“Wow,” she gushed. “Everyone hopes to find an interesting story in their family tree, but you really hit the jackpot!”
Well, yes and no. The rumor came from a family interview about an abusive childhood, something no one wants to find in her family’s past. But once I heard about the cult, I became determined to learn more. The tools on Ancestry helped me piece together the story. I’m now writing a book-length version of that story, and the ripple effect it’s had on four generations of women.
Climbing the Gnarled Branches of Your Own Family Tree
In talking with others about my book, I’ve learned that I’m not alone. Most families have a strange secret or two: a ghost story, a mysterious death or a dark rumor that’s been passed down through generations. These secrets contain some of genealogy’s most compelling tales. They can also be nearly impossible to verify. Exploring them can be fun, but it can also strain your sanity.
Hopefully you don’t have a Satanic cult in your family tree. But when researching your own genealogical legends, you can use these five tips to simplify the process.
- Set expectations. Are you trying to solve a murder or just document a story?
It might be rewarding to bring a centuries-old crime to justice. But it’s far from easy. Unless you’re an experienced investigator or willing to pay for those services, you’ll probably end up frustrated. Don’t assume that researching your family mystery means you have to crack the case. The evidence you find might never be admissible in court. But if it helps you shape a meaningful narrative, it still has value.
I started my journey with high hopes of cracking cold cases and exposing crime rings. But I had neither the expertise nor the evidence necessary. I eventually refocused my efforts on documenting the story. When I did, the work became much more satisfying.
- Get first-person accounts.
Since the only real “proof” I had of my ancestor’s cult involvement lived in anecdotes, I conducted family interviews. I wrote questions beforehand, then used the built-in voice recording app on my iPhone to record the interviews. Finally, I transcribed each interview and uploaded the text file to Ancestry’s media gallery.
You can also do this with the new StoryCorps app, which contains sample questions, recording functionality and even the option to upload your interview to the U.S. Library of Congress. If you do, be sure to save a text file for your Ancestry family tree. You can then use it as a source for relevant names, dates, and other details.
- Use Ancestry to collect relevant names, dates and locations.
I started my cult research with a single surname. My family member knew the cult had been led by a distant relative of my great-grandmother. She could only vaguely recall his last name. With this clue, I explored the more obscure branches of my family tree: second marriages, step-siblings and second cousins. Eventually I found a branch with the remembered surname, and then a college yearbook photo of a man who fit the description. From there, I combed through newspaper archives to learn about his career, hobbies and community involvement.
- Connect with others.
Ancestry has a large collection of message boards with topics such as Crime and Folklore, Legends & Family Stories. Members on these and other boards gave me helpful tips and suggestions. One person said she’d researched a similar cult rumor that turned out to reference the KKK. Another helped me understand how the occult played a role in my ancestors’ religious background. I came away from the message boards with a much broader understanding of the story.
- Dig deeper.
If you do end up with a murder mystery or unsolved crime that deserves closer investigation, you have lots of resources available to you. I found the Investigative Reporter’s Handbook, by Brand Houston, helpful for tracking down police and court records. (Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. also has several free resources for non-members looking to learn more.)
You can also hire a professional researcher. AncestryProGenealogists can help you set goals and track down records. They’ll even provide a research package at the end of your project, with a binder of documents, suggestions for future research and a flash drive of digital files.
Whether you do end up cracking the case or just gaining a better understanding of your lineage, you’ll likely have a good time and find lots of interesting stories along the way.
What secrets and mysteries have you uncovered in your family tree?
Kelly Kautz is writing a memoir about her genealogical research into a Satanic cult. Read more on her blog at TheSkeletonClub.com.