're not counted. If the family was on vacation, you're screwed. The 1890 census was lost).

If you go to a place like Rootsweb, find your name on the message boards and post queries, with luck you'll find someone who has the answer, or at least a piece of the puzzle. DNA only works through a matriarchal (mother's mother's mother's mother's) line or a patriarchal (father's father's - etc.) line. Which means only men with the same last name have value for the test.
posted by clarkstonian at 2:05 PM on May 1, 2009

while some things might be incorrect in the LDS databases, the fact remains that they hold the largest cache of genealogical records on the planet. besides, a family history worker can help you choose which databases to search and you can exclude the ones that are member/volunteer updated and only use the databases that are created from primary sources.

like them or not, the LDS pretty much control a lion's share of all genealogical information.

also, rootsweb is ancestry.com is LDS.

(i'm an ex member and don't support really anything about the church, but to disregard their research and sources outright is cutting yourself off from most of the data available)
posted by nadawi at 2:24 PM on May 1, 2009

also, rootsweb is ancestry.com is LDS.

RootsWeb is a volunteer-run website now owned and hosted by Ancestry.com. Ancestry.com is a company headquartered in Utah (and employs many Mormons), but is not owned or operated by the LDS church. In fact, they are in competition with LDS's FamilySearch project.

It's important to distinguish FamilySearch databases which comprise user-submitted data, and those which index documents of genealogical interest. The latter are much more reliable—especially those created in the last couple of years and accessible here.
posted by Knappster at 3:29 PM on May 1, 2009

Ancestry.com is a company headquartered in Utah (and employs many Mormons), but is not owned or operated by the LDS church

but was started with the LDS records.

i guess that's what i'm trying to point out - take as many steps away from the LDS in your genealogical searches you want to, but you start trailing them all back and most of them will lead you straight to the databases and records that the LDS church maintains in mountain in utah.
posted by nadawi at 3:52 PM on May 1, 2009

Best answer: I can't really help you find a *method* for this, but I can relate a story. There are people with my last name in various countries, none of whom are related as far as we can tell. However, we did realize that there is a very tiny town in eastern Germany (formerly Poland, formerly Prussia, formerly etc...) whose name has the same phonetic sound as our common last name.

Apparently it was common at one time for a person to take the name of the town they were from as their last name. You might be running into a similar 'trend'.
posted by SpecialK at 7:07 PM on May 1, 2009

Be careful when using the LDS database. It's not accurate or reliable. Anyone can post any information they want there. The first person to post gets naming rights, whether their information is obtained from research or oral history, or just a guess.

Of course you should make sure you understand what you're looking at, but the above statement only refers to a very small portion of what the Mormons maintain/what's on FamilySearch.org, the stuff marked "Ancestral File." Beyond that they have an incredible amount of information drawn from legitimate historical records, second only to the pricey Ancestry.com (I recommend the Ancestry.com free trial if you know you've got the time to take advantage of it-- you can also access it for free at many libraries) so you shouldn't be reluctant to take advantage of it. (Make sure to use the new/pilot search, it has a lot more records included and they're adding more all the time.)

It's hard to give specific advice without more details... how far back in time have you (and they) been able to get so far? Where did those ancestors live? If you're not comfortable posting all of the details, feel free to MeMail me and I'd be glad to give more advice and maybe even help with some of the sleuthing (genealogy is addictive!)
posted by EmilyClimbs at 9:40 PM on May 1, 2009

I have the same situation as SpecialK -- my grandfather's side of the family is almost all from a small town in Lithuania. Ancestry.com is incredibly powerful.
posted by katrielalex at 6:07 AM on May 2, 2009

Another possibility is a slight name change say from Smyth to Smith. A number of Italians named Ferranti or Ferrante could have changed their name to Smith as that is the literal translation. Look for translations of the root of your family name.
posted by Gungho at 8:17 AM on May 2, 2009

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