When I was growing up, my extended family consisted of my four grandparents, my first cousins, and a few great-aunts and -uncles and their children.
Even then, I had trouble keeping up with them all.
Now, I’ve made contact with a lot more extended family – second cousins and third cousins, and sometimes even fourth cousins, not to mention the removes.
Sometimes I become aware of these relatives and/or make contact with them through the messaging system on FamilySearch.org. Have you used it? Of course, we can’t see living relatives in the Family Tree, but we can see who’s posting pictures or adding records to a deceased ancestor’s profile.
There are a couple of ways to send messages through FamilySearch. Just before I started writing this post, I added a comment to a new photo that someone posted to my great-grandmother’s brother’s wife’s profile. Maggie Oglesby and her husband, my great-granduncle Medrick Pittman ran a store. I have heard about it many times; my mother mentions it whenever we are driving along that stretch of North Palafox Street in Pensacola. Today, one of my Pittman cousins (based on the username) added a photo of the store, and it showed up on my home page when I logged in. How interesting to see what I had only heard about! I talked to my mother about it on the phone, and so my comment was able to include my appreciation for seeing the store, but also my mother’s memories about the house Medrick and Maggie lived in right behind the store, and the dislike my great-grandmother had for Medrick selling alcohol – a remembrance prompted by the “cold beer” sign out front.
Another way to send messages on FamilySearch is to click on the person’s name who posted a photo or made a change to a profile. You’ll get a pop-up like the one seen to the left. If they have uploaded a profile picture of their own, you’ll see the photo, otherwise, it’s an initial. Their username appears below, and you can click the “message” button to message them within the website.
Click on “View My Relationship” to see if you’re related. Warning: FamilySearch only shows one possible connection. For the example here, FamilySearch says we’re 10th cousins, but based on what he shared on the website and who it’s attached to, I think there may be a closer relationship.
I have not used the Add Contact option before. I presume this is a handy way to create an address book, of sorts.
Finally, if you’re lucky, the person will have authorized the sharing of their email address. If you want to share a photo or document, or if you aren’t confident that they’ll see an in-app message or that you’ll see their response, an email is a handy option to have. You can sometimes look people up by email on Facebook or other sites as well, if you’re trying to further analyze the relationship.
WikiTree is another free website that allows you to send messages through them. The way I have it set up, when someone messages me on there, I get an email. I now have photos of my great-great-grandfather’s daughter, grandson, and great-grandaughter – a branch of the family I never even knew about before genealogy – thanks to someone who found the family profiles I created on WikiTree.
DNA matches are also a great way to meet extended family. If you have DNA on any of the sites (23andMe, Ancestry, Family Tree DNA, GEDmatch, Geneanet, Living DNA, My Heritage – am I missing any?), here’s my advice for making contact with family.
(1) Unless you’re adopted and don’t know, use your birth name on your profile. Putting a married last name doesn’t do anything to help identify how you’re connected to your DNA matches and can actually muddy the waters. I have DNA matches with the last name Lindsey, but we can’t be connected genetically through the Lindseys. I use my maiden name Hahn on my DNA profiles.
(2) Examine the options for sharing family information. Family Tree DNA lets you upload a GEDcom file of your family tree. 23andMe has a place for you to list surnames from your tree – include mother’s maiden name, grandparents’ names, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents, if you can. You can always update as you fill in the tree. MyHeritage and Ancestry allow you to attach your DNA to yourself in a family tree; your name and any living ancestors will be privatized, but having the names of even one or two deceased ancestors will help in figuring out connections.
(3) Several of the sites have a place for you to introduce yourself. Are you looking for birth parents? Mention that in the biographical information. Consider including an email address. (I list mine as username (at) domain (dot) com, to try to fool spambots harvesting addresses.) The messaging systems on these sites can be problematic; MyHeritage, for example, never sends an email when I have a message in my inbox, although I have checked the settings multiple times, and the system works fine on my husband’s account. Providing an email address can improve your chances of hearing from a relative.
(4) Include place names and dates of life on profiles in your family tree. If you don’t include dates of life, the website may assume they’re still alive, even if they died in the 1800s. If the date’s not there, the system doesn’t know. If you don’t know a death date, but you’re sure they’re dead, you can check the “deceased” box on the profile. Locations can be important in helping track down connections. If I don’t recognize the surnames on a profile, but I see they’re from Georgia in the 1800s, I can narrow down which branches are most likely to have the connection.
Making contact with extended family members is one of the great benefits of genealogy in the modern age. You never know who may have a document that will be invaluable to your research or a photo of an ancestor you’ve never seen before. I have my great-great-great grandmother’s middle name thanks to a cousin who had transcribed entries from a family Bible.
Like the old commercial went, “reach out, reach out and touch someone” or at least make it easy for them to reach out to you.