13 Secrets Ancestry Trackers Know About Your Family Tree (That You Don’t)

Updated: Mar. 25, 2022

Curious about your family tree? The country's top genealogists explain the tricks of the trade.

13 things ancestry trackersSerge Bloch for Reader's DIgest

1. Having trouble finding an ancestor? Get sloppy with your spelling. Before driver’s licenses, name variations and misspellings were common. A simple name like Smith could be listed as Smyth, Smythe, or even Schmidt.

2. Just because your grandfather said your family came over on the Mayflower doesn’t mean it’s a fact. About half the time, I have to tell families that the story they’ve been passing down is all wrong.

3. Talk to your older relatives now—I mean today—about what they remember, and write it down. Then hunt through their attics for old photos, obituaries, newspaper articles, military papers, and more. A little bit of up-front research will save time down the line (and it’s fun!).

4. No, your family name was not forcibly changed at Ellis Island. In most cases, immigrants changed their own names upon arriving to make them sound more American.

5. In today’s world, it’s harder than ever to keep a secret. I tried autosomal DNA testing when it first came out and—whoops!—accidentally found out that my dad’s only brother was actually his half-brother.

6. With websites like ancestry.com and geni.com, you can easily create a tree that goes back many generations. But be warned: Online trees are often packed with errors (I’ve seen a mother who supposedly died before her child was born), so always check the original sources.

7. Old newspaper articles are my favorite sources for stories that make family histories come alive. You can find them at genealogybank.com, chroniclingamerica.loc.gov, and newspapers.com.

8. Are you related to someone famous? It’s likely. Do the math: You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. If you go back ten generations, you’ve got 1,024 ancestors. Twenty generations puts you over the one-million mark; one of those “cousins” is bound to be famous.

9. If you’re having trouble finding someone who served in World War I or II, search for the correct month and day of birth but an earlier year. Many men overstated their ages to enlist because they were underage.

10. We cringe at genealogy-themed TV shows that make it seem like you need to travel far away to do your research. So many records are online today that you can find most of what you need from home.

11. Scan and upload unidentified family photos to Google’s “search by image” page and tineye.com. Both sites search for similar images, and you may find a match with all the information you need.

12. Once I learned that a client had a third-great-grandfather who was one of only five African Americans to graduate as lawyers from the University of South Carolina during Reconstruction. He got in under the wire, before Jim Crow. Being able to tell my client that was huge. That’s the thing about genealogy: You uncover stories, and that can completely change people’s perspectives on who they are.

13. We do so much more than just trace family trees. We help the military locate relatives of soldiers killed in action abroad, unearth the owners of family heirlooms, help adoptees locate parents, and find far-flung heirs for lawyers and banks.

Sources: Genealogists Megan Smolenyak, author of Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing, and Gena Philibert-Ortega, author of From the Family Kitchen; Kelvin Meyers, a forensic geneaologist in Texas; Michelle Ercanbrack, a family historian at ancestry.com; and Kenyatta Berry, a host of Genealogy Road Show and past president of the Association of Professional Genealogists

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest