By Connie Bye
You can track down ancestors on a number of internet sites these days or take a DNA test to find links to your family’s murky past. But if you really really want to shake your family tree, the Bainbridge Island Genealogical Society stands ready to help.
Members gladly share information about how to make sense of DNA tests and online genealogy sites. But they also urge people to paw through old document boxes, attics and basements, to scour family bibles, courthouse records and cemeteries to dig down to their family roots.
“Yes, you can use the internet, but you miss things,” said Sue Hassenmiller, one of BIGS’ founders, its treasurer, head of its DNA workshop and a mentor to new members. “One the hardest things now is to convince people to get off the internet and go find the original documents.”
But when genealogy trackers do delve into those primary sources, “the door opens more easily,” said Andrea Hoskins, who edits the group’s newsletter and serves on BIGS’ outreach committee.
Although BIGS targets the past, it’s a fairly new organization, founded in 2005. It has grown from about 60 members the first year to more than 90 today. That growth parallels a booming interest in family history across the nation and around the world, said president Betty Wiese. “People want to play genealogy with other people.”
BIGS offers programs, open to the public, on the third Friday of most months at the Bainbridge Island Library, as well as members-only meetings focused on special interests, such as skill-building or particular regions, nations or cultures. The BIGS website is also a rich source of information, research tools, experts and resources for family history buffs.
Public meetings feature expert speakers on a range of topics. The goal is to help people move ahead, to discover what test they might want to take and what to do with the information they find, said Sylvia Nelson, vice president, program chair and a new-member mentor.
Some members have been passionate about family history for years; others are novices. Many regret catching the bug too late to ask now-dead relatives for family details.
Hardcore sleuths sometimes plan vacations around family fact-finding, Wiese said. “Walking in the footsteps of our ancestors means a lot.”
A no-cost way to do research online is familysearch.org. The site, established by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but available to all, calls itself “the world’s largest shared family tree” with more than 1 billion “unique profiles.”
The Latter-day Saints have been doing this “since ancestry was just a glint in someone else’s eye,” Hoskins said. To be sure, DNA has its uses, too. Through testing, Hassenmiller discovered the descendants of relatives who moved from Italy to Denver in the late 1800s. “We’ve been in contact.
I know the names we match on but don’t know all the connections.” Give her time. Because of recent controversies over law enforcement using genealogical DNA matches to track down criminals, it’s important to understand how your information might be used, Hassenmiller advised. Read the fine print carefully. “If you want your DNA available for crime-solving, you have to say so,” she said.
BIGS will observe National Family History Month this fall with an event focused on DNA. An open house is scheduled October 26 at the Bainbridge Island Library. During prescheduled, one-to-one sessions, BIGS members will provide help in understanding results for those who’ve been DNA-tested. Members also will be on hand to chat, answer questions and offer suggestions, no appointment needed.
Registration begins September 27.
Membership skews toward retirees. But a new committee aims to identify ways to reach out to other ages, especially young people, perhaps through the library, the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum or Scout programs. Parents, of course, would need to sign off before children could do research, Hoskins said.
“There may be concerns about privacy issues,” Hoskins noted. “After all, there are family secrets.”
For more information about BIGS, go to bigenealogy.org.