Have you ever wondered if you have any "lost" cousins out there? People with whom you could perhaps connect, share family memories, extend your family tree? Do they exist? Could you find them? Should you find them?
My answers to the last three questions are - probably, yes and maybe! I don't often blow my own trumpet but I have had considerable success in tracing cousins I knew nothing about, both in the UK and abroad - not bad at all when you consider the surnames I am tracing are Brown and Jones! It hasn't been a quick process (think many months, not a few days) but for me it has been an almost wholly positive experience. However, it does lead you into ethical issues and may simply lead to a sense of disappointment if not downright disillusionment.
I tend to think that "lost" cousins fall into two groups - the ones who already want to be found and the ones who haven't yet realised that anyone has lost them! In this post I am considering the first group - they are probably family history enthusiasts themselves, they may well be already looking for YOU and once found you will probably have something in common other than a great-granny. To find these cousins you just know where to look to increase your chances of bumping into them.
Where to look - here are my top five ideas:
1. Genes Reunited
I have reassessed my views on Genes Reunited, largely due to my success in using the site to find several cousins - so the site is living up to its name!
The idea is that you set up your family tree and then the site matches you with people who have a similar entry in their tree. This is where problem number one occurs - the site matches your entry (eg Joe Bloggs b 1900 Bolton) with all other Joe Bloggs b 1900 Anywhere. You then have to sift through to find your Joe Bloggs. Then you find a match - hurrah! You send a message, eagerly anticipating a swift reply. Problem number two - no answer arrives (ever). It would seem that Genes Reunited have a problem with retaining their members, but don't have a problem with retaining their trees, so whilst although the name is one their database, no one is looking at the account.
So that makes the site look pretty useless - but it'sreally not. I have found a second cousin via the site and two fifth cousins who were able to extend one branch of my family back a further two generations. Just be warned, not every message you send will be answered - but when they are, you can hit gold.
Discover your family story at Genes Reunited.co.uk
2. Lost Cousins
Another site dedicated to - well, the names says it all really! This site works a little differently from Genes Reunited (and it's free). You fill in data on your family, but rather than a family tree format it is a census data format. The site then match it to other members' information. I have had one match on this site, but it is worth joining simply for the excellent newsletter.
It is pricey, but I love it! As well as the records that the site has on offer, you can also search members family trees. Some members make theirs public in which case you can almost instantly see if you have a match, others keep theirs private in which case you need to send a message for more information. I have made some excellent contacts through Ancestry (for some reason it nearly always seems to be fourth cousins) and we have shared research and documents and added to our respective trees.
One caveat - some tree keepers on Ancestry are not too picky about their research - don't be one of them. Always scrutinise other people's research. I have one person who has copied a whole branch of my tree simply on the basis that my great-grandfather William John James has the same name as one of her ancestors - she has conveniently ignored the fact that my old boy was born in Wales, whilst hers was apparently born in Bethnal Green.
4. Rootschat and other forums
In 2004 a family history enthusiast in Canada posted a query about her husband's family on Rootschat, mentioning his great-great-grandfather's name in the post. She must have been disappointed as the days, weeks and months ticked by with no reply. In 2008 in a fit of boredom I Googled my great-great-grandfather's name and at the top of the search list came that Rootschat post. I was almost shaking as I posted a reply, terrified that after so long a time she might have changed her email address - luckily she hadn't, and I had found my first lost cousin (although it was actually my second cousin's wife). Without Liz I would never have seen a photograph of my gg grandparents, wouldn't have read some family documents that her family kept or have found an enthusiastic ally in my search for more cousins.
So, join those forums and get posting (and don't change your email address).
Very popular, very now, often very shallow. But also useful for the family historian. You can use it in two ways. Firstly, search for groups with your surname. Obviously this is easier if you have an unusual surname, but you may have some luck. Secondly, set up your own group - I have done this. As mentioned, I am a common-as-muck Brown, so I have distinguished myself from the other Browns by adding on the location of my family - the Browns of Stapleton, Bristol.
Facebook has worked for me. A client asked me if I could find any of her cousins. It is not something I am comfortable with doing for other people as it brings into question people's privacy. However, Facebook is a public forum and I was able to direct her to a family group page where she could post and find cousins for herself.
So, five ideas for you to try. Be warned though - you may find cousins and it may not work out as you hoped. Often people just want to swap information, nothing more - disappointing if you want to make a more social connection. You may also find yourself opening a can of worms. Remember the second cousin I found via Genes Reunited? We found that we are of an age, brought up close to each other, even playing in the same street - yet our grandmothers, who were sisters, did not speak, so we did not know of each other's existence. Her life has been one of tragedy - orphaned at a young age - and I have been left questioning how my late grandmother could have ignored a child like that and it has somewhat marred my memory of her.
In my next post, I will be writing about cousins who are unaware that they are "lost" and considering how you can find and contact them.
Until then, happy hunting!