I resisted this assignment at first. I even tried to back out of it, although I had pitched it initially, telling my editor I thought researching my family tree would drive me "batty."
But since the History Channel partnered with genealogy Web site Ancestry.com in an ad campaign designed to drive usage of Ancestry.com, we thought we could put the ad campaign to the & Error test by kicking the tires on the site.
I've never researched my family tree. I have never even had the inclination to learn whether my ancestors were inventors, captains of industry or, gasp, criminals.
My mom has always said we're related to the Harrison presidents and also to the Morgan pirate of Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum fame. Of course, a pirate is a way cooler possibility than a head of state.
I don't know if I will be able to verify my mom's audacious claims, but I dig in to Ancestry.com to see.
The first step is to start the family tree. I enter my birth information, then my parents'. Next, the site loops me into a page where I can invite others to see my family tree. Frankly, the tree isn't so interesting right now-it's just the three of us. So I move on to the "tour" option and the site whisks me through a quick parade of its various features.
Have I mentioned that so far there aren't any glitches on the site? I haven't because the user experience is seamless so far.
Back at the sparsely limbed tree, I move on to the grandparent level. All but one of my grandparents is deceased and I don't know their birth years. So I guess and give all four the birth year 1920.
Now, a little leaf icon swirls by my paternal grandfather's name. I know from the tour that the leaf means Ancestry.com thinks it has records on him. But the two matches the site delivers don't synch up to my limited knowledge.
I soldier on, hitting a button to "search for historical records." I know my grandfather served in World War II. The site returns several options, but I can't tell which is my dad's dad. I call my dad and ask for his father's middle initial and birth year. And what do you know? I spot the record from his service in World War II.
His enlistment date: Dec. 30, 1942. His branch: warrant officers. His grade: private. I also find out he was 6 feet tall and a trim 161 pounds at enlistment!
Then my dad says, "You know, both of your mother's parents served in the war, too."
I return to the tree to hunt for their records. The real fun starts when I search for records on my mom's dad. He's the grandparent I know the least about, since he died before I was born. But the site delivers his death record from 1971. I learn his birth year-1906-and that he was buried in a veteran's grave site in Missouri.
At this point, I make a phone call to the public relations director, Mike Ward, since I am nearing deadline and I need more help. He walks me through the census records from 1920, which includes my mom's dad name, Donald Seewoster. But the "S" was recorded as a "G," so he is listed as Geewoster. A cursive capital G and S can look similar, so the last name may have been entered incorrectly.
As we scan the record online-the actual hand-printed census from 87 years ago-we conclude that he's likely to be the same guy. Mr. Ward suggests I verify with a relative the names of this Donald Geewoster/Seewoster's parents. My aunt e-mails me later that night and confirms we've got the right guy.
We also learn my maternal grandfather at age 13 was an errand boy and a tailor. His father, my great-grandfather, was a mail carrier for St. Louis. We also learn my great-grandparents were born in Missouri in the 1870s and their parents were born there in the 1840s. Specifically, we find my great-great-grandfather was born in 1842, while his father was born in Germany and emigrated to the U.S.
At this point, I am pretty much blown away. True, I haven't found that pirate yet, and I don't know if I come from presidential lineage (or if I want to, frankly). But I rather like the idea that my mom's grandfather was a mailman.
I also like the idea that the site and the information it holds changed my mind about researching my family tree. Quite simply, I had a blast in about an hour and a half.