Brilliant ways to uncover your family history

A fascination with family history is seeing the rise of genealogy companies that not only delve back across the centuries but arrange journeys retracing the steps of ancestors, says Lucia van der Post. Illustration by Chris Burke

Image: Chris Burke

Most of us are curious about who we are and where we come from. Researching ancestors is one of the most popular of all online services, beaten only by pornography. Ancestry.com alone processes over 75m searches every day, and was sold in 2012 for $1.6bn to a consortium led by private equity group Permira. Family history research is a growing market, much of it inspired by television series such as Who Do You Think You Are? (nobody who saw it could forget the moment Jeremy Paxman came over all teary when he discovered that his great-great-grandmother had had an illegitimate child, meaning she hadn’t qualified for poor relief). Every family has its tales, dramas and tragedies, and a fully researched, beautifully presented family story makes for one of the more intriguing and moving gifts that wives, husbands, sons and daughters can give each other.

Once, researching your family tree was a lonely business requiring endless visits to graveyards, archives, libraries and, often, distant cities. Today, if you’re searching for long-lost parents, extended families or a complete family tree, there is an array of internet services to help, making it easier for the amateur genealogist to track down dates, names and places of birth and death. But if you want something richer and more informative, if you’d like to know more about the great-grandfather who was born in Bulgaria but found his way to Amsterdam, what he did in his life, where he lived, whom he married and what sort of a person he really was, then you need an expert genealogist.

A locket discovered for Ancestral Footsteps clients on ancestral tours
A locket discovered for Ancestral Footsteps clients on ancestral tours

Companies such as Genealogica, Ancestral Footsteps and AncestryProGenealogists aim to fulfil this desire for a deeper family story. Many of their clients are successful businesspeople, most often from the US, a country built by immigrants and refugees whose ancestors often moved there from troubled countries, breaking the threads of their family tales.

Al Edgington, formerly executive producer on the US version of Who Do You Think You Are?, started Genealogica – what you might call the Rolls-Royce of the genealogical world – two years ago. “When people are presented with these stories, sometimes uncovering tragic or unbearably poignant times, they are usually incredibly moved. Often it changes the way a family thinks about itself. These are real legacies we are helping to create,” he says. “One of our clients was a young man who didn’t want to give his successful, philanthropic stepfather something shiny or material – he wanted to find something meaningful, and his stepfather’s family story was what he chose.”

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Edgington’s is not a quick or inexpensive method – it can take a year or more to track down complicated stories – but he uses the best researchers around the world. “I’m a storyteller,” he says. “That’s what I did in television and it’s what I do with these family histories.” The cost is usually around $250,000 for a complete family history. “Plenty of people can do a straightforward family tree,” Edgington explains, “but we do something different. We first build the family tree and then we fill in the story and the pictures around it. If the client is Irish, we might find out if the family was in the Potato Famine. If they’re from Russia, we go there. We find out what happened to them in a war. We go to the villages their ancestors came from, we photograph the houses, the workplaces and we then build up a complete picture.” The finished project is written up by an established author and attractively presented, usually on fine French paper in a leather book made by a master binder in New York. Photographs, birth certificates, supporting documents and newspaper cuttings are all included.

Paul Marshall, chairman, chief investment officer and co-founder of global asset manager Marshall Wace, asked Edgington’s team to explore his family’s origins in eastern Europe and is delighted with the result. “I was told at the beginning of the project that understanding the family history can be a source of great healing and strength and also helps to pass the spirit of the family down the generations. This is certainly true for me – and I have no doubt this will be a source of inspiration for our own children. The leather binding and presentation are a bonus, and make the book into a work of permanence and beauty.”

Photographs discovered for Ancestral Footsteps clients on ancestral tours
Photographs discovered for Ancestral Footsteps clients on ancestral tours

Another client, now in his seventies, was adopted and wanted to know about his biological parents. Through an extensive examination of the client’s personal records and DNA results, Edgington’s team managed to track down his biological mother within a surprisingly short period of time. They are still trying to track down his biological father.

At AncestryProGenealogists – Ancestry.com’s research division, which was founded by three professional genealogists and provides research for the US series of Who Do You Think You Are? – they work differently, taking on research projects over a broader range of budgets. As at Genealogica, many of its clients are Jewish who, for obvious reasons connected to the diaspora, want to know more about where their ancestors lived or what happened to them during the Holocaust. Clients pay an hourly rate of $115. The minimum research project is $2,300 for 20 hours, but projects generally range from 20 to 80 hours. They offer family history research services, finding out not only when and where clients’ ancestors were born and died, but also the stories of their lives. In addition, they interview living family members to preserve their memories. Finally, all the information is gathered in a binder, along with an electronic presentation and an online ancestry tree.

The cover and pages of a Genealogica ancestral encyclopedia
The cover and pages of a Genealogica ancestral encyclopedia

Susan Reynolds, who lives in South Carolina, had spent years researching her mother’s grandmother’s ancestry, but couldn’t make any headway. She’d only an approximate date of her great-grandmother’s birth in England. “I tore my hair out trying to investigate, but I could not figure out anything meaningful,” says Reynolds. So she turned to AncestryProGenealogists. “It was a lot of money, but I needed professional help.”

After just a couple of months, they found that her grandmother had travelled from Lancashire to Chicago in 1883 to join a sister who was already there. They followed the story through to her marriage and family in the US, but they also traced the family tree back to the early 18th century, where they found “a bevy of blue-collar labourers, craftsmen and watchmen”. Now she’s got the bug herself and, having learnt some of AncestryProGenealogists’ techniques, she’s busy tracking a branch of the family that went to Australia.

An AncestryProGenealogists family history binder and flash drive
An AncestryProGenealogists family history binder and flash drive

Sue Hills, a regular director of the UK version of Who Do You Think You Are?, set up Ancestral Footsteps to offer non-celebrities the sort of service the programme gives to its stars. For £25,000-plus, she’ll track down your ancestors (usually over several months) and then take you on a five-day luxury trip down your family’s memory lane, visiting the places in your story. As in the programme, clues are revealed along the way until the whole tale unfolds.

For Lori Smithers, a Texan, the desire to unearth her family origins in England, Ireland and Scotland was fired up by her father, who had spent endless hours looking into them and compiling a family tree that stretched as far back as the mid-19th century. After hearing about Ancestral Footsteps, she asked Hills to go back further and then curate a trip for herself and her younger son to visit places such as Derry, the very port from which her ancestors – poor tenant farmers – had embarked on their big adventure to the US.

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“We stayed in some wonderful places and I really felt I understood much more about our family and where it came from. In fact, we so loved the trip that we asked Ancestral Footsteps to look into my husband’s family, and then Sue took us on another amazing trip to Scotland and England, where we explored his family story. This time my husband and elder son came along as well and we all thought it was the best family vacation that we had ever had. Sue did it all beautifully, even throwing in an extra trip for tea at ‘Downton Abbey’ on our first visit, because she knew I loved the series so much.”

For something simpler, there’s always the College of Arms on London’s Queen Victoria Street. The heralds have the resources to trace family trees, though it is worth noting that their work is geared predominantly towards British families. A beautifully penned pedigree going back 10 to 15 generations, presented on a roll of fine-quality paper or vellum, costs around £2,500 to £3,000.

One gentleman who commissioned the College of Arms to research his ancestry and provide him with a scrivened pedigree specifically wanted to ask a herald at the College to do it for him “because I felt that the College has a fantastic reputation for integrity and scrupulous attention to detail. As I’ve got older, I’ve felt I wanted to leave behind a legacy of some kind, and I hope that maybe in 100 years’ time one of my descendants might be inspired to follow it up. I also hoped the historical connections it found between our family and historical figures such as King Duncan, portrayed in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, might encourage the younger generation to take a stronger interest in these people and the events that surrounded them.”

If the idea appeals, you do need to plan ahead. Nothing meaningful can be conjured up overnight – it can take a year to 18 months to research a family tree fully. But a trip deep into the annals of your family history makes for a truly special present, something memorable that can be treasured and handed down through the years. It’s hard to think of a more valuable gift.

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