How well do you know your ancestry?

How well do you know your ancestry?

Author: Canadian Living


How well do you know your ancestry?

He's got his dad's chin. His hair (what little he has) is light brown, just like mine. When he laughs, his lips curl in a goofy smile that is undeniably that of his great-grandfather Willy, whom he never got a chance to meet.

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 Do you have a family tree? Share the story of tracking down your family history with others in the comments section on the next page.

Our son, Archie Murdoch Fielding, was named for two other great-grandfathers he also never knew. My husband, David, was born two years after his grandfather Archibald Reid passed away. Murdock was one of my grandpa Pehleman's middle names; we lost him on the first day of spring in 2004.

Looking for family roots
It's surprising how sentimental I became once Archie was born. Filling out the family tree section in his baby book, I thought about all the people who had been important to me growing up, and realized how little I knew about my relatives.

Suddenly I wanted to know more. Through email, I contacted my Aunt Lin (after many years, we're back in touch – the magic of Facebook!), who had researched my father's family, the Weavers, and she sent me an organized history, complete with generations of names, dates, stories and photos. Hrmmm, compiling a family tree for Archie – seems like the perfect project for a maternity leave. Forget the laundry!

My first stop was the Internet: I signed up for an account at, and created a simple family tree by typing in the few details I knew. Because the website alerts you to any info in its database that matches what you've entered, I discovered that my mother-in-law, Moira, had started the research.

Page 1 of 4 – Find out how to work around a "dead end" in your family's history on page 2.
She emailed the tree she had compiled – lots of branches growing in many directions, but nothing stemming from her father, Archibald. His parents had died when she was young: Her grandfather, a butcher, developed blood poisoning from a cut from a knife, and her grandmother passed away just after she was born. I decided to go another route (in genealogy, the roots are endless) and take a peek at my side of the family.

Imagining the past
My grandmother (my mother's mom) dug up a book, peppered with German words and typewritten on tissue-thin paper, with a family tree. I read it one afternoon while Archie napped, and I imagined the author, Walter Pehlemann (Archie's second cousin five times removed), at his desk, consulting daguerreotypes and parish records, writing letters to the German Embassy in Ottawa. The book was written in Germany between 1911 and the 1950s (Walter's work was interrupted by the two world wars) and traces my grandpa Pehleman's roots back to 1622.

My family had always wondered where the “Mark” was, a place in Germany the Pehlemanns had lived; with a quick search online, I found the proper name (Brandenburg, in eastern Germany, once joined with Prussia), a history of the area, access to maps and even satellite images of the very land our ancestors roamed.

Finding regal roots
I couldn't help comparing our tame suburban lives to the tales of Eduard Pehlemann (Archie's great-great-great-great-great-granduncle), who lived near Potsdam Square in Berlin. With the help of Walter's book and Wikipedia, I learned that he took strolls with King Wilhelm I of Prussia, and played cards with prominent politicians. He was friends with the famous German poet Theodor Fontane, who immortalized the family name in his 1878 novel Vor dem Sturm (I found scans of the book pages online, and was able to verify that one of the characters is named Baron Pehlemann).

Another friend was August Borsig, who, according to Wikipedia, was responsible for the first locomotives manufactured in Germany; the web page gave me not only his portrait, but also a photograph of his factory and a drawing of the first steam locomotive – strange to think that more than 50 years later, other members of our family, such as my great-grandpa Mole, would travel by train on harvest excursions to Western Canada.

Using Member Connect (a feature of that allows you to see others who are investigating the same people), I found other family trees whose branches intertwined with mine. This is how I uncovered the names of eight of my great-grandma's numerous siblings, one of whom was coincidentally named Archie. I traced her heritage back to the 13th century; ancestors emigrated to the unsettled wilderness of Quebec from Scotland in the early 1800s.

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Is your family tree accurate? Find out on page 3.

Many researchers have posted personal photos to the site – I found a picture of my grandfather Pehleman's cousin Lillian Pehleman, posted by someone related to her husband. From other members, I also learned that my great-grandma's sister Dora had died of scarlet fever, and Eduard's children and wife had succumbed to typhoid. It's remarkable that Archie won't have to face those dangers in his lifetime.

I couldn't stop. I typed "Pehleman" into Google, and – surprise! – I found Wolfgang, a German amateur photographer who has put together his own website of family history. I've sent him an email, and hope to hear from him soon.

How to verify the information you find is correct
One challenge is how to verify information. At, I can look at scans of birth or baptism records, as well as census information, which includes ages, ethnic background and names of other household members, and use them to compare dates and spellings of names and places.

Online I also found, a site that allows you to search birth, marriage and death records. (Many countries have online archives; for example, at Library and Archives Canada – – you can find scans of war recruitment forms, complete with the handwritten signatures of recruits). For a fee, I was able to order an extract of Archie's great-grandfather's birth record. Now I have a few more dates and names to help my research.

Find new information from a familiar face
I talked to my grandma Pehleman about family members she remembered, and new ones she's just meeting. She recently learned the names of her birth parents, and has been in touch with some of her relatives. At 79, she's just finding out about where she came from – turns out we're not only German and Scottish, but Irish, too. Many genealogy websites offer message boards where people researching certain surnames can connect with others; I was able to find a long-lost cousin in Inverness, Scotland, who's going to send me my grandma's "new" family tree dating back to 1600.

Page 3 of 4 – Learn useful tips to start your own family tree on page 4.

David's entire family (except his immediate family) lives in Scotland, and the town his father grew up in, Maybole, has its own website, complete with articles and history. There I found a photo of Archie's great-great-great-great-grandfather, Thomas Drysdale, who was a shoemaker in the late 1800s.

While Archie is a little more than half Scottish, the rest of him is a mixture of many different European cultures. My grandpa had always said his family owned a castle in Germany, and while I haven't been able to confirm that just yet, my family was shocked to learn that I did trace my mom's ancestors to a castle on the Isle of Skye that they've inhabited for more than 800 years. One day we'll take Archie there so he can see a bit of my own Scottish heritage.

I feel as if each new root I unearth leads me in a new direction. Archie will now know that he comes from a long line of farmers and hunters, railway workers and shoemakers, magistrates and civil servants. His ancestors were pioneers, friends of royalty and literary figures. It's a wonderful feeling to know where you come from, but with this gift, I think Archie will also know that he can go anywhere from here.

Research how-tos

• Talk to family members. It's surprising how much information comes up when you ask just a few simple questions (and it's a great way to get to know extended family members and those who live in other countries). You can develop a questionnaire to help get the memories flowing.
• Check to see if anyone else in your family has done research. There are so many paths you can follow that it helps if someone has done some of the work for you.
• If you're really serious about researching your family tree, take a class through your local library.
• Get proof of dates and names, and keep hard copies of any historical records you find online. Check out genealogical societies online for examples of reliable proof.
Find a good way to organize and share the information you've found. You can use a computer program to build your family tree, make a scrapbook or even have spiral-bound copies made to send to relatives.

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How well do you know your ancestry?