Mail-in DNA tests from places like Ancestry and MyHeritage have made it easier than ever to be an armchair genealogist.
But for those who still see question marks in the branches of their family tree, there are real, in-the-flesh communities here in the Roaring Fork Valley to offer support. These groups are led by local genealogists who help people make their family tree as large and complete as possible.
Sure, a mail-in DNA test can tell you something about where your family came from, but you might need some help to figure out who they actually were.
Willa Kane facilitates a group of genealogy buffs who meet at the Glenwood Springs library. These are people like Molly Donnolly, who is planning a vacation not to relax on a beach, but to find out more about her distant family in Ireland.
Kane says this group likes to solve puzzles.
"Let’s face it, human relationships are probably some of the biggest puzzles on the planet," she said.
She says she’s seen an uptick in interest in family history research because of mail-in DNA tests. But she urges people to prepare themselves for surprises when the results come back. They might find a relative they didn’t know about, or even what’s called an NPE- a “Not Parent Expected” event, where the person you thought was your birth mom or dad actually isn’t.
"When you open that file, you have to be ready to embrace any kind of change you might find," she said.
She also worries that these tests might be where people stop their research, instead of start it.
"If you’re doing it to truly augment some portion of your research, I think it’s great," she said.
That’s exactly what Jackie Parker did after her son was born with serious health problems.
When doctors asked about her family’s health history, she couldn’t tell them much. Her father had been adopted. He had no idea who his biological parents were.
Caught in the middle of two generations, she attended a genealogy help session at the Basalt Library run by Caley Greddig.
Greddig recommended Parker’s father do a mail-in DNA test.
“I am not one to let a secret stay a secret,” said Greddig.
Not only did the test answer some questions about her son’s medical history, it also offered Parker the chance to connect with family they never knew they had.
She and her father met a half-cousin in person earlier this year. They were all stunned by the resemblance.
“Like you could see the two of them, and my dad was like, 'Wow, I found my family,'” she said.
Greddig and Kane use both modern tools, like those mail-in tests, and age-old ones. They comb through census and court records and century-old newspapers. They hunt down passenger lists from ships that brought people from other countries.
Greddig says there’s one big difference between detectives and genealogists. When detectives find an answer to a question, that’s the end of the search.
"Being a genealogist, once you’ve answered that question, you’ve got at least two more questions that have opened up," she said.
That’s because for every ancestor she finds, there are two more: that person’s parents. She finds that kind of research-rabbit hole thrilling.
That can lead to finding secrets about affairs, abuse. Someone might learn they are related to slave owners or criminals. But Kane says you also see determination, bravery, loyalty. You find people who crossed oceans to build a better future for their families.
"You see cruelty to each other, but then you also see this great love for each other," she said.
Uncovering those stories of both cruelty and love drives these genealogists to keep digging through history.