Who Do You Think You Are? Coming face to face with your ancestors in a world of big data

LeslieHeaton JuneRowe GavinHeaton I have been working on a family tree for some years. It’s a project that progresses in fits and starts. And like many things in my life, it began because it was easy to start doing it online.

In the early days I had multiple accounts on various websites. I was using Ancestry.com for their data and loving Geni for the user interface. There were free sites, blogs and a range of other resources available which were brilliant. I scoured the online records of NSW Births Deaths and Marriages, dug into the Heaton family archives, bought self-published books, and visited local libraries.

I was excited to learn that the Heaton family tree was relatively well documented, going back over 850 years. I readily filled in details, transcribing from one website to another, validating where I could and making notes where it felt unclear. My tree grew and grew – and pretty soon I understood more about the lives of my dark, distant relatives than my second cousins. I found out that Heatons all come from the same place – a town called Heaton in Lancashire. It was described in 1870 as follows:

HEATON, a township in Deane parish, Lancashire; on the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway, 2 miles WNW of Bolton. Acres, 1, 630. Real property, £4, 542; of which £109 are in mines and £250 in quarries. Pop. in 1851, 826; in 1861, 955. Houses, 180. The manor belonged to the Heaton family in the time of Edward III. Coal, building stone, and slate flags abound.

As my efforts grew, I realised I needed to commit to a single online record. I had hundreds of names and facts in my trees and it was becoming time consuming to keep all trees updated. To make matters more complicated, the owners of various records were making exclusive arrangements with one or other of the main genealogy websites which meant that you could have facts and sources competing with each other depending on which website you were using. For example, a parish record may indicate a christening 1 May 1887 – while a compilation report will show only the quarter and year (eg April-June 1887).

Eventually my separate trees began to diverge.

Not everyone has this problem. Because the Heaton line was relatively easy to follow, my tree grew quickly. But I soon found that following other paths through the tree – that those of humbler lives – rarely leave records. Sure, there are events like a birth, wedding or death – and maybe even a residence. But what of the stuff of life? What of their loves and struggles? Much of this is lost to time.

In the end I needed to use an online service that would help reveal as much of these forgotten lives as I could. I bit the bullet and I chose Ancestry.com to house all my records. There were a couple of important considerations:

  • It has a broad and growing number of digitised records and images from Colonial Australian times
  • The integration of older genealogy message boards under the one umbrella while clunky is a treasure trove of information
  • Comparing and contrasting member records helps you tap into the collective knowledge of your far-flung family members

Now, while the technology is interesting, the underlying data that the Ancestry site contains is compelling. And sure, they could do with some work on their data store – but for most people interested in family history, it’s an easy way to get started. But the most amazing thing about this big data site is the fact that it helps us tell the story of our own histories. It brings you face to face with your ancestors in a way that has never been possible before.

I am now embarking on a more micro-focused family history project that centres on Thomas Francis, my fifth great-grandfather and the first of my ancestors to arrive in Australia. He was not anyone special, really, but he was special to me and all my family. After all, like all ancestors, we wouldn’t exist without them.

But working on a family tree shows you not the importance of a name, but the equal importance of all those genetic influences. Each day I wonder what has been handed down to me from my ancestors – tastes, interests, body shapes, diseases, strengths, attitudes. Even the way I stand. Walk. Greet the world.

Who do you think you are? I’m hoping to find out a little more. And who knows, maybe we are related. And maybe, I will document it as we go so that my descendants have an easier time of it.

BTW – that’s me in the photo in between my grandparents. Now I know where I got my body shape from.