10 Questions for Becky Z, Genealogist
A dear friend of mine, from our time in Germany (and reunited this past February!), Becky Zoglmann is a professional genealogist. I had the thought to interview her while I wrote my recent Family blog post. Plus, for awhile, I’ve been wanting to interview small business owners to find out more about what inspired them to start a business.
Here’s ten questions from our Zoom interview this past weekend:
- How did you get started in genealogy research? Or, where did the initial curiosity come from? History was my favorite subject in school, and I did really well there. When I was 17 or so, I saw a TV show, kind of like “Who do you think you are?” And I thought, I want to try that! So I bought a trial for Ancestry and stayed up til 2 AM, doing it, and was like “Oh my God, I love this!” Back then, I couldn’t afford the monthly trial, because I didn’t make much money, so I had to keep buying credits. I’d spend half of my paycheck back then buying credits! This was about 15 years ago. My interest level came in waves. Once the babies came along, it was kind of hard to do anything, but once they got older, I got back into it again. When did you first do the DNA test? In the last few years, DNA testing came around, so I did mine in 2015 or 16.
- Tell us about your genealogy business? How does one become a professional genealogist?
I’ve been doing my family tree, and my husband’s, for years. Then a friend asked me to do theirs, and I loved it. Then more friends asked me, and I thought maybe I could make some money doing this! Then I took some geneology courses, and I thought, I think this is what I want to do with my life. It’s been good. I work with 1-2 clients at a time, if I have more I’ll put them on a waiting list, but it really depends on what [services] they want, as well. Some things are more complicated and can take weeks and weeks.
What are some things people ask for that are complicated? An entire family tree (mom and dad’s side), going back as far as I can. Most people want to see how far back I can go. Another example, I had a client who was a war baby, and he took a DNA test, and we figured out who his dad is. His dad ending up living one state away, and his dad didn’t even know he existed!
- What are some of the tools you use to uncover our ancestors? First I talk to living relatives, and ask them questions about their parents and grandparents. Then I start looking at records, like census records, which can give names of parents, along with birth dates and place of birth. Certain records, like marriage or death certificates, also have parents’ names. Some records are easier to get—it depends on what country or what state you’re looking in. In England, you can order certificates (birth, marriage, death) online. In the States, it’s different. Every state has different privacy rules. California is really good for finding info, but places like New York, you can’t even request a birth certificate within 100 years. So it really depends on the state. Ancestry and Family Search has many records scanned and available online. Ancestry just started uploading baptism records. It can be very hit or miss. If it’s not online, you have to contact the courthouse or archives office, so you have to do more “boots on the ground” research.
- What are your thoughts on DNA testing? Do you find people are afraid of the results?
I love DNA testing. It’s interesting the things it’s uncovered. I do give people a heads-up, that DNA doesn’t lie. There’s a good chance it exposes family secrets, which can be rough. Some families find out about relatives they didn’t know existed! Cousins, half siblings, even grandparents. I’ve helped someone solve who her great-grandfather was, through DNA matching. We found some common links which led to who her great-grandfather was. Before DNA, we had to rely on records, but with DNA, it’s uncovered a lot. Every single test seems to uncover at least one weird little twist. Every family has a weird thing or drama somewhere along the line.
The ethnicity portion of the DNA testing, I say to take with a grain of salt. If it says 1% Native American, for example, it’s sort of background noise. It’s so far back, it’s very hard to find that distant ancestor.
- For someone who might not have done any research on their family history, how do you recommend they get started?
Interviewing relatives that are alive. Older people tend to hang on to old records, such as a “family Bible”—it lists birthdates, baptisms, dates of death. Talk to grandparents, aunts and uncles. The older, the better! Then just try a free trial on Ancestry or Family Search. They have a ton of the basic records for free. They have Census records. A lot of LDS churches have a family history center. That can be super helpful for newcomers. Most libraries have Ancestry for free too.
- Do you have an example or two of something surprising / delightful / weird / crazy / unbelievable that you’ve uncovered through your research?
One of my favorites is a happy coincidence. My daughter is Emily. When I made some matches, I found out some of my ancestors were also called Emily. That wasn’t going to be her name, but right before she was born, we changed our minds, like it was meant to be. [I told Becky that I also have an ancestor Emilie, my great-great-grandmother who immigrated from from Saxony, Germany!]
One of my clients heard she was related to one of the Salem Witches, and she asked me to find out…turns out she was!
Then also, the Vietnam war baby I mentioned before, it was so cool when it clicked and I found his father. We also found pictures of his ancestors… it just blew his mind to see all of them. I love when there’s a moment like that. There can be some super cool coincidences, and history repeating itself, things like that.
- What do you want your kids to know about your genealogy? They’ve grown up hearing me talk about it. I have old family pictures in frames here. They always ask who is that one, and that one? I tell them, sit down and let me give you a history lesson. They probably know a lot more than other kids about their ancestors. I tell them, if it wasn’t for these people, you wouldn’t be here! Or, if they’re complaining that their life is so hard, I tell them, well let’s take this ancestor—they were an orphan, their life was hard. This one was a German soldier and killed in Russia when he was 27. [this part gave me goosebumps!] My son Ryan (age 8) gets teary-eyed when we talk about him. All we have is pictures of him. I try to show my kids, and tell them all about where our family came from. They are still learning names, but they recognize a lot of the people in pictures. They can’t believe their grandmother was so young, in her wedding picture. It’s very sweet.
- With today’s technology (and DNA testing!) what do you predict for the future of genealogy and family tree research? What will our great-great-great-grandchildren find out about us in 100 years?
I think social media will be an integral part of it. Who knows what it will look like then, but how we’ve recorded everything is sort of like a living diary. They might ask, what is a meme? (haha) I would love to have been able to read my great-grandma’s diary. That’s sort of what social media is. Especially with times like this, we are living through history right now [with COVID]. I would love to know how they coped with war, with diseases. I think the DNA testing will get more and more accurate, and find more ways to confirm things. I am hoping there will be more of a concerted effort to get every record from every nook and cranny. I think social media will be really interesting for them to read someday, and be really awesome for our future descendants to have that snapshot of us. They will find out I love cats, that you ran marathons! Stuff you can’t find from records. I still don’t know the kind of person some of my ancestors were. Thankfully my grandmother is still alive and can tell me stories. I love when she shows her sassy side and drops some details in.
- Can you describe the connection you feel with the ancestors you’ve uncovered?
I kinda try to imagine what they went through. So if I’m having a hard day, I always think about them, and tell myself to suck it up. Some of the stuff they went through was horrendous. I wish I could talk to them. There’s some days I wish I could ask them for advice. My great-grandparents went through so much: they both lost their dads to tuberculosis, when they were very young. They went through both world wars. Their house got bombed out in WWII. They lived in a homeless shelter with their kids for almost two years. It’s things like that that make me think, thank God they were so strong, because I wouldn’t be here if not. I have some favorite ancestors that I want to research more and know more. One is my grandma’s dad, I never met him, he died before I was born. He was very short and super adorable. There’s something about him, I don’t know what it is, but I’ve always felt he’s my guardian angel. He made a dollhouse for my mom when she was little, and it was passed down to me. Now my kids play with it. My grandma said he was the kindest person she ever met. He would get such a kick out of his great-grandkids playing with the dollhouse he made.
- Anything else you want to share? I think everyone, even if they have a rough relationship with their family, should still try to look back and find out more about their family. I feel like I owe it to mine to find out, so they’re not forgotten.
As we wrapped up the interview, we chatted about kids and schools and pets, and Asher walked in with a little tomato from our garden–right up this gardening genealogist’s alley 🙂
Thank you Becky, for sharing your insights and information with us!
To work with Becky or find out more, see her contact info below (IG is her preferred way of communicating):
Do you know someone I should feature for my next Small Business Spotlight? Comment below to nominate him/her.