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Ancestors please! How to ask for help online

Do you remember in the old days when we had to ask for help about an ancestor by submitting a written query to a publication like Everton's Genealogical Helper? The other direct way was to write to people who had the same surname and hope that they would respond and have a common ancestor.

Things have changed since then! So much of what we do as genealogists in now online. What hasn't changed is that we still need to ask people for help. We still need information that can only be found locally and we need information that is unpublished and resides only in personal family archives.

Asking for help online can be frustrating especially when you are crowd-sourcing, in other words asking a group of people to help you find an answer or give you suggestions.

Death Certficate for Joseph Walleck, 1916, from the Pennsylvania, Death Certificates database, 1906-1963, on

When the internet first started,  genealogists went in droves to forums such as provided by and Rootsweb. While forums are still important, we are just as likely to make connections by posting on our Facebook wall or a Facebook group dedicated to a surname or a geographic location such as a county.

The great thing about asking questions online is that genealogists truly want to help. The trick is making a positive experience for both the person seeking the information and the person providing it.

Here are some tips to help make the experience a good one for both you and the people helping you. For the record, I have made all of these mistakes myself! I'm hoping after I write this post that I will get all those errors out of the way!

1) Ask a specific question

It's fine to start by saying that you want to research Pleasant Ann Clawson, born 1823 and died 1902 in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, that doesn't really tell people exactly what you are after. Pleasant Ann is my 3rd great grandmother. What I really need to know is who were her parents.  Better to start with "Who were the parents of Pleasant Ann Clawson, (1823-1902)?" so that people can help you answer exactly what you are looking for.

Likewise, my 2nd great grandfather, Joseph Walleck came over from "Bohemia" around 1863. A specific question to ask would be "Where in Bohemia did Joseph Walleck (1841-1916) come from? That will tell people that you are focused on his ancestral origins rather than his history in the United States. This question will also alert Bohemian-experienced  genealogists that you need help with immigration or information about the old country.

2) Provide an overview of what you know

The number one thing that happens when you ask people for help is that they want to help you! While this is wonderful it also begins the frustrating dance of watching people do the exact same research you have already spent hundreds of hours doing on your target ancestor. Then you end up,  bit by bit, dripping out the details of what you have already found. Yes, there are two people in that county with the same name. No, they are not the same person. No, my ancestor wasn't married twice.

The best way to help yourself and those who want to help you is to provide to them what you already know. The thing is you can't easily do that in a Facebook post. There isn't enough space. The best solution is to write a profile of your ancestor in a blog post, preferably with citations, that lists everything you already know about them. That allows you to share a short link on Facebook. Anyone who is truly interested will click the link to find out what you know before they start helping you.

If you're not keen on writing a profile you could create a simple document list and sort it by source. For instance, you could list all the documents you found on, etc. and perhaps provide links to the documents. Then the people who want to help you will see what you have already found and skip those searches.

3) Thank everyone for their help

This may seem obvious, but be sure to thank everyone for their help even if they weren't able to provide any new information. This is the number one complaint I hear from volunteers who help others with their research. After the information is sent off not so much as a thank you is ever sent in reply. I can understand why this happens. Perhaps the person receiving the email got new ideas from the information and they went off searching again as genealogists are bound to do. Then they simply forgot about the person who sent the email. Try to send that thank you email right away. It will make a great impression and will encourage that person to help you and others in the future.

Marian Pierre-Louis is the Social Media Marketing Manager for Legacy Family Tree. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.


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That is, "how do I post a query on Facebook?"

That is really great advice. Unfortunately, my experience is that the forums are almost never used these days (sometimes years between postings). I am unfamiliar with Facebook, but I wonder how you would know if someone posted anything on an ancestor of yours without knowledge beforehand.

Me too! I feel I have been passed over by Facebook, and don't know where to start now to learn to use Facebook as a genealogical resource.

Since so many of you are asking about Facebook I will make that the topic of my next post. You'll see it by Saturday.


as an admin in a genealogy facebook group (GAA), the first thing i would recommend doing is search for genealogy under groups. make sure that you have genealogy interests showing-whether it be liking genealogy related pages or historical items. upload and share old photos if you have them and have interactions with friends and family. if you're just starting to use Facebook as a resource, admins will send messages asking about your interest. sometimes those messages will go to your "Other" folder, so make sure to check it and respond. Our group has lots or knowledgeable, friendly people who are willing to help. just remember: genealogy is searching dead people, not living!

I don't necessarily post queries for ancestors on forums, but I have posted brick walls on a few Facebook forums and received recommendations of further places to research. This was very helpful. I followed the similar steps as mentioned above and found it received more feedback that simply saying... Brick Wall Joseph Geiszler.

Another great way to use Facebook is to images and requests help reading part of a record or for help translating a small item. Do so occasionally and you'll be flooded with help.

I am Using Legacy 8.0. I have a relative whose birth father is different from one listed on her birth certificate. How do you enter both the birth father and the father listed on birth certificate in Legacy.

You can give her two sets of parents. You need to give her mother TWO relationships. She will be linked to the birth father and also to the man on the birth certificate. You will link the daughter to both relationships. Now put the daughter in the Family View (she will be on the right side of the screen). The second icon on the left below her information is the Parent's icon. Click that and you will see both sets of parents. Highlight the biological set and mark them as biological using the drop down list next to the relationships fields. Now highlight the other set and mark the mother as biological and the father as adopted.

I have an Aunt born and raised in Canada as I was.
She immigrated to Washington State after the war.
We don't have Social Security Numbers in Legacy 8 where should we place it

You have a couple of options here. If you are using the Social Security Death Index the Social Security Number (SSN) will be part of your source citation. You can also add it as an event. I would use this option if I had the SS-5 (Social Security application) because you have a specific date tied to it. I title the event "Social Security Application." If you have a record of the number on a non social security administration document or database (very commonly seen on death certificates) you could do a simple Social Security Number event (one of Legacy's default events) or put it in the notes. I prefer to put it in the notes in this case because there isn't a date tied to it. It is just on the document as an identifier.

I have just found my Great Grandmother on the Westernland's passenger list that arrived in New York City, New York on 09October 1888. She is listed as, "Dead Denis age 39 Female Birth Date 1849 Port of Departure is Antwerp Belgium and destination as Chicago."
Questions: Is she dead? Did she die at sea? Is this the first name they understood as her real first name is Eudana? How do I find out any information if she did die at sea?

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