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The Internet knows more than grandma and grandpa: How to find your ancestors

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

With the help of the Internet, genealogists are creating huge family trees that go back further than ever before. This is how the author also learned more about his family's past.

Simon Maurer / Tagblatt 14.04.2021

The life story of most people is passed on only orally. When the oldest family member dies, it disappears. Perhaps a few particularly eventful biographies remain in memory. But at the latest after three generations, when no one has known the people personally anymore, only the rough lines are left.

My ancestor emigrated to the USA and came back

The oldest story from my family is about Peter Marty from Matt in the canton of Glarus. My ancestor was a farmer, he emigrated in the middle of 1850 to Monroe (Wisconsin) in the USA and had six children there. At the end of his life he traveled back to Glarus with one son and built a house there. More is not handed down, because there are five generations between me and Peter Marty.

Family knowledge quickly reaches its limits, even when talking to all the old uncles and distant great-aunts. But in the 21st century, there is an expert who knows more than all the relatives and who tells, even without having to be nice to him: Google.

On the Internet, millions of people from all over the world make their research available free of charge. Amateur genealogists transcribe church records and thus create family trees that go back 700 years and more into the past. Until now, this was impossible simply for reasons of space: if you go back just 10 generations or about 300 years, every person alive today has 1024 direct ancestors. This number of names does not fit on a sheet of A4 paper, but it does fit in the endless expanse of the Internet.

History of whole cantons is online

In Switzerland, families from small cantons in particular have been well researched and their lineages digitized. The cantons of Schaffhausen, Basel-Land and Appenzell Ausserrhoden, for example, have all scanned their church books and put them on the Internet. Anyone interested can try for themselves to decipher the spidery writing in the church book of their home parish and thus track down their ancestors. In the larger cantons such as Zurich or Aargau, on the other hand, only some of the old records are online and you have to visit the state archives for the complete church records.

But if you are lucky and have ancestors in a canton with ambitious genealogists, you can go online and find your whole family. One of these cantons is precisely the canton of Glarus, where hobby researcher Patrick Wild is working. The Glarus native has already identified 250,000 people who once lived in the canton using birth records and marriage registers and added them to a huge online family tree.

"I can now trace my own ancestors back to about the year 800, because from there there are documents proving the marriages of Glarners to the descendants of Charlemagne"

Patrick A. Wild, lawyer and genealogist

But is it even worth looking that far back? The degrees of relationship decrease rapidly with each generation, a parent passes on only 50% of its chromosomes. Genetically, from the fifth generation on, one has less than a single chromosome match with one's ancestors. This means that a person's genes match those of his sixth ancestral generation by less than 1.5%. So, people looked completely different back then and probably thought much moredifferently. And six generations only go back about 180 years.

"Genealogy is not about finding out as many names and birth dates of one's ancestors as possible," explains Patrick Wild. "I am on the lookout for exciting Life Stories and Impressive Fates."

That's why Wild is researching not only his own family history, but that of all Glarus families. The researcher is particularly interested in Swiss emigrants, and on his website he publishes historical facts and stories of Swiss people in the USA in addition to the giant family tree.

Albanian traditions in the original Switzerland

I also find what I am looking for in Patrick Wild's family tree: In his online archive, the genealogist has listed the line of my ancestor Peter Marty up to the birth of one Hans Marti in 1480, the progenitor of all Marti from the canton of Glarus. Here, the mere list of names actually becomes a piece of cantonal history. Because Wild's documents make it possible to trace when the small villages in the Glarus mountains were settled by which families.

Surprising traditions also become visible: It is known that in some Albanian families it is tradition to baptize the first son after the paternal grandfather and the second son after the maternal grandfather. Only then do the parents choose the names they like. Patrick Wild's research makes it clear that this custom was also practiced in Switzerland until the 19th century.

I learn more about Peter Marty: his real name was Johann Peter Marty, his wife was Anna Kubli, and he had six children in all - three sons and three daughters.

I even find online a possible reason for his return journey from the USA. At least four of his six children died in America when he was a teenager, and he probably made the return trip to Switzerland with his only surviving son as a reaction to this.

Many Americans seek Swiss ancestors

Patrick Wild receives most of the requests for help with his genealogy search from Americans; there are two to three per week. "In the USA Genealogy ist the second most popular hobby after gardening," Wild explains. He is not surprised that so many Americans are interested in their origins, because "there are probably more 'Glarner' living in the U.S. than in the canton of Glarus." After all, he says, almost a third of the population of Glarus emigrated after the hunger crisis of 1850. And there has been more population growth in the U.S. than in Switzerland since then. Wild's database already contains more than 50,000 Americans with Glarner roots. By way of comparison, the canton of Glarus today has just under 40,000 inhabitants.

However, the USA is the land of genealogists for another reason: In America, there are still many Mormons and other Christian communities who are Anabaptists and who conduct genealogical research for religious motives. Mormons from Salt Lake City in Utah have been collecting genealogical documents and photos of church records for more than 100 years, with which they operate the website, among others. The archive contains records and family trees of an incredible 6.4 billion people, including many from Switzerland.

But it can be assumed that the Information in the Internet family trees are correct? At least in my case they are, because after the internet research I searched old bookshelves for bibles. And I found one: A New Testament with the inscription "This beautiful new consecration testament gives Verena Bäbler (...) her dear baptismal godfather Johann Peter Mart (…) to the new year 1830." In it a photo, according to the imprint on the back shot in South Side, Monroe, Wisconsin.

These are the best tips for online genealogy:

  • Start by gathering as much information as possible from your relatives.

  • Distinguish place of citizenship, place of birth and place of residence. Family data can only be found in Switzerland at the place of citizenship.

  • When searching for ancestors online, first look for their oldest known ancestors. For reasons of personality protection, information that is younger than 100 years is often not public.

  • For emigrants to America, write to the historical society in the city to which your relatives migrated. The societies are usually very happy to help Swiss people.

  • If interested: Some portals offer genetic tests with which relatives can be found directly.

These are the best genealogy websites

Ahnenforschung - Tagblatt Artikel
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