Thursday, May 20, 2010

Making Connections Online


As I discussed in my first post, the first step in my ancestor hunt was the obvious one: to consult with my living relatives to find out what information they had that didn’t get passed down to me. I also screwed up my courage to start making connections with relatives I didn’t know.

Great-Grandfather Joseph and Great-Grandmother Henriette had, I was told, 16 children together. With the help of the census records and the microfilmed early vital records for the state of Michigan, I was able to learn the names of 14 of them; only 8 of them (including Grandpa) had survived to adulthood. I was able to learn a bit more about the others, but not enough to track down their living descendants.

I knew that there were other people from Michigan surnamed Chosa who were clearly not descendants of great-grandfather Joseph; one of them was also working on his ancestry. Thinking he might be a descendant of a brother of my great-grandfather, I sent him an e-mail. No reply. (Years later I figured out that we are in fact related, but the connection was about 5 or 6 generations back, so I don’t hold a grudge against this man.)

None of the relatives I consulted knew anything about whether Joseph had any siblings who also came to the US. So I joined a few useful mailing lists and prowled through the surname message boards at Rootsweb, Ancestry.com, and other main genealogy sites. At the very least, I hoped to find people whose surnames could be variants of Chosa, to learn where their ancestors had settled in this country, and what their descendants knew about where they came from in Quebec.

I connected with quite a number of people researching the same surname or one of its variants. I was able to assist several people who were researching their own connections to various Chosas in my line, and I met a few cousins online who, unfortunately, knew less about my great-grandparents than I did.

Best of all, I connected with a cousin who was descended from Great-Grandmother Henriette’s brother Gabriel. She shared genealogical gold with me: she had seen the marriage record at the Assinins Indian Mission, which was dated 16 June 1855 and which stated Joseph’s age to be 22. Assuming that the age was absolutely precise, this placed his birth sometime between 17 Jun 1832 and 15 Jun 1833. However, I was aware that the age might easily be a year or so off.

I also began searching for the names of all my great-grandparents on the Internet. I still do this regularly for them and for other ancestors, because a Google search may turn up all kinds of tidbits that weren’t there the last time I looked.

Since many, many people from Quebec are extremely passionate about genealogy and tracing their own family history, there are literally hundreds, possibly thousands of websites dealing with Quebec ancestry. I was hoping that one of those researchers might have a gap in his own family tree because no one knows whatever happened to his great-great-grandmother’s brother—who happened to have my great-grandfather’s name and was born in the right time frame.

No such luck.

I turned to the FamilySearch site run by the Mormons (LDS church) Family History Library. Just enter the name and country and a date if you have one, and you’re likely to turn up information from their Ancestral Files, Pedigree Resource Files, IGI (International Genealogical Index), Vital Records Index, SSDI (Social Security Death Index), and censuses. These may turn up leads to vital records for your family.

Unfortunately, some of the LDS records, especially Ancestral Files and the IGI, are just plain wrong: people hoping to retroactively baptize all their discoverable ancestors are like the rest of us: human and easily capable of making mistakes. If you are looking to find the parents (names unknown) of Fran├žois Pepin, you may not realize just how many Fran├žois Pepins in the same age bracket there are out there at any given time, and pick the wrong one to inscribe on your pedigree.

Nowadays, Ancestry.com has the Drouin Collection of Canadian records online; you have to buy a World Deluxe membership to access it at home, or go down to your local LDS Family History Center and access the collection from their computers. And unfortunately, Ancestry’s search engine, to put it kindly, does not handle French names very well, especially if you don't know what area to search. (It has, however, improved considerably since those first Quebec records came online.)

FamilySearch is now indexing its vast collection of genealogical records and putting the original images of those records online, but the indexing stage is still in its infancy. You can, however, browse through images of a fair number of their original microfilmed Quebec parish records at this site, and it won’t cost you a dime. But back then, I had to order microfilms and hope.

I still had no idea where to find Great-Grandfather Joseph’s family in Quebec, but I was learning about the sources available to me, and about the genealogy research process in general. I was connecting with living family members whose existence had been previously unknown to me. Someday, I hoped, I would be able to connect all of us back to the ancestral families who came from France centuries ago to build a new life in the harsh conditions of New France.

Making connections: that’s what genealogy is all about.

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