Ben Weber has filled more than 400 pages with research on his and his fiancé’s family histories. And there’s no end in sight.
“There’s no real stopping point I’ll ever hit because it just goes back forever,” he said.
The work began during the pandemic when Weber was stuck at home. He said he used the time to construct family trees and locate gravesites and where his ancestors lived.
His research led to little glimpses of life in the past that weren’t taught in history books. Old newspaper articles that report someone’s son visited from another village. The popularity of mah-jongg parties in Canada in the 1920s.
He has also discovered places of family significance nearby. This summer, he and his fiancé plan to visit a cemetery three minutes away from their wedding venue where his fiancé’s “great-great-great-great-great-grandparents” are buried.
Weber isn’t the only one who channeled pandemic boredom into the pastime. Genealogy research has boomed over the past year, according to Washington State Archivist Steve Excell.
“People have discovered if you’ve got cabin fever and you’re stuck at home, this is a hobby you can do from home,” he said.
Genealogy research as a hobby has been growing in popularity since DNA tests like 23andMe have become more accessible. But according to Excell, searches to the state digital archives have increased 23% between March 2020 and March 2021. And more records have been retrieved through the state website.
Archival staff have been busy trying to keep up with pulling nondigital records.
This January, “scribes” — at-home volunteers who digitally transcribe records — broke the record for the number of birth, marriage and divorce certificates and other documents transcribed in a single month. The program has been in place for 10 years, but volunteers set the mark for second-most transcriptions in February, and again in March.
Genealogy research can be a way to learn about history and understand family roots, Excell said.
Through his own research, he’s learned when his ancestors left Finland for the U.S., and that his great-grandfather was killed in a logging accident in the Redwoods, which led his wife to remarry and move to South Dakota.
“All of a sudden, these places on a map that you heard of mean more when you realize your family was there,” he said.
Weber said he first became interested in ancestry because he wanted to learn where his father’s family came from, since all he knew was that they were originally from Eastern Europe. While he still doesn’t have a firm answer, he’s learned his father’s ancestors likely immigrated around the 1890s during the pogroms, when anti-Jewish violence swept the Russian Empire.
Part of what has made his research so difficult, he said, is that family members often used aliases to conceal their Jewish identity.
Weber now spends his days helping others do their own family research. He said it’s a good mindless task he can do while listening to music at home.
Here’s how you can get started on your own genealogy:
- Ancestry.com is a subscription service and has a large worldwide collection. FamilySearch and Cyndi’s List are both free. Some of the services will have census records and city and county directories.
- Once you hit a dead end, Weber recommends subscribing to searching old newspapers either through state or city archives, or paying for a newspaper archive service.
- Some paid software like Family Tree Maker can keep track of ancestors. Excell has over 55,000 in his family tree, dating back to the 1500s.
- Ask state archivists to help look into nondigital records for family members.
- Email distant relatives for help. Weber said he often sends parts of his research to people over email so they can see the value of his work.
- Look for books. Two of Weber’s grandmother’s cousins have written biographies, which have been helpful to his research.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Ben Weber’s last name.