Genealogist Answers Your Questions

ByABC News via via logo

Nov. 3, 2006 — -- Genealogist Megan Smolenyak answers "Good Morning America" viewer questions about tracing their ancestry.

Question: I would like to trace my roots. How do I go about this? -- Rebecca Shroff, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Answer: Like I told Robin, tracing your family roots is a matter of putting on your detective hat and finding the clues your ancestors left behind. Here's a quick look at how to begin.

I. Start with what you know.

Write down your family members' names, where and when they were born, married and died and any other facts you know about your family. Record this information in what is known as a family tree (or pedigree) chart. and other Web sites offer digital family tree charts. You can also create your family tree on paper or use a family tree software program.

II. Involve your family.

Tap into one of your best resources: your family. Talk to family members, especially the older ones, who can tell you stories holding clues to your family's past. The best time to talk to your family members is now -- too many people regret putting off talking to their family members until it's too late.

III. Search for historical records.

Here's where the real fun and the detective work begins -- finding your ancestors in the historical documents created during their lives. You can search online at various Web sites, such as with more than 5 billion names contained in the U.S. Federal Census, immigration records, historical newspapers, military records and much more. Many historical records are also available offline at libraries and other archives.

IV. Find others researching the same ancestors.

Has someone already traced your family's roots? Chances are you'll find someone who may have information about your common ancestors. You can find genealogical communities all over the Internet, and have two of the largest.

Q: Both of my parents are deceased, so I don't have a lot to go on. Where do I start? Not many living relatives. -- Carolyn Coble Williams, Clinton, N.C.

A: I forwarded your question to one of my co-workers who experienced firsthand what you're facing. Here's what she said:

Both of my parents had been dead for many years when I began trying to trace my family. The Social Security Death Index was a good starting place. From my father's information on the SSDI (at, I was able to determine his birth date and death date.

By writing to the Social Security Administration (instructions and form available for free on, I obtained his address at the time he applied for Social Security, his age, the name of his employer, his father's full name, and his mother's maiden name.

Once I had these important dates, I was able to trace both of my grandparents' families back in time. I found my parents in the 1930 census as a married couple, and then with their parents and siblings in the 1920 census. The names, ages and birthplaces found in those and earlier census years allowed me to identify family members in other records.

My parents' birth and marriage records, which I obtained from the county in which they married, yielded a great deal of additional information, including the addresses where they lived at the time.

While they were not available when I began my family history searching, message boards and family trees at and can be invaluable in finding relatives who may have just the kind of information you need to fill in the stories of your ancestors' lives.

There are thousands of success stories about people who have received fascinating accounts of their ancestors' lives, photographs, old letters, diaries, scrapbooks and family heirlooms as a result of finding distant living relatives using the Internet.

Q: What are the best Web sites to use, for the beginner? And are they free? -- Edna

A: Not only does have the largest online collection of family history records to help you begin your family tree, it also has a number of free tools to help you organize the information you find and connect with other people also searching for their roots.

You can build and save your family tree directly on You can also connect with other Ancestry members on the message boards. is the oldest genealogy community on the Web. This site offers tips and guides on getting starting, and plenty of other resources. And the best part, it's all free! Need help getting started, just click here.

If you know where in the United States your ancestors lived, try the USGenWeb pages (arranged by states and then counties). There's lots of free information and help on these pages to help you grow your tree.

For more guidance and ideas, you might want to check out the "How To" section of Roots Television.

You'll find a selection of free, online programming on a variety of topics such as the research process and oral history.

Finally, you can search the Web site of the Family History Library, as well as its library catalog for an amazing variety of microfilms that can be ordered and searched at your closest Family History Center. Everything on this site is free.

Q: Can you tell us more about the DNA test that Robin Roberts took to help her locate her ancestry? -- Deanna Ramsey, Tallahassee, Fla.

A: Robin took a mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test from African Ancestry ( MtDNA follows your direct maternal line -- your mother's mother's mother's mother. … You get the idea.

At African Ancestry, they take the results of this test and compare them against a database of DNA samples gathered from around Africa.

Consequently, they can usually reveal where you have genetic cousins residing in Africa today.

Of course, since Africa is the cradle of mankind, we have longer to migrate around this continent than any other, so it's not unusual for those tested to discover several locations or possible tribal affiliations in Africa. I hope that sheds a little light for you.

Incidentally, this is just one of a handful of tests that are available today for investigating your roots. If you're interested in learning more, you might want to look here.

Q: How can you trace family from Europe when they changed most names at Ellis Island? --Caryn Amster, Elk Grove, Ill.

A: Believe it or not, this is one of the biggest family history myths out there. The reality is that immigrant name changes were quite uncommon at Ellis Island. Here are a few reasons why:

I. Proof of Identity

Beginning in the late 1800s, every immigrant needed proof of identity documents to enter the United States. These documents were created in "the old country" in the native language by a clerk who knew the language.

II. Tickets, Please

Ship companies required ticket agents to examine each immigrant's identity documents before selling a ticket. Without proper identification, immigrants would not be allowed into America.

III. Painstakingly Created Passenger Lists

While still in the foreign port, the ship's captain (or his representatives) examined passengers' tickets and identity documents to create a passenger list -- a record listing every individual aboard the ship.

IV. Lost in Translation?

Hundreds of translators were on hand at Ellis Island to help officials question each immigrant in his/her native language about his/her identity.

V. No Documentation, No Entry

Immigrants through Ellis Island had correct paperwork showing the correct, or at least plausible, spellings of their last names. Ellis Island officials verified that the immigrant's name on the paperwork matched the name recorded on the ship's passenger list.

VI. Becoming American

Millions of immigrants voluntarily changed their first and last names as they assimilated into American culture. In some cases, schoolteachers or others who couldn't pronounce or spell certain last names may have offered an American-sounding variation the stuck.

If you suspect your family's name was changed, try talking to older family members to see whether they can recall hearing what the family's name was in the old country. Also try searching online for variations and common name changes to your last name.

Q: I would like to find what ship my grandmother Mary O'Neill arrived on in 1880. She settled in Philadelphia, Pa., and was born in County Tyrone, Ireland. Thanks for any information. -- Dolores Crouthamel, Pennsburg, Pa.

A: Fortunately, discovering the ship that brought your ancestors to America is getting easier all the time.

Beginning in 1820, the U.S. government required that every ship arriving at a U.S. port prepare a list of passengers and crew members on board that ship. Those lists are known as passenger lists or ship's manifests.

The majority of the passenger lists created between 1820 and the mid-1900s have survived, and they can tell you not only the name of the ship your ancestors immigrated on, but also your ancestors' ages, occupations, number of bags brought with them, and even names of family members in their home country.

Many of these passenger lists have been digitized and indexed, and are now available for searching online, including at

And the number of passenger lists online is quickly rising. Passenger lists are also available on microfilm at the regional offices of the National Archives and Family History Centers across the country.

For best results searching for passenger lists on, try to discover your ancestors' birth names (both first and last names), approximately when they were born, and the country where they were born.

When your answers sport a fairly common name, such as your grandmother's, it's also helpful to do a little digging first to learn names of siblings, parents or others they may have immigrated with. Having these details may prove helpful in sorting through multiple Mary O'Neills.

You can learn more about finding your ancestors in immigration records by clicking here.

Q: I've been researching my African-American family history for 6 years and keep coming to a complete stop at the year 1870. Except for my great-great-grandfather, I have no names beyond that, what can I possibly do to find more. Rumor has it, he always told a story of himself being sold on the road when he was a boy. -- Shirleen Bridges, Franklin, Va.

A: One of the best places to look for your ancestor directly following the Civil War is in the Freedman's Bank Records, which is a list of depositors from the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company. This was a bank set up between 1865 and 1874 for newly freed slaves. To open an account, the depositor listed their address and the names of family members. This collection is available on and is easy to use.

Another valuable resource on Ancestry is the collection the "Slave Narratives." This is a collection of remembrances from thousands of slaves.

You can also use the card catalog in the upper right-hand of the "Search" page and type in keywords to find other collections on Ancestry. Try words like "slave," "freemen," "emancipation," or "slavery."

Each will bring up lists of different books and databases in the Ancestry historical collection and may give you some of the background you are searching for to learn more about your ancestor's experience.

Local records can also be a useful source, as they were in Robin's case, so try searching the Family History Library Catalog (especially by the names of the counties where your family resided) for records that can be ordered and searched at your closest Family History Center.

You can find more ideas in the African American Recordslearning center at RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees, and may wish to consult some books, such as "Black Roots" by Tony Burroughs.

Q: I think me and my wife have Indian in our families. I have traced back as far as I can with no luck. How can I find out? -- Larry Greenwood, Spiro, Okla.

A: The first step in tracing Native American heritage is to learn to which tribe your ancestors belonged. Often families have oral traditions about tribal nationality, and while the traditions may not be accurate, they are a starting point.

Check the 1900 U.S. Federal Census to see if your ancestors are listed as "Indian." If they are, additional information pertaining to their tribal affiliation is included in the census. Since the census tells you where your ancestors were living at the time, you can then explore that locality more fully.

You can find more Native American research suggestions and links to Native American sources at RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees.

Q: I'd like to find my roots in Germany? How do I go about doing that? On both my maternal and paternal sides. Thank you. -- D.L. Jones, Viroqua, Wisc.

A: Because there was no central repository for German records and most records were kept on a local level, locating a precise ancestral town is critical for German research. First, talk to relatives. What do they know about where your ancestors came from? What records, pictures, mementos, etc. do they have linking your family to Germany? Even a clue can help narrow down the search.

Also search U.S. records to build the bridge over to Germany. Census, vital records, church records, newspapers, and naturalization records are a few of the resources available -- many of which are available at your fingertips on

The best place to start is the U.S. Census, which contains numerous clues about an ancestor's place of origin.

Another excellent source for discovering a place of origin are vital records, which recorded major life events.

Marriage and death records for an ancestor and/or other family members (including siblings who may have accompanied an ancestor across the ocean) may list birthplace information.

Birth records for children of the ancestor born in the United States may contain similar information. Many indices are available to help in the search for these records.

Historical newspapers from an ancestor's residence in the U.S. are a source not to be overlooked. In addition to providing the context of life in that locality, newspapers may also hold precious clues to a German place of origin.

Obituaries, birth and marriage announcements, and news articles are among the multitude of sources to check in the newspaper.

Also consult U.S. passenger lists, naturalization records, and other emigration/immigration records to determine an ancestor's home in Germany. Passenger lists for U.S. ports of arrival often enumerated each passenger with information on his or her place of origin and destination in America.

Naturalization records (especially those filed after 1906) contain important genealogical information, including a renouncing of citizenship from a specific locality in Germany. Naturalization indices are available in book form as well as online.

By assembling the clues found on a myriad of records, you can determine an ancestor's place of origin and then start searching records in Germany.

Q: Is there anyone with this family name left in the United States, and where did it originate from? -- Pyska, Westland, Mich.

A: Yes, even focusing on just this exact spelling, the name Pyska is found in New York, Michigan, Maine, Rhode Island, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Try searching on just this surname at

You'll find hits in various census, immigration, WWI and WWII draft registration records, as well as the Social Security Death Index and a few other resources. There are also 11 family trees that contain the Pyska name, so if you're lucky, one of your distant cousins is already researching your family.

Unfortunately, it's hard to pin down an exact location of origin. A check of the immigration and WWI draft registration reveals a handful of locations -- Sokolow, Lubasz, Rutaje and others -- so it's hard to say where a given family might be from without knowing specifics. But the majority seem to hail from the region known as Galicia, often noted in records as Poland or Russia.

Happy hunting!

Q: My maiden name is Piper. My father's name in Milton Milo Piper. His father's name was Milo Piper. I have no idea as to where my paternal ancestry traces back to. Both my father and grandfather were from Muskegon, Mich., but that is as far back I can find. -- Patty Dahlman, Grand Haven, Mich.

A: I took a peek at some census and other records on and see that your grandmother was widowed young. Your father makes an appearance in the 1920 census as a toddler living with his mother and maternal grandparents in Muskegon.

From your grandfather's WWI draft registration, though, I can tell that he was still alive in September 1918. So he must have died between then and January 1920 -- flu? WWI?

At any rate, your grandfather's full name was Homer Milo Piper and he was born on April 20, 1883 (according to his WWI draft card).

If you march backwards through time via census records, you find Homer Milo Piper with his parents, Homer and Evelyn Piper, in Berrien County, Mich., in 1900. Homer was apparently born in New York and Evelyn in Illinois.

If you hop back to the 1880 census looking for the fellow who will become Homer Sr., you find him living at home with his parents, A.D. and Rachel Piper, in Dayton, Newaygo County, Mich. According to this record, Homer and his parents were all born in New York.

Popping back still further to the 1860 census for Alexander D. and Rachel Piper, you find them in Schoolcraft, Kalamazoo Co., Mich., with a bunch of their kids.

Seven-year-old Homer was born in New York, but 3-year-old Ann was born in Michigan, so it appears the move from New York to Michigan occurred circa 1853-1860.

So your Piper line is from New York -- at least as far back as the 1810s -- but I'll leave the rest for you.

You wouldn't want me to have all the fun, would you?

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