Random Facebook instant messaging leads to major breakthrough

Today, I instant messaged a contact in southern Russia with questions about high school education in the early 20th century to help find family academic records in archives. In the end, I made a major breakthrough that I didn’t think had a chance of happening.

The conversation moved onto my Facebook friend’s newest book publication and his acquisition of 1915 residency records. Just out of curiosity, I had my friend look up my paternal grandmother’s family. Minutes later, I had pictures of my grandmother’s childhood home in Russia.

I heard stories that my great-grandmother was so rich that she bought houses for her six children. I saw pictures of a house where the family had lived during World War II but still wasn’t convinced of great-grandma’s wealth. Today, that wealth was proven without a doubt.

My great-grandmother was listed in 1915 records owning a 8,000 ruble house when so many other houses in the city were valued less than 2,000 rubles. The house was such a great importance in my grandmother’s birthplace that it was the sole focus of two postcards.

My father’s first cousin told me of a massive family house that had a garden for children to play. I thought I found a picture of that house through the city’s library a few years ago but my cousin said she didn’t remember that particular house. Almost 69 years after leaving her hometown, I can finally show my cousin pictures of the house where she played as a child.

Out of curiosity I searched the house address, city and my grandmother’s maiden surname in Russian on Google, I found more information on the house. The information posted about the house made me speechless in the worst way about my great-grandmother.

A distraught mother wrapped her 9-day-old daughter in blankets at night in February 1910 and left the baby on my great-grandmother’s doorstep, with the hope that my rich great-grandmother would take her in. The mother left a note to not leave her daughter to die poor and unhappy.

So what did my great-grandmother do to this innocent baby girl? She sent her away to an orphanage, where she likely died or lived an unhappy life. Oh, the words I would have for my great-grandmother for not making room for the child when she lived in a mansion.

What makes this situation even worse to imagine is that my great-grandmother worked as a teacher before she got married. She also worked as a teacher after her husband died to provide for her six children. How could a woman from a wealthy family who didn’t need to work  choose to work with children and turn away from an infant in need?

This discovery does put a damper on the joy of making this major breakthrough and makes me wonder if my great-grandmother ever regretted sending the baby to an orphanage.

Two years later, her husband died of a heart attack and several years following his death, the communist government forced my great-grandmother’s family out of the mansion to make room for a boys school.

My family continued to live with servants in smaller houses. I hope my great-grandmother realized her dream home was better off giving many boys a better future when she couldn’t give one more child a better life in that house.

Here’s the family home that didn’t have room for one more child:


Town filled with silver may answer mysteries of rich peasant great-grandfather

Research of a maternal great-grandfather shows he came from a Russian peasant family. Somehow he wound up with two mansions in Kiev with servants to help his wife and brood of children.

My great-grandfather worked in Kiev for a famous architect who later designed a building for the last Shah of Iran. My great-grandfather had his own success by running a construction company with 100 workers.

But his success in constructing beautiful buildings is only part of the answer why my great-grandfather climbed the social ladder from peasant to nobleman.

The rest of the answer probably lies in the place where my grandfather’s youngest sister was born. She was born in a town that had a large silver mine. One of her granddaughters told me the communist government took away my great-grandfather’s money he made from his silver mining.

The communist government took control of Ukraine six years after her birth so it makes me wonder about how much time he spent mining in that town. One of the richest families in Ukraine had a mansion there. Did my great-grandfather help build the mansion or network with this family to work for the famous architect in Kiev?

I hope to detail the time he spent in this town. First, I need to find birth records of my four grand-aunts in this town and then I can consider looking into other records archives could have on my great-grandfather.

I am crossing my fingers this week that a researcher will find birth records of two more grand-aunts from 1905 and 1909. Maybe I’ll find some interesting people as godparents or collect more possible direct ancestors’ surnames through the godparents.

I have been amazed by how far godparents of my grandfather and his sister traveled for their baptisms. The godparents came from Kursk Region to Kiev or Zhytomyr. Now if I can use the names of these godparents to find new direct ancestors of my maternal grandfather, the town filled with silver will have the value of a gold mine.

Break open the “I don’t know anything” relatives for some genealogy gems

Everyone has someone in their family who says “I don’t know anything,” “I told you everything I know” or “No one talked to me about the family”.

It’s amazing the information relatives young and old have given me after I broke through the defensive attitude. It does help that I worked several years as a newspaper reporter with lots of experience in investigative reporting. My job was to get the “I don’t know anything” types to talk to me.

So here’s my top 10 tips for getting shiny gems of information from relatives who seem to have super glued their lips.

1. If a relative says “I don’t know anything about that,” ask them what they know about the family. Maybe they would prefer to talk about something else and would feel appreciated if they could talk about their favorites stories. Let them talk, warm them up and see if any of their stories connect back to the information you are seeking.

2.  If a relative says, “Why do you need this information?”,  move the conversation away from you by talking about the importance of future generations learning about the family. Some relatives need to be reminded that they could help pass on important information.

3.  If a relative says, “Who told you that nonsense?”,  don’t act defensive. Give that relative a chance to provide their perspective for that story even if it sounds inaccurate. One of their small tidbits may be enough to put together information to break through a brick wall.

4. Don’t try to trick a relative to talk about a controversial or debated event in the family. Your plan may backfire and that could be the end of the conversation. Wait until the end to talk about controversial topics when your relative is more comfortable.

5. Some relatives may be more visual people when communicating. Ask those relatives to pull out family photos, letters and Christmas cards to talk about the relatives you are researching.

6.  If you are trying to nail down a family village with an older relative who can’t recall the place,  bring maps of the area or your computer to look at online maps.  Ask your relative if they remember certain churches, buildings or monuments being in the community or certain villages, counties or country borders being nearby or particular industries being strong in the community.

7.  Bring photos and letters your relative has not seen and show research you have done. You can try to warm them up by showing that you are willing to share with them and are not there just to extract information from them.

8. Don’t pop out digital voice recorders or video cameras without any warning. That could make your closed-off relative more nervous and hesitant. It is best to write down notes on the first visit and then ask for permission to record follow-up interviews.

9.  Know when to stop asking questions. Don’t make the conversation too long. If possible, try to have a follow-up conversation to clear up some points after you have a chance to review your notes.

10. Make sure to thank your relative several times before leaving their home and call them a few days later to thank them again.

Message left in a family painting solves a family mystery

A painting in my grandparents’ living room will never leave my memory. As a child, I wondered why my grandparents had such a huge painting of a Russian religious monument along the river that runs through Kiev.

My mom only could tell me that my grandfather paid an artist to duplicate a postcard he kept from his birthplace. I wish he could have told me which church his parents had him baptized.

Today, I learned a clue was in that painting. Last week, I started to get anxious again to find my grandfather’s baptism record. My researcher Nikita Kovalchuk suggested looking at records from a church named St. Vladimir near the street where my grandfather lived before the war.

I thought to myself what is the chance that the painting of St. Volodymyr (also a name for Vladimir) and that my uncle being named Vladimir were connected to the church where my grandfather was baptized.

Then, this afternoon I got an e-mail message from Nikita that he found a record. I was thinking he found a random person carrying my grandfather’s surname but he really found my grandfather’s baptism record.

Finally, the mystery is closed thanks to seeing that the name Vladimir had an importance to my grandfather. The biggest surprise in the baptism record was my grandfather’s birth date.

Every document I have on my grandfather has his birth date as March 21. My mother never heard of her father’s birthday being another day. So it came to be a surprise that the baptism record lists his birth date as March 8.

Then I realized that maybe my grandfather acknowledged the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. This website confirmed that my grandfather’s birth date on his immigration records is his adjusted birth date.

Another surprise in the baptism record is that my great-grandparents had a peasant woman from their birth village serve as the godmother. Why would a peasant travel almost 240 miles to a baptism unless she was a relative?

My researcher in Russia’s Kursk Region didn’t pickup this surname for one of my direct ancestors from these great-grandparents. Then I looked at the transcribed church records for these great-grandparents and the peasant’s surname is noticed several times for godparents of both great-grandparents’ relatives. My great-grandparents’ marriage also was witnessed by a man with the same surname.

This baptism record may have confirmed that one of my direct ancestors carries this surname. Maybe this simple record has opened the door for even more research in Kursk Region. It is amazing what determination to find one record will return as a gift.


Ancestry.com shakes off the fluff in my DNA matches

I was giggling when I heard Ancestry.com would readjust its criteria for determining DNA matches. The announcement came that some people would lose a lot of their matches.

Ancestry.com must have been talking about me.  I had close to 5,000 matches yesterday.  Today, (let’s all giggle together) I have 387 matches. Do the math and you’ll see I have lost 92 percent of my “matches”.

I am not surprised. After all, Ancestry.com’s database only includes Americans.  It doesn’t sell DNA tests abroad. I am pretty unique as an American.

My parents were born in Russia and Ukraine and all of my great-grandparents were born in Russia. One great-grandmother was born in Russia, where it is now eastern Poland, but her roots were German from current day Poland.

I hardly fit the profile of a typical Ancestry DNA customer. I can easily guess that most customers have ancestry from western Europe and British Isles.

So surprise, surprise I don’t have any matches closer than 5th to 8th cousins. I have 7 matches with high confidence, 93 matches with good confidence and 287 matches with moderate confidence to people predicted as my 5th to 8th cousins.

Before Ancestry DNA’s readjustments in making matches more accurate, I had mostly 5th to 8th cousin matches with low and very low confidence levels. I also had so many more “matches” to people with Russian and Ukrainian ancestry.

My 100 matches to people with Russian and Ukrainian ancestry has been knocked down to 29 matches to those with Russian ancestors and 12 matches to people with Ukrainian ancestors.

I should be happy to have almost 400 matches but then I took a closer look at my matches’ trees- 66 matches have locked their trees, 94 matches haven’t linked their accounts to trees and 49 matches have trees with less than 50 people.

Ancestry.com knows many of its customers are annoyed with a noticeable number of DNA members not posting trees or having locked trees. It has introduced a new tool.

Straight from Ancestry.com’s website: “DNA Circles are the latest way to discover who you’re related to—even if you aren’t DNA matches. Each DNA Circle you’re part of is based on one of your direct-line ancestors. It will include everyone who has that ancestor in their family tree and has DNA evidence that links them to you or someone else in the circle. In other words, a circle includes all the identified genetic descendants of a particular person. It’s a great way to discover cousins you never knew you had.”

We’ll see if this will have an impact on making closed off customers to share their trees.

After these changes to Ancestry DNA, I am happy I got the Ancestry DNA test for free three years ago as part of the beta group. I have gained nothing from the Ancestry DNA test.

I still believe it is worthwhile to get the test if you are looking for American cousins or your Russian or Ukrainian relatives came to the USA no later than the early 1900s. I don’t have much hope in this test for people such as me who are descendants of people who came to America during World War II and the 1950s and have family mostly abroad.

Anyone looking for Russian and Ukrainian cousins whose family never left their homeland or immigrated to other European countries, Australia, Canada and USA should try the Family Finder test at Family Tree DNA. If only Ancestry.com sold its DNA test abroad, the potential for people such as me would grow daily like a weed in a rain forest.

Related post:

A Russian-American’s insider view of the Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder Test




Find my family village. Hold your genealogy horses!

One of the biggest mistakes in genealogy is rushing to the next step without doing all your research. Too many times, I hear people rushing into finding their family’s village well before their research is done.

Rush into this major step, you could feel like a horse led into an empty barn at feeding time.

Too many people assume when they have family stories and a few documents, that will be enough to start research in the family village.

In genealogy, you can’t research too much, especially with the factors involved when dealing with immigrants. Not many immigrants understood immigration officials when they arrived in their new homeland. Maybe some immigrants understood the language of their new country but officials could have misunderstood them or been confused by the stress of processing immigrants.

Then, immigrants had to document their lives in their new homeland on documents in a new language. Sometimes it wasn’t easy or cheap to find help in properly filling out the forms.

I have different birthplaces and birth dates for some relatives. Luckily, I’ve done my research to confirm those details. In some cases, I spent money and time in researching records in the wrong place.

There is nothing like being annoyed at yourself that you should have known better or some know-it-all relative saying with a big grin,  “Boy, you really screwed up. Hope it didn’t cost you too much money.”

So here’s how you can earn some bragging rights for uncovering the mysterious family village. Follow these suggestions and you can restart or start your search with more confidence and success.

1. Interview the oldest relatives in your family. If relatives say, “I don’t know much.” Then say, “Please tell me what you remember.” Even if relatives can’t remember very specific details, try getting details such as closeness to another country’s border, big city or another region. Someone else could help you knock down the not-so-specific details to more concise information.

2. Learn about the family’s religion, class and profession. Not all Russians and Ukrainians are Orthodox or Jewish. The other religions are Old Believers, Russian Baptist, Catholic and Lutherans (mainly Germans living in the Russian Empire).

2. Get all possible immigration documents. Here are the records you should consider obtaining if your relatives came to the USA: petition for naturalization, application for immigration visa and alien registration, ship passenger record, declaration of intention for naturalization and Alien Case File.

3. If your family came to the USA in the early 1900s to 1950, I highly suggest paying $20 for an index search request at https://genealogy.uscis.dhs.gov/ to see which immigration records are available on your family.

4. If your family was held in German concentration camps or labor camps during World War II, make a free search request with International Tracing Service.

5. If your family escaped the Soviet Union during World War II by using German ancestry to relocate to Germany, search for your family here under data category “war records”. This database will tell you whether there are Einwanderungszentralstelle files (goldmine for genealogy research) on your relatives that you can obtain at U.S. national archives in College Park, Maryland.

6. If your relatives married, served in the military or died outside of the Russian Empire or USSR, I would recommend obtaining their marriage, military and death records. Those records could have the family village.

Once you have attempted to collect this information, it is time to research the family village. It is important to remember that just like many  other countries, too many names of towns and villages duplicate in Russia and Ukraine and some names for towns and villages change over time.

If you are not familiar with Russian or Ukrainian, use Google Translate to translate keywords for search engines. Information in Russian or Ukrainian are likely to be more bountiful than English.

This all seems a bit much for one piece of information, but the cost for researching family in Russia and Ukraine can run pricey. Investing hope and money on the right village will have great returns.

Interesting results with making myself a twin on Family Tree DNA

Out of curiosity, I decided to transfer my Ancestry.com DNA autosomal data to Family Tree DNA. That is nothing unusual until you know I already took the  Family Tree DNA Family Finder test.

I read on the forum for 23andme, another DNA genealogy testing company, about a guy who submitted two tests of himself and found different results. So I decided for $39 to give this experiment a try. I don’t think Family Tree DNA wants many people duplicating themselves in its database.

When I  saw my free 20 matches, I recognized all the matches from my current Family Tree DNA Family Finder test. The information given for each match was the first initial and last name, estimated relationship and amount of shared DNA data. If there were a new person in the matches, I wouldn’t be able to contact them. The e-mail addresses are not provided with the free 20 matches.

I got lured into paying $39 for the full transfer because I was promised “more than 101 matches” would be unlocked. That would mean that I would have 121 matches from my twin account. My other account has 91 matches.

The joke was on me when I finally got all my matches 48 hours later. My twin account only picked up nine more matches, not the 30 I was expecting. All of my new matches are 5th-remote cousins and have Russian and other eastern European ancestry.

One surprising theme among the duplicate matches is that those matches were slightly weaker than from my original Family Finder test. I somehow had slightly fewer DNA chromosomes in common with my mother, aunt, uncle and my other duplicate matches.

I am still annoyed that I got much fewer matches than promised, but maybe this duplicate account will pick up some great matches as time goes on. Anyone who hasn’t done the Family Finder Test but has tested through 23andme and AncestryDNA should at least try the free transfer to see the first 20 matches.

Current Family Tree DNA customers could try transferring their DNA data from 23andme and AncestryDNA for the curiosity. At $39, I think it is still worth the price for my small number of new DNA matches. The regular transfer fee of $69 is not what I’m willing to give up for a few more matches.