Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Interview with Mary Van Dyke, owner of 'Finding Grandpa'

Since I started researching my family history in earnest, I have had the unexpected pleasure of “meeting” a few distant cousins online. To me, this is part of the fun of documenting my family history. Not only have I found family that I didn't know I had, but each cousin has shared great information with me, helping me to be more accurate in documenting my family history.
One of these cousins is Mary Van Dyke. I recently learned that her own love of capturing her family history has blossomed into a business, Finding Grandpa, a genealogy research service. In browsing her website, I was impressed with her enthusiasm and the flexibility she exhibits. Not only is she candid about what she can do, she has included loads of helpful tips and links to other websites. She's upfront about her fees, and offers free estimates and helpful documents to start the search. 

Mary graciously agreed to answering a few questions for me. After reading her answers, why not check her website for yourself? The Testimonials and Success Stories pages show what she can do. I'm sure that she could help you in your own search. 

What sparked your interest in genealogy? I became interested in genealogy in the spring of 2003, when I offered to help my dad find out about his great-great grandmother, Phila (Bruce) Thompson. He was told by his mother that she had died in 1871 and was buried in Mitchell County, Iowa. Dad searched for Phila for years without success and had even written to people in Mitchell County for help... From then on I was hooked on genealogy and census records. I will always track whole families through time using those records, and can honestly say that "I am a census-holic". (My note: see the Success Stories page on Mary's website for the rest of the story!)

What do you like most about genealogy? I love "the hunt", and when I'm working on a family, I always talk to them. I say things like "Now, where is your granddaughter?" or "Why did you move from NY to NE?", or "No one knows you're here, do they?" (and then I put as much info as I can on him/her "out there", so their descendants, who might be tracking that family line, can find them). Because of this kind of "interaction with the dead", I feel like I bond with them somehow... even if it's all in my head. I feel like these strangers are people I knew, and most of the time it's not even my own ancestors! I find that this attitude helps me "keep it personal", and THAT helps me to keep tracking that family. They become very interesting to me, and keeps me WANTING to find them all. I hope I never lose that desire to "hear dead people". Again, even if it's all in my head, and I'm imagining it all, it doesn't matter! It keeps me hunting, and it makes it fun!

Why did you decide to start a business? I actually found that going to work was getting in the way of hunting! It was taking up time that I could be searching for ancestors, or helping other people find their own "grandpa". I wanted more time, and it was frustrating that I only had evenings or weekends to do this. It was really hard to give my two-week notice, since I had been working full time since 1978, but I was driven by something more important. I am compelled to help other people, and I'm really good at finding clues that lead to confirmation of lineages. I find it's very easy for me to find records that document people's ancestors.

I get excited that the records help make those ancestors more than "a name on a page". Finding records, like a WWI registration card or a Civil War pension file, make those names jump out from the list. The records allow us to see these relatives in a more personable light. They had "lives". A simple thing like a 1900 census record can show what "grandpa" did for a living, and if he owned a piece of property or not, then you can find the deed for that property and locate it on a map. If early 1900 newspapers are available for the town your ancestors lived in, you can find a gold mine! American newspapers during that time-frame seem to have started writing little articles of social interest, and often have fun tid-bits of information about their local townspeople.

Do you focus on a specific geographic area? No, I go where ever there are records, newspapers, cemeteries or history books available. I use several websites to search world-wide consistently, but also search for area specific sites like the US GEN web county projects. Some areas are easier than others, due to several reasons. Some locations don't have the records any more, due to fire or flood for example, and some locations don't have records available online. Some places have free records, while some charge a fee. If I can't access the records (whether or not they are free), then I explain that to the customer during the quoting process.

What is your favorite success story? I have 2 favorites. The first one is Terry's grandma: I offered to help Terry, who just wanted to know about his grandmother. She had died before he was born, and he couldn't remember her last name, or even if his mother ever told him. Terry's son had created a family tree on, and invited me to be an editor so I could help in the search, as well as, fix some errors he had in the tree. I found the marriage record for Terry's mom and dad, which showed their parent's names and the town that they were living in at the time. After I found Grandma in the 1880, 1900 and 1910 censuses, Terry's son was able to connect her family line to another online tree he found that was created by an Australian couple. I emailed this couple and asked if they would like to have the information I had found on the family after they arrived in America. I also asked if they had more information on the family prior to their immigration. The information they shared with us took his family line back in time to before 600 AD, as well as, to Robert the Bruce of William Wallace fame. They explained that Grandma's ancestors are part of a lineage that is "the longest direct line in British genealogy".

The second one is My grandpa: For four years I had been searching for my own great grandfather's death date. Family lore said he was a blacksmith and had died in the late 1890's in New York City from a horse-and-buggy accident. I was unable to find a death record, cemetery listing or an obituary. In the fall of 2011, another person who was related to the same family by marriage was researching this family line. He emailed me with a link to an online newspaper collection for New York and suggested I try searching in that database, and so I began hunting for my great grandfather. I found much more than his obituary. The story of how he died was so eventful, that it was printed on the front page of the New York Times!

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