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The Cousin Connection

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

John Chapman, my 8th great-grandfather, was born about 1635 in Stanhope, England. As a young man he converted to the Quaker faith, and for years suffered persecution for his beliefs. Finally, in 1660, he was confined in York Castle for refusing to take an oath.

On June 21, 1684, Chapman and his wife Jane, along with their five children, left Stanhope and boarded the ship Shield of Stockton. Four months later, the family landed safely in America, although a violent storm off the Virginia coast nearly dismantled the Shield. After a brief stay in Maryland, the family made its way to Bucks County, Pa., where Chapman had purchased 500 acres on the farthest reaches of the frontier. From then until his death 10 years later, he enjoyed the religious freedom denied him in England.

The story of John and Jane Chapman came to me from a source those 17th-century ancestors could never have imagined: a distant cousin who’d read a query I’d posted on the Internet. “Hello cousin!” began the e-mail I got out of the blue one day from a Nancy McEwen, “bet you didn’t know we had Quaker ancestors, did you?”

E-mails flew fast and furiously as Nancy and I brought each other up to speed on our research finds and speculations. Without her help, I’m not sure I would have ever made the leap to the British life Chapman left more than 300 years ago.

Your relatives are probably out there, too, just waiting to be discovered. Every day, distant cousins make connections that lead to new family lines; evidence is shared and brick walls are scaled. You can find your own cousins — and tap their knowledge of your family’s past — by networking online.

Once you start working the Web to locate other genealogists in your family, you’re on your way to all sorts of clues and connections. Genealogists researching different lines of the same family can help each other clarify dates, fill in missing names, and digitally share family photos and documents. Comparing notes also helps catch decades-long errors.

In particular, Internet cousins frequently have the missing link that will help you trace your female lines. I didn’t have a clue about my 3rd great-grandmother’s maiden name until an Internet cousin casually mentioned that she had Grandma’s marriage record.

And while you’re sharing data, don’t miss the chance to turn Internet cousins into research partners. With so many ancestors and so little time, family historians need all the help we can get.

In the case of Nancy McEwen, our 3rd great-grandfathers were Dimmitt brothers; she followed them back to the Chapmans while I spent time gathering records from the brothers on down. Once we connected, we were like kids showing off our new bikes. But even more special was the friendship we developed — I cherish the e-mails about our Dimmitt “bad boys” and the nightmares they must have caused their Quaker in-laws.

Family tree networking isn’t foolproof, of course. You’re certain to receive some information that’s never been confirmed by original sources. And you may get e-mails from someone who wants only to grab all your data and run — or worse, pry into your personal life. But for the most part, Internet cousins are like the ones you know in real life: There are a few you avoid at family reunions; the rest are ones whose company you enjoy.

In the years I’ve networked, I’ve added almost 10,000 names to my family tree. I’ve uncovered more Revolutionary War ancestors than I know what to do with and have enough clues to fill up my research notebook for the next several years. I’ve even seen photos of ancestors who were born two centuries ago — all through connecting with my favorite Internet cousins.

Where to look for links

If you think the odds of meeting online cousins are slim, think again. By the time you go back 15 generations, you have more than 32,000 ancestors. Since some of them had 10 or more siblings, the number of potential cousins alive today is staggering. Suddenly, the odds are in your favor.

Even though your Internet cousins aren’t in your direct family line, they have records that trace your ancestor’s siblings — and often those are where you’ll find brick-wall-busting clues such as a wife’s maiden name or a place of birth. In my family, finding the birthplace of one of my ancestor’s siblings led me to census records I wasn’t even aware of.

Although finding that one piece of data you need isn’t always easy, finding Internet cousins is. It’s just a matter of posting queries on high visibility sites and then letting the mathematics of Web traffic do their magic. Get started with these five sites. Your cousins may already be there, looking for you.


Our 19th-century US ancestors lived in a predominantly rural America, and their lives revolved around their farms, neighbors and small community stores and churches. Women in one family married men from a neighboring family, and close friends or in-laws witnessed wills and other legal documents.

So the counties where these close-knit families lived are great places to look for Internet cousins. You can virtually visit your ancestors’ county via USGenWeb. The site’s State Project contains pages for each US state, where you can click to pages for most counties. Posting queries at the county level will likely lead you to family connections: If Great-great-Granny Sarah and her eight siblings lived and died in Lincoln County, Kan., you can bet your Internet cousins will be hanging out there, too.

A posting on the USGenWeb site can also get you a “howdy!” from an “allied family” cousin — someone whose ancestor migrated with, lived next door to or married into your family.

When you search county queries, look beyond your immediate family and also search for the surnames you saw on Grandpa’s will or as neighbors on a census. People searching for those surnames might have run across your family, too. And don’t forget to look for alternative surname spellings — our ancestors, their county clerks and census takers weren’t as fanatical about spelling as we are.

To maximize your networking success, visit every USGenWeb county your ancestors lived in and post queries. Subscribe to county mailing lists and let everyone on the list know the names you’re researching. You’ll be amazed when another list member contacts you with information about your family.


Yvonne Clingerman is one of the many genealogists who struck gold on GenForum’s surname bulletin boards, part of <>. After years of dead ends, she found a message from another Clingerman family genealogist. “He didn’t know the names of the Clingerman parents, either,” she says. “But he knew the names of other siblings and was in contact with several researchers.”

Through e-mails and forum messages, Clingerman and others eventually formed a group of about 10 researchers. Together they discovered a family link that had eluded her for years.

“I’m convinced that without a way to connect to others looking for the same families, we would have spent years amassing the information we managed to gather in a few short months,” she says.

GenForum contains thousands of bulletin boards, or forums, where researchers can post queries and connect with Internet cousins. Some of the forums are monitored by expert family historians who generously help newcomers untangle confusing family lines. One of those experts, Mike Gregory, helped me find my way through 250 years of perplexing Gregory lines. Of course, Mike warned me that not all of his data was confirmed, but he left me with enough clues to track down the records on my own.

GenForum’s bulletin boards are categorized by surname, state, county, country and research topics. For the greatest chance at successful networking, post your query on every applicable forum. If you’re looking for the Jamieson family of Shelby County, Ind., for example, post in the Jamieson surname, Shelby County and state of Indiana forums.

GenForum doesn’t delete messages — every one of the more than 5 million postings to date are left online. You can search each forum separately at its main page or you can search the entire system all at once from the GenForum home page. Want a little inspiration? Visit the Success Stories forum.


The Roots Web Surname List (RSL) is a surname registry that currently contains more than 910,000 submissions, with an additional 700 names arriving every day. All of the surnames in the RSL are ones that are actively being researched, so any connection you make could pay off.

To locate other family researchers, just enter your surname, and the RSL search engine will return a matching list in table form. The table includes the surname, the dates the researcher’s information covers, any known migration and the name tag of the submitter.

For example, if you search for Hendrickson, one of the listings reads:

Hendrickson 1600 now AR>MO>KS birdbaby

This means that a researcher with the name tag “birdbaby” has information about Hendricksons from 1600 to the present day. You also know that this Hendrickson family migrated from Arkansas to Missouri and then Kansas. Click on the name tag for the researcher’s e-mail address, as well as a list of other surnames he or she is researching. If you have a common surname, it’s even more important to check the researcher’s other surnames so you can get an idea of whether this family line is yours. You don’t want to inundate a Jones family researcher with e-mails when it’s obvious he isn’t in your line.

4. SURNAME HELPER <surhelp.>

This search engine makes it possible for networkers to search across several major genealogy sites. Surname Helper indexes 2.5 million queries, surname registrations and family data posted on such sites as GenConnect and USGenWeb.

Surname Helper’s detailed search capabilities allow you to search for the exact spelling of a surname, its Soundex equivalent (useful for covering spelling variations) or a surname using wildcards. You can also specify the type of site to search, the type of posting or the geographic location. Surname Helper will look in personal Web pages, surname pages, the USGenWeb, WorldGenWeb and other sites; it returns postings such as Bible records, biographies, census files, court records, military service, queries and obituaries.

Try varying your searches if you get too many or too few search results. When I searched the entire system for the surname Snow, I got nearly 500 hits. But when I specified that the system search only for queries from the state of Virginia, I got seven. One of them was from a researcher who was looking for my line — a connection!


In an effort to help Internet genealogists connect with fellow researchers, < > created its searchable World Tree database — one of the largest collections of its kind on the Net. The World Tree contains nearly 77 million names in pedigree files submitted by other genealogists.

When you type in a surname, the results page allows you to display each person as an individual record or as part of a pedigree chart. The display also will note if the person is still living and give the names of parents or spouses when available.

If you think a person in the file is part of your family, you can download the GEDCOM file (the universal file format for exchanging electronic family trees) and e-mail the submitter for additional information. A word of caution: GEDCOMs containing undocumented data are common. But if the file contains your ancestors, you’ll usually find enough clues by way of missing names or dates to fill in a research gap. For example, I recently downloaded a GEDCOM that contained more than 3,000 names. Of all the names, only one was in my family. Because the GEDCOM included my family member’s married name and the place of marriage, however, I was able to uncover a new branch of the family.

Another Ancestry site, <>, works much like GenForum. It hosts more than 130,000 message boards divided by surnames, geography and research topic. You should tackle with the same strategy as GenForum.

Making the connection

When you get your “Hello, cousin!” e-mail, be prepared to be surprised, puzzled, happy and eager to share what you know. Even if you’re just beginning your family tree, don’t be intimidated to contact someone who’s traced the family back much further. Your cousin may have generations more research than you have, but you may have family photos, letters or military records that he or she has never seen.

You and your cousins may form a research group to track down family lines, or you may just want to exchange GEDCOMs (first making sure information about living family members is deleted). In any case, you’ll spin a networking Web that crosses miles, generations and sometimes oceans.

When I received Nancy McEwen’s email, I was surprised how quickly we forged a bond. They say blood is thicker than water, but I wouldn’t have thought that such a diluted batch would still feel so much like family. 

You’ve got mail

Although most people see technology as part of the future, it often brings family historians an important part of the past. That’s what happened to genealogist Carolyn Meek Nelson when she received the 182-year-old Bible that belonged to her great-great-grandfather, thanks to an Internet mailing list.

Back in the 1950s, Bert and Ethel Dawson had bought the Bible at a Goodwill store in Missouri. Half a century later, a friend of theirs placed a notice on the Vandyke mailing list — one of the 20,000-plus genealogy lists at <> – with the names in the Bible. “We found the posting and quickly replied, showing our direct-line connection to this J.H. Vandyke,” says Nelson, who received the Bible from the Dawsons last summer.

Theirs is only one of many networking successes achieved through Internet mailing lists. The Internet has thousands of mailing lists just for genealogists. These include lists for surnames, locations, states, counties, countries, software, beginners and research techniques.

Once you subscribe to a mailing list you’ll receive a copy of all the e-mails sent to the list by its members. If you subscribe to a “small” list, you may receive one or two pieces of e-mail a week; with larger ones, you’ll get several pieces a day.

When you subscribe, you have the option of receiving the e-mails via mail mode or digest mode. In mail mode, you’ll receive each message as a separate e-mail. In digest mode, separate e-mails are batched together and sent as one large e-mail.

Your chances of networking success via mailing lists are excellent. On county lists, you’ll be reading messages from people whose ancestors were neighbors of your ancestors. On surname lists, everyone subscribed is looking for different lines of the same name.

For other mailing list options, see:

•Genealogy Resources on the Internet <>

• <>: Search for “genealogy.”

•Publicly Accessible Mailing Lists <>

•Genealogy Exchange and Surname Registry <>

•Topica <>: Search for “genealogy.”

You’ll find time-saving search tips for using mailing lists in the February 2001 Family Tree Magazine article on Internet searching strategies.

Crafting your query

If your queries to Internet genealogy networking sites read something like this — “Looking for anything on the Jones family of Michigan” — you may not be getting the results you’re hoping for.

A successful query is a brief, well-worded, tightly focused request for specific information. Take time to word your queries well because they’re your chance to let hundreds of thousands of Internet genealogists know which ancestor you’re looking for.

Here’s a sample of a query that will get results:

“Looking for information on the parents of Henry JACKSON, who was born abt. 1715 in Abelmarle Co., Virginia. He married Sarah LEE in 1735. Their children were Joseph, Henry, Mary, Virginia, John and Caroline.”

To read more about writing good queries, visit <>, <> and <www.>.

 From the April 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine