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Crowdsourcing And The New Genealogy Boom

The genealogy craze meets crowdsourcing . Soon, you may be meeting your 17th cousin. Be prepared for surprises.

US first lady Michelle Obama, center, with her daughters Sasha, and Malia, second from the right, look through archives documenting the Obama's Irish Ancestry during their visit to the Old Library at Trinity College, in Dublin, Ireland, Monday, June 17, 2013. The first lady and her daughters were given a presentation on their own family genealogy and connection to Ireland. (AP)

US first lady Michelle Obama, center, with her daughters Sasha, and Malia, second from the right, look through archives documenting the Obama’s Irish Ancestry during their visit to the Old Library at Trinity College, in Dublin, Ireland, Monday, June 17, 2013. The first lady and her daughters were given a presentation on their own family genealogy and connection to Ireland. (AP)

Americans are crazy for genealogy.  For tracking down the family tree.  Back to the immigrant.  Back to the slave.  The native American.  Back to the stagecoach driver, the ship’s captain, the duke, the duchess, the great grandmother who sang in vaudeville.  A new generation of apps make it easier.  A new generation of algorithms is tying family trees together.  Letting you know you’re a seventeenth cousin once-removed to Daniel Boone or Malcolm X or Marie Antoinette – or the classmate who bugs you.  Then what? This hour On Point:  the new frontiers of genealogy.

– Tom Ashbrook


A.J. Jacobs, author and journalist. Author of “The Know-It-All,” “The Year of Living Biblically,” My Life As An Experiment” and ‘Drop Dead Healthy.”  (@ajjacobs)

Judy G. Russell, writer and genealogist. Blogger at “The Legal Genealogist.”

Spencer Wells, geneticist and director of the Genographic Project at National Geographic.

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Times:  Are You My Cousin? – “My family tree sprawls far and wide. It’s not even a tree, really. More like an Amazonian forest. At last count, it was up to nearly 75 million family members. In fact, there’s a good chance you’re on some far-flung branch of my tree, and if you aren’t, you probably will be soon. It’s not really my tree. It’s our tree.”

The Verge: Who am I? Data and DNA answer one of life’s big questions — “Taking a peek into the past now requires nothing more than a decent internet connection and a laptop. DNA testing, which just a few years ago cost thousands of dollars and offered little information for genealogists, is now a growing consumer option, reaching back hundreds of years to provide undreamed of amounts of information about our ancestors.”

The Desert News: Gaming for genealogy: Helping bring genealogy to a digital generation –”One of Taylor’s most compelling arguments for introducing gaming to genealogy was that current family history methods need to speak to a ‘new generation of genealogists.’ The upcoming generation has been involved in the digital world since birth, and many of them have hardly any experience with physical records.”

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  • Ray in VT

    I watched a special on/of the Geographic Project back in 2012, and it was fascinating, as they traced the movements of humans out of Africa and showed when we spread to different areas. Many participants got some surprises as to what some of their ethnic heritages actually were.

    Once, just by chance, I ran into a man who claimed the same 17th century ancestors that I saw on my mother’s family tree.

  • Heather Wilkinson Rojo

    I’m glad you’re running this story today. I’m a genealogy blogger and my post today is about the power of crowdsourcing on social media and at national/regional conferences. http://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-hessian-soldier-episode-continues.html

  • Charles Vigneron

    Digital libraries of Public Domain books was primary to my research. (archive.org & books.google.com) I’ve had many Print-on-Demand, the oldest ‘Smith’s New Jersey,’ 1765.

    • OnPointComments

      My 6th great grandfather was Charles Vigneron (1736-1778) from Newport, Rhode Island, married to Mary Taylor (1740-1776).

      • Charles Vigneron

        I’ve the good luck to share ancestors with Gary B. Roberts and William Addams Reitwiesner, 1954-2010. William Washburn, Jane, Hempstead, Long Island. Capt. Thomas Harris, Henrico.

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    I’d like to hear some more about Neanderthal and Denisovan (and the newest “other” species?). My brother and his wife did Genographic profiles last year, and we have Native American ancestors (over 2%) and we are both Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestors.

  • Lewis Kirk

    I became involved in genealogical research a few years ago and discovered that the LDS church had posthumously baptized a number of my ancestors. Further research showed that the LDS church controls the majority of genealogical resources. A number of online genealogical sites are run out of Utah. A few years ago it was discovered that the LDS church had posthumously baptized Holocaust victims. They got sued and said they would stop the practice. All that soured me on genealogical research and I have not gone back to it. Is it possible that in the not-to-distant future, genealogical researchers and historians will believe that the LDS church was one of the largest churches in world history? Please talk about that, or do a whole show on it!

    • BHA_in_Vermont

      I agree with the disgust with the LDS’s practice of posthumously baptizing people who were not members of their religion and even those who died before it existed. But that doesn’t change my interest in my family’s history.

    • Roland Arsenault

      Personally, it doesn’t bother me much that someone decided to posthumously baptize my ancestors. It doesn’t change who they were.
      The fact that the LDS freely shares so many genealogical records far outweighs the little baptism mishaps that got blown out of proportion in my opinion.

    • Drew Smith

      The LDS doesn’t control the majority of genealogical resources. They don’t own Ancestry, FindMyPast, or MyHeritage, nor the resources of the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the various state archives, national, state, and local genealogy and historical societies, and so forth.

  • Imran Nasrullah

    For me the frustration with geneology apps is that they cannot pick up those of us that are 2nd generation Americans. So much of America are immigrants now, and as much as I would love to know who my ancestors are, there is just no way to find out as all my deceased relatives are in the “old country”. I know anecdotally, that while my father and grandfather were Muslims, my great grandfather was a Sikh. How interesting is that (at least for me)?

  • Erin Webb

    People want to know who they are… but couldn’t knowing that you’re related to Mayor Bloomberg AND Albert Einstein (for example) dilute your sense of identity? Global interconnectedness: recipe for the undoing of tribal/family/national acquisitiveness and/or recipe for giant existentialist crisis?

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    I don’t know that I need to have a party with the tens of thousands of my distant relatives now living!

    I am, however, interested in the family tree. I can trace only my Mother’s side through her father. His fraternal grandmother is traced back to the 1630′s in Boston, then Hingham MA. This one is easy since there was a book written about the line in the late 1800′s. I’m sure I have thousands of very distant cousins through that line. His mother goes back to the Mayflower. Family lore says one of his forefathers bearing his surname was in Concord, MA at the start of the Revolutionary War though I’ve not been able to trace that.

    My other 3 grandparents immigrated from Spain in the very early 1900′s. Much harder to chase those down.

    • Heather Wilkinson Rojo

      I’ve had good luck with my husband’s family in Spain online at Familysearch.org. Not only did I find microfilm, but many of the ancestral village records were online, too.

      • BHA_in_Vermont

        Thanks Heather, I’ll check it out. I have a little info, including photocopies of the church baptism records for my Mother’s mother and grandmother. Other than that, it is only name and town born. I went to the church where my grandmother was baptized, the original is still in the book. Apparently the book for her mother is in the cathedral (Barcelona) but I didn’t get there.

  • HonestDebate1

    I love searching through old public records like wills, deeds, special proceedings, birth certificates, etc. I’ve learned a lot about the land I live on, genealogy is a big part of it.

  • skelly74

    Quick! Almost one hour left. You must get your “reasonably priced” flowers! They have specialist on hand!

    The genealogy research will still be there for you, but first, you must get your flowers!

    You’re interested in trees? We have freshly cut flowers! Its the same thing!

  • mitspanner

    I’d like to link up with my extended family, but I’m afraid that the Surveillance State will hoover up the info for their dark purposes.

  • Roland Arsenault

    It was nice to here WikiTree mentioned, the site where I decided to pursue the crowd-sourcing aspect of genealogy. I think this is an exciting time for genealogy as the crowd sourcing model meets the advances in DNA testing. I suspect many “brick walls” will be busted in the near future.

  • Heather Wilkinson Rojo

    Mar Sea, try the nearest Family History Library near you and the volunteers will show you how to look up and order microfilms from your ancestral towns. I know people who thought their records in Italy were gone in a landslide, but the LDS church had microfilmed them 10 years earlier. If you don’t know where the nearest FHL is to you, look at http://www.familysearch.org You can also look online for a Nicaraquan genealogy support group or blog. Good luck!

  • Hatte Blejer

    I have had my family tree on Geni (www.geni.com) since 2009. It’s a leader in crowd sourcing for genealogy, with great technology. I’ve found a lot of cousins and added branches to my tree that I never could have imagined I would find, such as branches in Israel. I found the family of my husband’s grandmother’s sister. The sister went to America in 1912 and my husband’s grandmother and the rest of that family went to Argentina after WW II and the Russian Revolution. They exchanged photos by mail for 60 years and at our “reunion” they shared those photos and messages with us. Not to mention that I know exactly how I’m related to Karl Marx :)

  • rockhauler

    i just listened to this online and was so sorry that i didn’t hear it sooner. i did the Geno 2.0 cheek swab, and when i received the results, i laughed for about three days. three of my 4 markers are for ashkenazy jew (K1a4). i’m not clear from national geographic just how much of that reflects paternal descent for me, a woman. my mother never said anything to me about jewish heritage. her father was from sweden (sami, perhaps?), and i’ve found nothing about her mother, but i was told she was french and english. however, my mother was a gentile zionist, read everything she could get her hands on about israel, encouraged me to have jewish friends, etc. then i decided to go into russian studies. all this is coincidental with the migratory patterns of my haplogroup. and i’m more denisovan than neanderthal. if anyone knows anything about how the cheek swab for a woman shows paternal heritage, i’m interested. now on to find some cousins.

    • R Stewart

      A friend did Geno 2.0 and a few other companies. They all came back with AJ markers on his Y DNA. He doesn’t have known Jewish, but it’s very unlikely four companies would separately have the same haplogroups for him if there wasn’t an AJ family member up stream.

    • Frank Schneider

      f you are female, your paternal ancestry is reflected in the half of your autosomes or regional percentages that you received from your father. Since you don’t have a Y-chromosome, you’ll need to ask a male first-degree relative (such as your brother or your father) to test as well to learn about your paternal ancestry.

      • rockhauler

        thanks. NG didn’t specify that it was in the regional percentages.

  • ExcellentNews

    It should not be surprising if you do a little math. You have 2 parents, 4 grandparents…and so on. Assuming no intermarriage, if you go back N generations, you descend from 2^N people. Go back 20 generations, and you are the descendent of 1 million individuals. Go back 30 generations, and you are the descendent of 1 billion (that’s basically larger than the world population at the time).

    Of course, intermarriage reduces this number, but the point is valid – if you go back just few hundred years, you are a cousin to anyone who lived in the same geographic area as your ancestors at the time.

  • R Stewart

    Most people are only finding 4th+ cousins. It’s rare a person gets a nearer match, but as more people test, closer matches will become common. My cousin has a rare 2nd cousin match on 23andMe, but she hasn’t responded to his request so he may never found out who she is.

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