DNA testing kits and massive amounts of information on the internet and TV have made genealogy a popular hobby, but fans say it has been an addictive one for a long time.
“I think that interest has grown and a big contributing factor has been television shows on family history as well as Ancestry[.com] ads,” said Janice Fritsch, facilitator for the Somonauk Library Genealogical Club in Somonauk, Illinois. She also is a former president of the Illinois State Genealogical Society and a past board member of the Federation of Genealogical Societies.
Fritsch became interested in genealogy in 1995. A family reunion piqued her interest when she and her brother and cousins decided to put a family tree together, she said.
Jane Haldeman of Naperville, Illinois, became interested in genealogy when her eighth-grade teacher back in Iowa gave the class an assignment to interview parents and grandparents about family history. She wrote to various family members asking for their input. She still has the replies, and she was surprised to find her original letter among her grandmother’s keepsakes after her grandmother’s death.
Haldeman dabbled at genealogy after that, “but then life got in the way,” she said. About 25 years ago, she got back into genealogy. Her hobby evolved into a vocation. She now runs a genealogical service providing lectures, workshops, research and consultations, and she’s the former president of the Illinois State Genealogical Society and the Fox Valley Genealogical Society.
Haldeman has traced her family back to Colonial times with carefully documented research that she stores in the library in her office. She said that in the early days of genealogy, people would talk to family members or go to libraries, courthouses or cemeteries to do research. Then along came the internet, which provided access to a mountain of other information.
The advent of affordable and simple DNA testing has also become a revolutionary tool for genealogy research, Haldeman said. While relying on personal research or family lore can sometimes lead to errors, DNA is a scientifically based approach, testing the chromosomes that are passed along from generation to generation.
Fritsch thought she knew about most of her relatives, but DNA testing provided clues that led her to cousins she had not been aware of. She has since paid for DNA testing for all of her family members — parents, children and grandchildren. “This [information] is one thing that I can leave my family for the future,” she said.
DNA testing became popular, at least in part, because of TV commercials that linked it with helping to find family members, Haldeman said. However, she said, a lot of people think it can answer every question about their family. “It does not,” she said. “And sometimes it will tell you something that you didn’t expect, such as parentage or siblings you didn’t know about. You still need to do paperwork and to put together a tree. DNA is one more tool in genealogy.”
Haldeman said the popularity of DNA testing kits is understandable. “Many people do DNA testing because they want to know who they are,” she said. “That quest is very important when you are adopted. You have a hole in you as to who you really are.”
Haldeman said she knows a woman who had given a child up for adoption and had later married. The woman then had nine children with her husband. Through DNA testing, the child she had given up found her. Her husband already knew about the child, but she faced the difficult job of breaking the news to her other children. They not only took the news well, but they wanted to meet their “new” sibling and have become a very close family, she said.
For those considering doing their own family genealogy, Jane Haldeman and Janice Fritsch have some suggestions:
- Talk to family members and be sure to record or write down stories, names, dates and other vital information. Don’t rely on memory.
- Obtain copies of old family letters or records from family Bibles, birth, marriage or death certificates.
- Check out online resources available for research and assembling your family tree.
- Do research at libraries, courthouses, cemeteries and historical societies to get information, and also check old newspapers and church records.