After running out of gas on trying to find more online records about my great-great-grandfather, Frank Zalewski, and his brother, Jacob, I decided to work the other way. I’ve read about people making awesome discoveries by connecting with distant cousins and finding out that they have some amazing record or photo that breaks down a wall. That sounded like something good to shoot for.
I was going to try to work my way down their trees, from Frank & Anna and then Jacob & Pauline’s families, and see what I could find using tools from early 20th century newspapers all the way to Facebook. With a few tools at my disposal, I was actually able to get much more information than I thought I would in only a few days.
First, I used Ancestry.com and other basic genealogy sites to get the standard information on the main families including birth dates, death dates, marriages, etc. Once I had these, I could use both the Social Security Death Index and Ancestry’s “Wisconsin Deaths 1959-1997″ index to find exact death dates. This next step only works so well because Google’s New Archive has The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel papers from 1885-2007 for free. It is still one of the most complete archives that I can find in there. Not only do you get all of those dates, but any time before 1995 you get two options since The Milwaukee Journal and The Milwaukee Sentinel didn’t merge until 1995, which is good because a few days are missing here and there.
With the exact death dates, I was able to search through the archives and find obituaries. I had trouble finding a few. The early ones, before like 1940, were sometimes either not listed or they were not scanned very well. Inside of the obituaries, it usually listed living family members and spouses and sometimes you got even more. I was then able to use this to find more information on these descendants, and so on.
I even got very lucky sometimes by just typing the names into Google and hoping for the best. Note on Google searches for people’s names: you will get a ton of spam sites and content farms in your results. These sites just pull info from phone books and throw it all into a pile hoping to sell ads, they’re mostly useless and they spread like wildfire. There is a wonderful extension by Google, called Personal Blocklist, for Google Chrome that allows you to block specific sites from your search results. My recommendation: get it. It not only makes your searches cleaner, but it also helps Google find these sites and remove them from most searches.
I hit a few lucky searches doing this and found some other obituaries that way, moving further down the trees. Once I felt like I was in the generation that was either close to my age or my parents’ age, I then checked Facebook. If the person was found, I usually browsed their friends list for other people that looked familiar. If I was like 90% sure that this was the right person, I would send them a nice message telling them who I was and how they may be related to me. I also said they were free to respond or they could just ignore me if I was off-base or creepy. My first try at this still has not responded, so that lowered my expectations a bit. Though, as my wife said, some older people may not use Facebook a lot and may not even have seen it yet.
I sent a few more in the last few days and fortunately I’ve had 3 positive responses now. One of the people I contacted, I have probably already met before, but I didn’t even think about it. The back story on this is that my grandfather’s cousin (the side of the family I’m working with right now) married my grandmother’s aunt, which is how my grandparents actually met. So, I’m technically related to him on both sides. My grandmother’s family put together family reunions for years when I was growing up and he would’ve been to most of those.
The other two people responded and were very surprised and happy that I decided to contact them. We’re planning to meet/talk more in the future. Hopefully, these meetings will bring in more information and stories. I can’t wait. Have you contacted distant cousins on Facebook with success?