An Attention Span of More Than 5 Minutes

Erica Obey, president of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America, had some preparatory thoughts about our panel on New Jersey crime/mystery writers, taking advantage of having Mally Becker with us. Just last week, Becker published her first novel, The Turncoat’s Widow, set in the Revolutionary War period. Aside from Malley, we were Jeff Markowitz, me, and discussion leader RG Belsky, and Obey wondered how each of us connects with the past.

This was an interesting question. My public school education included very little history, none of it presented in an interesting or memorable way. It really wasn’t until I married Neil, who trained in history, that I learned what I was missing.

But history didn’t come to live in my heart until I started working on my family genealogy. In 2012, I extended my stay at Killer Nashville, and my cousin from Texas joined me for a two-day excursion to Wilson County, just east of the Music City. We wanted to see if we could learn anything about our great-great grandparents who’d lived there two hundred years ago. As it turned out, we learned a lot (patient people there, at the Wilson County historical society).

The artist Jeff Koons advises people to “take your history on board,” and I’m still working on it. One of the chief benefits of genealogy is recognizing more acutely how my ancestors’ lives were affected by where they lived and when they lived there. It gives me a specific, personal reason to become aware of the movements and events of the past. It isn’t all pretty.

When you start asking “why,” you come up with some powerful answers. Why did my family end up in Central Texas? Because the ruin and devastation of the Civil War was so great in Central Tennessee, my great-great grandparents and their eight children became part of the GTT (Gone To Texas movement). They had to start new lives with nothing but each other. Why were they so badly affected? Their homes and farms and animals were collateral damage in the Civil War Battle of Stones River (Murfreesboro), just twelve miles south of them and involving more than 78,000 soldiers. (The abandoned cannon pictured is from the Stones River National Battlefield.) So, why were they in Tennessee in the first place? Because the men served in the Revolutionary War and were given settlement land in western North Carolina (now central Tennessee). Lots of drama and passionate feeling there for sure.

Among their Tennessee neighbors was the Huddleston family, ancestors of New Yorker and Atlantic writer George Packer, who says, “History, any history, confers meaning on a life.” I do know it’s affected my writing. Only two of my stories are overtly historical, but genealogy has taught me to think about more kinds of connections, past and present, as I write. It’s helpful grounding in this era of “nothing matters but the last five minutes” attention spans.

Genes and Genealogy

An unexpected delight of my stumbling genealogy researches has been discovering and re-discovering my cousins. Most of my father’s family lived geographically close to me when I was growing up, but as far as getting to know them–they might as well have been a thousand miles away.

My dad was the son of Hungarian immigrants who came separately to the United States in the early 1900s, met, married, lived in Michigan where my grandfather was a farmer and an autoworker. They had 15 children, 11 of whom survived to adulthood. They didn’t talk about their immigration experience. At all.

Online research added to the picture. The naturalization record for my grandfather, Ferencz Hegyi (with the last name spelled six different ways on two government forms), provided the date of his arrival and name of the ship he came on (the S.S. Chicago). He applied for naturalization after being in America for some years, and it listed children’s names, leaving no doubt this record was for my family.

From the ship manifest I found his father’s name—Ferencz, or Frank, the same as his—and the village he came from. Wow! My great-grandfather’s name and a definite place, Kondorfa. Still today Kondorfa has only a few more than 600 residents. It’s in far western Hungary, closer to Vienna and Bratislava than Budapest, in a German-Hungarian area called the Burgenland. Short of learning to speak Magyar and traveling there, my researches seemed to be bumping up against the proverbial brick wall.

One additional clue from the ship manifest was that Ferencz’s destination was South Bethlehem, Pa. Probably he planned to work at Bethlehem Steel, following in the footsteps of his older brother. I found a 1923 death certificate for 38-year-old Peter Hegyi from Kondorfa who died after being struck in the chest by a bar of steel. The certificate listed his parents’ names, Ferencz Hegyi and Julianna Fabian. Now I had my great-grandmother’s name too. But there my research string ran out.

In Your Genes

People ask me whether having a genetic profile helps with genealogy, and I always say yes! I spit into a cup for 23andMe many years ago. A couple of distant cousins on my mother’s side have contacted me, all having useful connections and information. Then, a few months ago, the surprise. A woman living near Bethlehem contacted me after noting our slight genetic match and the Hegyi name, which is found frequently in the area her family came from.

This distant cousin has website Jane’s Genes (very useful general/tips, too), and some careful research on Jane’s part revealed she’s my fifth cousin, once removed. Our common ancestors are my great-great-great-great grandparents Janos Herczeg (b 1747) and Rozalia Horvath (b 1755).

Jane has put me in touch with other cousins in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. I learned one of my grandfather’s younger sisters immigrated to South Bethlehem as well, and I’ve connected with her granddaughter. Our Midwest cousin is another genius at deciphering the spidery handwriting in the old Hungarian and Church records. Thanks to her diligence, I can now trace my grandfather’s family back six generations, to ancestors born in the early 1700s.

I’ve shared my written history of the Hegyi family, sparse though it is, with about a dozen first cousins—children of my father’s generation—and now regularly visit several of them in Indiana and Michigan. I didn’t have addresses for them all, though, and again 23andMe came through. The granddaughter of my Uncle Bill got in touch and, through her, I’ve communicated with her mother, my first cousin.

When I started working on family history, what I expected to explore was “history”; now I’ve learned it’s about “family” too.

Don’t forget to watch “Finding Our Roots” on PBS Tuesdays, 8 p.m., hosted by Henry Louis Gates. Every family has a story!

****Past & Present: A Marketville Mystery

By Judy Penz Sheluk –This is the second in Judy Penz Sheluk’s Marketville Mystery series, set in a small town outside Toronto, and the series establishes a cozy, warm-hearted atmosphere. As in her earlier book, Skeletons in the Attic, the first-person narrator is Calamity (Callie) Barnstable.

Along for the adventure are Callie’s friends Chantelle Marchand and Arabella Carpenter, owner of a nearby antiques shop (the protagonist in Sheluk’s other series, the Glass Dolphin Mysteries).

In this book, Callie and Chantelle team up in a new business called Past & Present Investigations, in which they hope to use Callie’s research acumen and Chantelle’s genealogical knowledge to help people find missing relatives. Arabella will help if someone brings in an old object related to the missing person, and Callie’s retired librarian friend will do the archive searches.

Callie vacillates between loving the business idea and fearing they will find nothing but dead ends, but Sheluk has written nicely three-dimensional characters that are game to try. Callie also faces an ongoing personal challenge. It seems she cannot escape the hostility of her grandfather. He has never forgiven her mother for marrying Callie’s father who was, her grandfather felt, many ladder-rungs beneath her.

Before long, Arabella sends Callie a potential client. Louisa Frankow’s German grandmother, Anneliese, immigrated from England in 1952 on the ship Canberra. A mystery surrounds her grandmother’s death only a few years after that voyage. Family papers and photos and other clues to the grandmother’s past are few, but Callie locates an ephemera dealer with relevant artifacts from voyages of that era—much more glamorous than modern-day trans-Atlantic air travel, that’s for sure!

Callie and Chantelle capitalize on the growing online availability of genealogical databases, newspaper archives, and the like. You may be familiar with these possibilities, if you’ve done some family research of your own, and Sheluk makes the search for Anneliese’s past full of the thrill of discovering how the pieces fit. They learn that Anneliese was murdered, and her husband convicted of manslaughter (on very flimsy evidence, in Callie’s view). He’d been in prison only a few months when he was stabbed to death in the showers. If he was not guilty, as Callie suspects, the real murderer is responsible for two deaths.

Sheluk includes a couple of features that require a bit of a leap of faith. She relies on a long-ago coincidence, which, granted, might have been more likely in the early 1950s when Toronto’s population was a third its current-day size. And, she’s helped by a psychic who interprets objects, and while Callie remains skeptical of the validity of psychic phenomena, the psychic’s revelations help confirm her hypotheses about the crime.

The murder in this book is many years old, but it has consequences for Louisa and Callie too, which makes it significant even without splattering fresh blood all over the pages. It’s fun to watch Callie and her friends in action, and the book ends with the promise of another interesting case to come.

It’s a quick and satisfying read for those who like cozy mysteries or are fascinated by the long tail of the past.

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Family History Models (Part 2)


photo: bananaana 04, creative commons license

How you decide to tell your family story depends on your goals, the amount of time you have to spend, and what you’re comfortable doing. I’m a mystery writer, and I approach family history as if it were a mystery story—conflicting clues, unreliable information, secrets—but nevertheless enabling some sort of conclusion.

As last Friday’s general tips for organizing and reporting your genealogical findings emphasized, there is no one “right way” to do this. Three ways to narrow the task of presenting your data were described yesterday. Here are two more elaborate, but very different, options.

Broad in Information, Simple in Execution

My goal in exploring my family’s story has been to understand better the context of my ancestors’ lives, so my family history includes a lot of information about the places and times they lived in. In this, I’ve had the great benefit of contributions from other family members and especially the partnership with a first cousin who lives many states away.

Most of our research has been on the Edwards family. There’s lots of information online about the Edwardses, much of it bogus. Here’s why, if you’re interested (large amounts of money are involved).

I haven’t taken the plunge of putting our family story online, though there would be many advantages of doing so. To date, it’s still a Word document—225 pages long, with 350 footnotes, photographs, charts, maps, and numerous appendixes. Coping with such a large and, in places, unwieldy document, I’ve learned one overriding lesson: don’t let your reader get lost!

People can grasp graphical “family tree” information quicker than text. A whole family tree, which can include hundreds of names, is probably best created online in one of the sites developed for that purpose. However, using descendant software (some of which is free and open source; see this discussion) to display a relevant portion of the tree keeps readers oriented.

map, New Haven

New Haven, Conn., 1641

Maps and timelines help your readers—and you, too!— stay oriented. For example, I found an interactive map of old London on which I can approximate the location of an ancestor’s shop in 1550. Maps can reveal relationships. The 1641 map of New Haven, Conn., shows the householders’ names, including our ancestor’s and that of their neighbor, a ship’s captain active in the Chesapeake Bay. Thanks to him, the next generation of our family ended up in Tidewater Maryland.

Graphics are helpful too. Charts, maps, illustrations, bulleted lists—all those elements break up your text and enhance readability. Of course if you have family photos, that’s great, but feel free to be creative. Some of the pictures in our Civil War chapter are historical photos of particular battle-sites. Look for images that are not copyright protected so that you are free to “publish” your work to the Web. (Google Images > Tools > Usage Rights > labeled for reuse)

Narrow-to-Broad in Information, Elaborate in Execution 

Finally, there’s a true high-end way to go, with a self-published book. Find lots of information on those choices, including some pricing information, in this guide. has a publishing partnership with MyCanvas, for example, where you do most of the writing work. Another example is a company like Bind These Words, which combines family interviews with photographs and graphic elements. The cost of such a project depends on the time involved and number of photos/graphics. (I have not worked with either of them.)

These are examples to explore. While working with a commercial publisher is expensive, it might be appropriate for some defined piece of your project or to commemorate a special wedding anniversary or other family milestone.

Family History Models (Part 1)

Queen Victoria's Family Tree

Queen Victoria’s Family Tree

Once you begin working on your family genealogy, there’s an infinite way to organize and present it. You can keep all of it on or other websites, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily give you the flexibility of sending copies to family members who aren’t online, taking copies to family reunions, or having a few pages with you on a scouting trip to a history center or cemetery. Taking your laptop or tablet along isn’t always desirable.

Last Friday’s post covered general tips, today’s begins describing the wide range of ways to organize and report your genealogical findings, from the simple to the elaborate. Today and tomorrow, I’ll describe five of them.

Many kinds of reports can be created within the better software options.

“The Begats”

Some people are only interested in what I call “the begats”—who were the parents, the grandparents, the great-grandparents and so on. In addition to names, a genealogy organized this way often includes: dates of birth and death, date of marriage and name of bride/groom, and, possibly burial place. (The cemetery information is valuable, because many cemetery records are now online, for individual cemeteries or collectively, and they’re another research avenue.) Your begats may be in tree form, with boxes like an organization chart or it may be text.

When You Don’t Know Much

Sometimes, the choice about presentation style is dictated by the fact that you just don’t know very much. That’s the situation with my father’s parents, who immigrated separately to the United States from Hungary before about 1910. Research on the Ellis Island website brought up several people who might be them. Ship manifests, which provide key genealogical information, including age, home town, and place/person they were traveling to, helped me narrow my search.

The family history I prepared includes some background on the home towns of the two immigrants I believe are most likely my grandparents (about which my father’s generation knew almost nothing). Whether the information I found is correct in every particular or not, reading it you get some insight into the black box of their immigration story. You can get a feel for this kind of reporting with the stories of my grandmother, Maria Krausz, and grandfather, Ferencz Hegyi.

When You Have A Narrow Interest

Sometimes, you have a particularly narrow interest that suggests a focus for a family report. My seven-year-old grandson asked whether any of our family fought in the Civil War. I took the Civil War chapter of the family history I’ve written, revised the text to make it more suitable for a young person and added historical photographs and artworks.

The finished piece (25 pages) includes transcriptions of letters from our ancestors home. Since these soldiers they indicated where they were writing from, I summarized information about their units and the battles they participated in. I also created a Civil War family tree, focusing on the combatants. Grey boxes for our Confederate ancestors, blue boxes for the Union, and red lines for soldiers who died in the war. Seven so far.

Writing a complete family history is a formidable task, even for a writer like me, and much more so for non-writers. Taking a piece of it—in this case the Civil War, or the Immigrant Generation, or “Our Family in the Depression”—is for some people a manageable way to start.

WEDNESDAY: Family History Models (Part 2): The More Elaborate Options

Presenting Your Family History

Calvin J. Edwards Sr. Family

My great-grandparents and some of their children

As Miguel Helft reported last January in Forbes, genealogy is big business., the world’s largest genealogical research website has more than 2.5 million subscribers, who can gain access to Ancestry’s repository of more than 16 billion historical records and 70 million family trees. Now also in the DNA analysis business, 1.4 million AncestryDNA kits were sold in the last quarter of 2016, and Ancestry had more than three million members in its DNA database by the end of last year.

People are finding, recording, and storing much information about their families’ history. They are copying names and dates from old bibles, getting access to online information (and misinformation), studying old census records and Ellis Island’s trove of ship manifests, resurrecting yellowed photos from attic trunks. Their desks are cluttered with post-its and scribbling-in notebooks. What to do with it all?

This week I spoke to a small group of local genealogists—some new to this passion, some experienced—about options for presenting family history when the online templates from genealogy websites aren’t sufficient. You sometimes need a paper version for elderly relatives who aren’t online. You want a keepsake. You want to take it with you when you go to a research library.

Some basics:

  • There is no one “right” way to present a family history. What will work best for you depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
  • Be comfortable with “iterations.” Probably no matter how much research you’ve done, you’ll find new relatives, run across new supporting information, have new insights, get unexpected input from a long-lost relative. That’s a good thing, really, it allows your document to live and breathe.
  • So don’t worry about making it too “pretty.” That may make you reluctant to make changes!
  • You’ll thank yourself a thousand times over if you obsessively keep track of sources—that is, precisely where you obtained a particular piece of information—as you go along. The current draft of my main family history is 222 pages long and has more than 350 footnotes.
  • Eventually you will need some kind of filing system. My genealogy information fills two large plastic bins, plus a box of books. I have files organized by: state or county, with information about the places my ancestors lived; a particular family or generation; census information in a single folder, because I refer to it so often; maps; “Not Our Family” – dead ends; and so on.

TUESDAY: Family History Models

Feats of True Grit

suitcase, Asian

photo adapted from Roger Wagner, creative commons license

In this political season, when so much airtime has been expelled on the issue of immigration and the negative characterization of immigrants, I’m reminded of what a rich vein of stories the immigration experience has provided us and continues to do so.

Immigration Stories in Literature

Shawna Yang Ryan has written a beautiful meditation on recent immigration. Her mother immigrated from Taiwan when she married Ryan’s father and worked for a time as an “Avon lady”—a desperate choice that daily forced her to confront strangers at their own front doors and in their language, to face rejection. “To displace one’s self in adulthood, to uproot, to leave behind ways of speaking, moving, being that are second nature is a feat of true grit,” Ryan says.

The immigrant’s persistent sense of dislocation and not-belonging has nourished many great stories. We think of Cólm Toibín’s Brooklyn. We think of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, of Sandra Cisneros and her culture-straddling kin, never feeling fully at home anywhere, of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. We may even think of The Godfather and his literary family.

And In Your Own Back Yard

These stories, separate and unique, yet all similar and at a fundamental level, shared, are the sometimes uneasy bedrock of America, “a rich array of experiences: loss, longing, duality, triumph and contradiction,” as revealed by the immigration stories of Latinos who work for National Public radio.

Members of my mother’s family came to America as early as 1634, but on my father’s side, I know little. I’ve researched and developed a speculative jigsaw puzzle of these grandparents’ separate experiences. Hungary was all my dad knew, and the rough time period, 1900-1910.

The treaty of Trianon at the end of World War I changed their origin story forever. My grandfather, to the best I can determine, came from a part of Hungary that is now Romania (Transylvania, to be exact), and my grandmother, about whom I know even less, from a Hungarian region ceded to Czechoslovakia, now the Slovak Republic.

Share your family’s immigration experience at, whose message is a nice counterpoint to the political debate: “Statistics do not tell the story of immigration. People do.”

My Bit for Genealogy

typewriter, writing

photo: Steve Depolo, creative commons license

What makes a set of records helpful to people researching their families? Having it digitized for search. And, how does that happen? Not easily. We forget that up until about the 1960s many public records were hand-written.  Before the typewriter was invented (1860), all records were written completely by hand. As a mystery writer, I find these historic documents—and their tantalizing glimpses of the-story-behind-the-story—fascinating!

Believe it or not, early county clerks were not selected based on the legibility of their handwriting. Add to that possible errors and idiosyncrasies in spelling, particularly of names, where parental creativity sometimes trumps convention (note the sly RNC reference; Freud at work). These make deciphering documents a challenge requiring Sherlock Holmes’s extra-large magnifier.

A 72-hour Challenge

To get some help with the massive task of digitizing, sponsored a three-day event last weekend, in which volunteers from around the world examined original records and entered data into pre-designed forms. In fact, some 116,475 people indexed over 10 million records in those three days!

I entered data extracted from hundreds of handwritten Kentucky marriage records from the 1930s and 1940s, as well as some from the 1880s—before the clerks used forms. Also English probate records for loads of people, last name Cox. Also 1920 census pages for Montreal.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Mothers of couples married in the 1930s and 40s in Kentucky were very likely to be named Eula, Lula, Effie, Bessie, or Elsie. There were many Hatties and Hesters, Mabels, Myrtles, and a Flossie (not married to a Freddie, which will disappoint you if you grew up reading The Bobbsey Twins series). Great ideas for naming characters born in that period.
  • I liked the sense of humor of the parents who named their son Pearley Bates. There was a second man named Pearl, too. And a woman.
  • This data entry volunteer was left to wonder why some marriage records had written at the top “Please Do Not Publish.”
  • On one day, Ray O. Schomberg divested himself of two daughters, ages 17 and 19, to men of the U.S. Air Force from exciting California and not-so-exciting Ohio.
  • Many couples came from Ohio to be married in the border counties of Kentucky. If memory serves, there was no waiting period from license to ceremony in Kentucky. Some of these were church marriages nevertheless, some by Justices of the Peace, and some in “police court.” Eyebrows raised.
  • Most couples were of legal age to marry without parental consent (established how?) —21 in those days.
  • A few brides were only 16 and one was 15—the groom another Air Force man, age 24—and the clerk of court noted that the witnesses were “John Smith (the bride’s father) and James Smith” (holding the shotgun, probably). Without question her father would be there, and the shotgun too, if not in fact, in the groom’s imagination.
  • In the 1880 records, many men signed their marriage licenses with an x (“his mark”); by 1950, I saw only one record where the groom could not write his name.
  • The English probate records documented the other end of the continuum of family relationships. One told how Arnold Cox, dentist, left his estate of £54 to Maude Cox, spinster (his sister?). To spend your life as a village dentist and die with only £54 to show for it seems more than a little sad.
  • I was intrigued by the number of Coxes from northern England who left bequests to Archie Cox, chemist. In England a chemist is a pharmacist, and I just wondered whether our Archie might have helped some of his ancient and ailing relatives along, just a bit.

This project provided the chance to indulge in speculation about the lives of previous generations, as revealed through their documentary trail. And I was glad to know that if any of the descendants of the perhaps a thousand people whose stories I helped record are interested in those lives, I’ve made their job a little easier.

Family is a free alternative to Both are maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and each has strengths and weaknesses. I’ve found considerable information about family members using both.

P.S. — See that photo by Steve Depolo? If he has family from Kentucky, their marriage records may be online now. I happen to know!

I’d “Mutch Rather See Them”

Civil War, battlefield, cannon

Stones River National Battlefield (photo: wikipedia)

I spent Veterans’ Day yesterday deciphering four letters my great-great uncles wrote in 1863 and 1864 when serving in the U.S. Civil War. Men from my family served on both sides of that war, and the Tennessee ancestors on my grandfather’s side epitomize that truism about the border states, “it was brother against brother.” Those living in Wilson County, east of Nashville, fought for the South, while those who’d moved further west, to Carroll County, were Union men.

The war did not treat kindly the land of Wilson County and the Hurricane Creek area where my family lived. Just ten miles down the road in early 1863 raged the Battle of Stones River (also called the Battle of Murfreesboro). On the Union side, Gen. William Rosecrans led some 43,000 men of the Army of the Cumberland, while Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg brought 38,000 men from the Army of Tennessee. Although “tactically indecisive,” it was one of the war’s bloodiest battles, with an estimated 23,500 men killed or injured.

More than 80,000 men moving through an agricultural area does not leave much behind for the settlers. As a returning soldier wrote, “When I reached my grandfather’s farm, I saw something of what the home folks were enduring while we were away in the army: barns all gone, fine trees cut down in the front lot, stock all gone, everything in disarray.” Food and currency were scarce, and supplies were gone. “For two years there was no coffee, no sugar, no shoes.” The cotton crop of 1866 was meager, and an epidemic of cholera raged that summer, hitting Wilson County hard, only to be followed by smallpox in the fall. Thus the painted slogan “GTT” began appearing on the doors of people’s abandoned homes and farms—Gone To Texas.

Some family on my grandmother Smith’s side already lived in Texas and their sons were recruited into the Confederate forces. It is their letters I was working on, with the beautifully florid handwriting and many misspellings adding to their charm. These boys—John Ricerd (J.R.), about age 20, and George, 23—were two of eight sons of William and Elizabeth Smith, and they are intimately concerned about the fate of their younger brothers:

  • “Tell W. R. Smith if the war continues till he becomes 18 years old, tell him to go in Texas service, not to comb(come) out here. I hope though he will not have to Join the army.” (from J.R. Smith)
  • “William, you will try to beat me a(t) writing a letter the time, for you are going to School for some time as will be when this letter reaches to hand. You will apply your Self Closely and try to make a Smart man.” (from George Smith)
  • “I reckon I will never see home until this unholy war comes to a close and none but my Heavenly father knows when that will be.” (from George Smith)
  • “I want to here from you and Franklin and all the rest of my little Brothers. But mutch rather see them.” (from J.R. Smith)

You also get a sense of the conditions and concerns that plagued them as they fought in Arkansas and Louisiana in the Trans-Mississippi and Red River campaigns.

  • “I am anxious to here from Brother William. I expec that he has been in the fight. If so I hope that he came threw safe.” (from J.R. Smith)
  • “Father, I have been as wet as I could be for 2 days and a night and travailed (traveled) all one day. You will excuse my bad writing and my Short letter for I have travailed all day and am tired.” (from George Smith)
  • “The reson I don’t get letters regular is we have been running from place to place. The boys is all brokedown and need rest.” (from J.R. Smith)

America has had so many veterans of so many wars, and while the foes and armaments have changed, the human experience remains.

Putting the Genes in Genealogy

Double helix

Double helix (from: Mehmet Pinarci, creative commons license)

Science has come to the aid—at least potentially—of people searching for their ancestors and far-flung family members. Genealogists now can draw on the insights provided by genetic testing resources, the two most prominent of which are 23andMe and, when exploring their family tree. All that’s needed is to order a kit from these organizations, spit into the test tube they send, mail it back, and in six to eight weeks you’ll receive an email with a private link to the results: your own, unique genome described and codified.

Of course, some cash has to change hands too. 23andMe charges $199 for its testing, and charges $99. There’s an important reason for that price differential. Ancestry’s only interest is in the genealogical significance of your genetic information. 23andMe—which I used for my genetic test several years ago—didn’t start out to do family ancestry testing at all. When I joined, the focus was on health and research. The health component comes in with helping you understand the implications of your genetic risks for various diseases and conditions.

The research focus was what interested me. You may know that new drugs and treatments ordinarily must be tested in time-consuming, expensive clinical trials. When it comes to designing a trial for a disease with a genetic component, researchers may need to know whether a new drug, has different effects in people with different genetic profiles. If so, they must find a large number of people with those specific profiles in order to run their tests. Finding these people can take literally years. Often, they never identify enough suitable people and, after great effort and expense, the trial must be abandoned. A core idea of 23andMe was that having a preexisting database containing people’s genetic profiles would help researchers find people with specific genetic characteristics more quickly. A proof of concept was achieved in the area of Parkinson’s disease. In addition, through questionnaires, they find out much more about people with specific genetic profiles, too. That’s why I joined 23andMe, because I thought that database sounded like such an invaluable resource.

Other organizations also offer genetic testing, but and 23andMe both have made a substantial commitment to developing useful genealogical tools and have the size advantage of more than a million members each. You don’t want to be like the first person to buy a FAX machine. “Cute, but what do you do with it?” You want as many potential connections as possible.

My DNA relatives from 23andMe include four people identified by genetics as my second cousins. Three of them are strangers to me, but they come from the parts of the country that certain family members are from, and their profiles mention specific family surnames. The fourth person is my second cousin who lives in Denver, whom I know well. That known relationship shows the system is working! 23andMe makes it easy to contact the others, and I’m hoping one of them can help clear up a mystery involving our specific shared ancestors. (Since I wrote this, I’ve confirmed one of these strangers is a second cousin, once removed. Now I can dig into a little Alabama family history with him.)

What you most hope for in making these contacts is that one of them is a determined genealogist too. A couple of years ago a stranger from Washington State contacted me via 23andMe, and we did indeed turn out to be distant cousins. He introduced me to other cousins in his line who’d done some family research. It’s been both fun and enlightening to share information and questions—and some answers—with them.