My father died in Orlando, Florida, in 2004 and was buried on his 89th birthday. His widow, my stepmother, passed away eight years later. As her four children began cleaning out our parents’ home, they discovered photos and an album they did not recognize. They handed their finds off to me since I am the family historian and it was assumed that since none of them knew the people in the photos, they must be from our family.
The album was from the early 1900s and had several photos on each page, each carefully laid out and glued in place. There were several picture postcards, some from a small town in Georgia and others from a town in Florida, and there was also a clipping of an obituary that listed both towns. But not a word or name written in it anywhere, and I didn’t recognize a single face.
There was also a loose snapshot of a young couple with two small children. Only this time, the children’s names were on the back. I guessed at the age of the photo—probably from the 1930s.
I searched the 1930 census for the children and found them in St. Petersburg, Florida. Now I had their parents’ names. I searched Ancestry.com for an online family tree that included at least one of the parents. Bingo! When I contacted the owner of the tree, I found out that she lived about two hours away, near Knoxville, Tennessee. The little girl in the snapshot was her mother, who is still living in Florida. I began scanning the album and emailing images for her to identify. It turned out that the photos were all from my stepmother’s stepfather’s family. I was delighted when I could finally bundle up the album and send it on to loving hands.
I have worked diligently searching my family’s history for over ten years. I joined Ancestry in 2006 and began a more serious search. On my father’s side of the family his roots were in Milledgeville, Georgia. I knew that there was woman who had four children by William Steele. There were stories of her being Native American, a mulatto, or a slave. We thought her name was Mandy. I took a DNA test and found out that I have no Native American blood, so the next question was—was she a slave or was she free? By finding the four children I found her real name Sarah or Sallie Keen on the 1870 and 1880 census.
The next mystery to tackle was whether she was a slave or a free person of color. There on the 1860 census, listed as free people of color, was a family of Brooks. All of the family’s first names matched, and there was an additional child that I never knew existed. Where the name Brooks came from I do not know, but I guess after the Civil War they took on their father’s last name of Steele.
For many African Americans looking for their ancestors it should be noted that the first name and middle name of all family members are very important. This can be the key to identifying the family in situations where there was a surname change, as was the case with my family. I even found out that Sarah’s mother changed her last name three times. Jane Mitchell, Brooks or Gilbert was a free person of color—a washer woman that lived to be 116 years of age. She had two newspaper articles written about her as the oldest person in the county!
My name is Tom McNamara. My paternal grandparents passed away when I was young, and my father never talked about his ancestors other than they had emigrated from County Clare Ireland during the potato famine.
My wife and I were planning a trip to Ireland so I joined Ancestry.com to find my roots. With the help of census records, passenger lists, and family trees, I was able to discover that my great-great-grandfather (also named Tom McNamara) was born in Kimaley, a little village in County Clare. A trip to that village was now on our itinerary.
When we arrived in County Clare our first stop was Bunratty Castle. On the castle grounds was a pub with the same surname as ours, so we checked it out. Armed with the knowledge from research and a lot of Irish, we chatted with the couple next to us. This gentleman’s best friend was also named Tom McNamara. The friend ‘Tom Mac’ lived on the ancestral lands in Kilmaley! They took another look at me and knew I was related.
They called their friend and we got to meet him the next day. And you know, he did look like me! Our great-great-grandfathers were brothers! On Tom Mac’s acreage was the original manor house built in the 1700s and the family cemetery. I got to see the house where my ancestors lived and the graveyard where they were buried. The tour was fabulous.
Thanks to Ancestry.com and a newly discovered distant cousin, I had one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.
Growing up in Illinois, my family’s origins were almost invisible. I knew the names of my grandparents and great-grandparents, but I still wondered how we got here. I heard we came from Ireland or Germany or England, but those places seemed far off. In truth, it was like my family had sprung out of the ground in America, grilling burgers and going bowling.
It was only after my grandma passed away that I began thinking about her maiden name: McDonald. I read through books and websites about Scottish clans, with their images of tartans and kilts and bagpipes. I was pretty certain we belonged to Clan Donald, one of the oldest and most powerful of the Highland clans. But I really wanted more than words – I wanted proof. And that became a problem because I could only trace my McDonald ancestors back to the 1890s to the exotic locale of Missouri.
This all changed the day my mom and Aunt Donna discovered a letter in a box of old family photos. The letter said that my great-great-great-great-grandparents were named Hiram and Nancy McDonald. I went to Ancestry.com, and soon I found census and marriage records showing that my ancestors Hiram and Nancy lived in Lincoln County, Missouri, beginning in the 1830s.
Fantastic! I had found my family. But it wasn’t enough. If I were going to uncover a link to Clan Donald, I’d first need to find out who Hiram’s parents were, and where they lived before the 1830s — before Missouri. But how to do that?
I turned to the 1830 census – the census taken just before the earliest record I’d located for Hiram and Nancy. But there were no McDonald households in Lincoln County. The closest I got were two households headed by people named “McDanel.”
Now, my initial thought was to dismiss this find and try to figure out some other way to find Hiram and Nancy’s family. But then I looked more closely at the McDanel households. The first was headed by Cyrus McDanel, a young man with a wife and children. The second was headed by Elizabeth McDanel, a woman in her 40s with a household of 11 young adults and children.
What if. … What if my ancestor Hiram was one of them? And what if Cyrus was his brother? What if the census taker had just gotten the family name wrong?
I kept researching. I found coincidences that I couldn’t ignore: Cyrus and Elizabeth were listed only a page apart in the 1830 census. Samuel K. Tilford was Cyrus’s neighbor – and shared a last name with the woman Hiram would marry in the same county three years later. More details added up in online records and at courthouses, and an anonymous tip in an online tree led me to a county in Virginia. Eventually I followed the family all the way back to Scotland … but not quite as quickly as it now sounds.
Suffice it to say, I learned my lessons. Spelling isn’t everything, names change and it pays to have an open mind. If I hadn’t been desperate for clues, I may have never looked at those two McDanels in the 1830 census. If I hadn’t researched the McDanels, I may have never made my connection to the past. And I might still be here scratching my head, wondering exactly how we got here, where we were from and how I could learn more.
— Ryan Littrell
You can read more about Ryan Littrell’s journey in his new book Reunion: A Search for Ancestors. Learn more about his research in this interview with the Barefoot Genealogist, Crista Cowan.
I wanted to let you know that I found my mother’s first cousin thanks to AncestryDNA. My great-grandfather, Joseph Bubadias/Jose Cott, was always something of a mystery. We had a few details about him, but he was hard to track. When my DNA results came in, I got a match with Terry, who was listed as possibly my 3rd-4th cousin. As it turns out, Terry’s father is my great-grandfather’s son from his first marriage—a marriage we were not aware of.
Thanks to Terry, I now know much more about Joe. Today I was able to show my great-aunt some photos that Terry has sent me. I set out the photos and explained to her, “This is your half-brother Allen.” There is still a lot that Terry and I will be sharing with each other, and figuring out. Maybe someday Allen and my great-aunt will be able to talk on the phone.
I wouldn’t know about Allen, or Terry, or Joe’s siblings, without AncestryDNA. I cannot thank you enough for this service. This has been a surreal, wonderful experience.
My father, Simon Mostofsky, was killed in action shortly after D-Day. He was a pharmacist mate caring for the wounded on an LST on its way back to Britain. I never knew the name (actually it’s a number) of the ship he was on, but for some reason I did know it had not been sunk.
In 2010, Ancestry.com sent me a hint for a record that led me to the National Personnel Record Center, Military Personnel Records in St. Louis. http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/ They directed me to the Library of Congress, and I was sent the records identifying the ship as LST 280. When I received the information I did an online search for the LST 280, and found a blog with two email addresses. One responded, amazingly by a gentleman, H. R. Shawhan, who was not only a shipmate, but knew my father well, credited my father with having saved his life during a serious illness, and actually spoke to him just minutes before the fatal torpedo hit.
I was less than a year old when this happened, but receiving this information was very emotional. I did try to arrange a visit with him, but could never get a date. I believe the incident itself was too emotional for him to handle. I am attaching the letter he sent me which is attached to my father’s profile on Ancestry.com.
Your family history is part of you. And Ancestry.com Sticky Notes is your place to share and discover stories and more. Read, ask questions and let us know what you think. You can contact us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.