Wendy Callahan Does Genealogy Research is the first episode of Unusual Hobbies.
Author Wendy Callahan joins Sheena today to talk about her hobby of doing genealogy research.
In this episode:
- What is genealogy?
- Pedigree charts
- Separating family myths from reality
- Why would you do to start figuring out your genealogy?
- Naming traditions that can make it tricky
- How Wendy got into genealogy
- Genetic testing
- Unveiling family secrets
Listen to this episode of Wendy Callahan Does Genealogy Research here
About Wendy Callahan
Wendy Callahan writes under the pen name Jea Hawkins. Her novels are contemporary or historical lesbian romance along with some sassy paranormal lesbian romance.
When she isn’t working or writing she is busy geeking out over genealogy, playing video games, D&D and Star Wars.
Wendy Callahan Online
please note this transcript has not been edited and is automatically generated meaning certain words will be incorrect
I’m Sheena and this is unusual hobbies a short podcast series where we talk to people about hobbies that are different and unique today I’m joined by weight and be callahan a most amazing woman and she writes under the pen name of Jea Hawkins today we’re talking about a fascinating hobby that she has and she looks into genealogy Wendy thank you for joining me thank you so much for having me I’m excited and it’s cool to actually hear your voice kind of like in person because I’m used to hearing it on the podcast so we’re talking about genealogy today let’s start off with the first question which is what is genealogy to put it very simply and very briefly a genealogy is the study of your family history and learning about your ancestors who they were when they were born and died who they married where they lived what they did and that’s basically it some people call it family history so that’s like a big family tree exactly building your family tree putting together pedigree charts and some people like to see how far back they can go pedigree choices in poop it’s kind of similar yes where do you come from who are your parents and grandparents and did they pass the good genes down to you did you get your Bob’s tail from you know your grandparents on your mother’s side okay so this is one of your hobbies you spend a lot of time looking into genealogy is this just in your space like your family history and so on or do you do it for other people I do like to do it for other people because my family history I’ve researched it for so long and to a point where there’s pretty much not a lot to discover anymore so yes I do work on it for other people I still have brick walls for myself that I am working through however so what’s the most interesting thing you found out about your family oh oh my goodness supposedly and I don’t know that this is true supposedly my great grandmother’s first husband was a rum runner during Prohibition and he remains a mystery after the 1920s so I’m still trying to verify whether or not that’s true I don’t trust most of those kinds of stories where does that story even come from it usually comes from the grandkids who say well the reason so-and-so wasn’t in our lives was because this is what he was doing so I think really what happens is a person in his case for example just runs off and leaves a family and that gets I think conflated with a lot of kind of legendary ideas like oh he run off because he was involved in running and illegal activities during Prohibition and I don’t know if it’s a way for people to kind of feel better about family members abandonment of a family or or just that kind of story that gets passed down and and people perpetuate it because it’s really interesting it does make sense so how do you how do you separate fact from fiction then when you’re working through all of this mostly through records particularly primary sources your birth and marriage and death records that you can find on people newspapers if your ancestor was in the newspaper a lot they just might have been trouble I guess found out well I found out my great-great grandmother was in court for assaulting a guy in 1910 I didn’t even know that that was a thing with women smacking people with jugs but my great-great grandmother did it and I’ve got the newspaper article to prove it but I have nothing on on this other person this supposed rumrunner so unless I find you know one newspaper article or a court record that says yes he was in trouble I take the story with a grain of salt just like people like to pass down stories that their great-grandparents were Native American that’s a biggie especially in the United States grain of salt see if you can prove it and there are ways to prove things like that what would you do if you wanted to get started figuring out your genealogy like what step the very first step is you write down exactly what you know you sit down and you say this is me this is when I was born this is where I was born you write down everything you know you know about your parents grandparents and and so on and then you go to your parents or aunts uncles grandparents great aunts great uncles cousins you go to them and you ask them the questions because a lot of times there’s either someone who already knows a lot or you can get little bits and pieces from different parts of the family so like names of previous relatives and birth and death dates and that kind of thing exactly you just write down every little thing you know and then talk to great-aunt Mary who will say oh yes my father your great-grandfather served in World War one and you know he died and in France for example so yes go especially ask the older generations because once we lose the older generations they’re gone unfortunately and a lot of really interesting stories are gone with them hmm I don’t know if this is the case in your family but in my family there was a tendency for everyone to have very similar name so the mother the daughter everybody would have like a Maria in there or a Elizabeth particularly in my family I don’t know if you you find that that did muddies the water somewhat it depends on the culture I love that your family’s like that because I know in my family we passed down middle names so my middle name comes from my mother’s middle name mostly the naming patterns aren’t a big problem in the United States but if there’s a particular culture with naming traditions that are confusing that can be tricky I am very Italian and one of the naming traditions in Italy is to pass down your firstborn son has the father’s father’s name and then firstborn daughter has I think it’s I think it’s the mother’s mother’s name I’m probably wrong so don’t don’t take that as gospel for me please yeah it’s the same sort of thing in the Afrikaans culture and the older generations tended to do that so that stopped with my generation thank goodness otherwise I’d end up with all sorts of middle names but but all the generations that’s exactly it and so you say so will literally be having a conversation and we’ll say Lonnie and then we like I keep it which Lonnie because there’s like eight of them you know that is confusing so nicknames then abound so it ends up being like one boot which translates into uncle brother literally you know and that kind of thing so that’s how Wow uncle brother yes yeah that’s the literal translation of it it makes a lot more sense in Afrikaans it’s a cultural thing I think I love that though that’s interesting to me so I’m going to have to dig in more just to understand better I think that’s really really cool well good I’m glad I could a little spice to your life okay so you have obviously a fascination with history yes you’ve written at least one books it’s in a historical setting with a lot of research remind me of the title offend as long as love lasts and it was nominated for a golden well done thank you and the research in that and the way you wrote the the time and the feelings of feeling kind of a priest as woman was remarkable right so you obviously have a flair and a love for history is this why genealogy is so fascinating to you partially there’s a very personal reason and my parents divorced when I was about three or four years old and my mother was not part of my life so I just really wanted to know about her family and I kept I think I was about 12 years old when I started digging and digging and digging trying to figure it out and I finally got back in contact with my mother’s family over the years and it all sort of came together and yes in contacting my mom we have a great relationship but but that was what kind of started it I didn’t have my mother’s family to tell me these things so I had to know and it just became an obsession I guess from the time I was about 12 years old and I really started digging in earnest when I was about 18 and I’ve been doing this for 23 years now no 2026 oh my gosh I’m 44 – 18 that’s 26 Wow really fast well done thank you it’s a superpower and I I don’t math well not not one but I did not do well in algebra in the high school I still remember that I had someone try to demonstrate algebra to me with an orange and I told them all you’ve done is taught me how to divide myself by orange well I’m very impressed with you subtraction skills okay so it sounds to me like you got interested in the genealogy first and then maybe the history the passion for history grew out of that yes I think that’s fair to say because I know as a teenager my interest in history did develop kind of after that interest in family history I’m not ashamed to say I read a lot of zebra historical romances in the 80s and 90s I was at the drugstore buying those all the time so I take it this is like the kind of paperback historical romances that you get in bulk like it’s easily available oh yes yes they were very easily available in the 80s and 90s and then reading them made me wonder because a lot of times the authors would include historical figures like this woman might get involved with a king to you know save her life or something and so I was interested in who those Kings were and then I started reading actual nonfiction history outside of school and that was a lot of fun for me every time there’s an article about them digging up some to see king or queen or Duke or Duchess I want to know what they found and and what they did with those remains I’m always so curious about that and what do they do primarily with the remains a lot of DNA testing to prove who they are huh yeah they did that was um was it Richard the third who was buried under they they found his remains under a parking lot somewhere in in England and I I think it was Richard the third and they did DNA testing to determine was his father his father was his mother his mother and and compared him with modern-day descendants so that was really fascinating to me oh wow and that also is you know the G breath correct that’s a big part of genealogy these days is DNA testing I know that I’ve tested it pretty much every site available a lot of people are doing it I don’t know where you are do you do you get those advertisements on TV about DNA testing with any other companies or not so much no there’s only one place I know of the desert here and it’s a university and so we have a very good archaeology sector if you like in South Africa because we have we found a lot of remains that are considered like the first human and that kind of things so we have amazing archaeology here all right so that they will do DNA testing for you here’s my concerns DNA testing I wonder because they don’t seem to be any regulations around what they do with your DNA I don’t know if I want people to have my DNA on record I’m paranoid this way that’s understandable because there are a lot of privacy concerns out there I mean should we put you know pictures on Facebook of us in a particular place for example I know when I go on vacation I don’t tell people I’m away from my house I don’t say I’m not home so yeah that’s an understandable concern because who knows what they’re doing with the DNA I know in the United States they are working on enacting some laws regarding it but right now you kind of have to trust the company Terms of Service which not everyone does and I can understand why see I really done when a medical aide down the line saying I can’t get medical cover for cancer because I have a DNA thing in some DNA test from someone you do you know mean or that kind of thing so until we have laws for it I’m staying far away from those needles I’m the same way as far as I will not have my DNA tested for to check for health things because one of the the popular services called it’s called 23andme you can get your DNA tested for ancestry you can also get it tested for health I’m not getting that I did not get the health portion tested I don’t need to know for example if I have the breast cancer gene my mother had breast cancer and and you know she fought it in one my aunt on that side my cousins on that side I have had breast cancer I’m not gonna test for the gene it’s either going to happen to me or it’s not and I’m not gonna have an insurance company say sorry your DNA says you have a high risk for breast cancer I got a family history that says that that’s enough thank you very much yeah at will exactly so but that’s that’s a whole other conversation because that goes down conspiracy aa series and and stuff so let’s not get sucked into that rabbit hole it’s it’s mosey back to genealogy so you got started in with this really young did you have like a mentor or do you just kind of fumble your way through it did you read on it like how did you start I fumbled so much I just I was all symbols I would go to the library and pull down books of passenger lists and stare at names and say one of these must be me somewhere this must be an ancestor I don’t know which one and then I think I was about 16 or so and my grandmother pulled out this crumbling leather wallet that had photographs and family histories on her side alone on her mother’s side and deeds Civil War records from her let’s see he’s my great-great great-grandfather who served on the Union side during the Civil War and I was like grandma I love you and bam that really just help me get facts down on paper but until then I had no clue what I was doing and so when the DNA testing and stuff started becoming more popular did you just jump on that bandwagon and go oh my gosh this is like what I’ve been waiting for um I waited a little bit because early DNA testing was this was gender specific because early on you could only test Y DNA which is passed from father to son or midok ond real DNA which was passed from mother to child but mythic and real DNA is considered deep ancestry which means it’s telling you something about your mother’s mother’s mother’s etc thousands of years back so it’s not necessarily as useful for breaking through your kind of your genealogical brick walls those questions you have that you haven’t been able to answer but I did take that medic Andreea last and then when autosomal DNA came along oh gosh I’ve taken every single test that I can autosomal are the 23 chromosomes you inherit from your parents and they inherited those from their parents and so on and so forth and you get them from both sides those autosomes and that’s the testing is very popular these days with genealogy and what does that tell you so what is amol DNA tells you is who you’re related to it’s basically all it does doesn’t tell you health information it doesn’t go far back so it’s not going to tell you if you descended from Charlemagne if if his DNA had ever you know been tested it’s going to connect you with usually up to about fourth cousins it can connect you to more distant cousins but the odds of connecting say say to someone who connects to you back in the 1600s are a lot lower because of the fact that that autosomal DNA changes with each generation most of us have about a hundred percent of our DNA from our parents grandparents great-grandparents and great-great grandparents but once you get to your third great-grandparents you get fewer pieces of DNA from those ancestors going back so you do this taste and it spits out what like a bunch of names correct you get a you get an ethnicity estimate which I always tell people please don’t waste your money on an ethnicity estimate because they are not perfect because the companies have they’re comparing your DNA to a testing population that’s pretty limited they’re not for example I said I’m Italian they’re not comparing me to every person who is Italian in the world they’re comparing me to kind of a smaller group and trying to figure out just where I fit in so that ethnicity estimate can be useful but I don’t suggest spending the money just for that and then yes you get a whole bunch of matches a whole bunch of cousin matches or perhaps closer you may get some surprises and that is one way to to help you figure out an answer genealogical questions you might have and the answers you get are based on other people who also done this taste that is correct it was it was DNA that helped me determine my maternal grandfather’s paternity for example we would not know who his father was if we had not taken me my mother my sister and some first cousins if we had not tested our DNA we would not know the truth about who his father was and his father obviously did this to you no no actually my grandfather passed away before we got this answer and my grandfather has never tested his DNA his father passed away long before DNA testing was available the cool thing about autosomal DNA is you don’t need a parent or grandparent to have tested to determine who their parents were because say you’re your grandparent was an adoptee and this is big for adoptees and you want to find out who their family is but that grandparent is deceased you don’t necessarily need to test them to get the answers that you’re looking for there’s a lot of ways around that because they the DNA will be in in you the family done right exactly exactly so you’re in my grandfather’s case and and this is from the great-grandmother who was married to the suppose a drum runner she was a busy lady she had and I’m gonna look at my files she had ten children no I’m sorry nine nine children no that’s that’s ten no that’s seven let me let me see if I’m looking for you she had seven there we go she had seven I’m seeing half siblings because there are a total of like ten half siblings because of all the men she was involved with so she had seven and the first one was from a guy we have no clue who it was it was just she was pregnant and so this other guy said I’ll marry you and raise that kid is my own that guy was who said he’d marry her was the supposed to drum runner he married her they had four children together and then she got pregnant with my grandfather after this guy split on her so we were always told our grandfather was the son of a particular person that she married and we were like okay sure we took my mom and a whole bunch of us took DNA test and I said mom you’re your italia’ percentage is way higher than it should be and this is where as the ethnicity estimate can come in handy I was like your your italian percentage is like double what it ought to be because our italian comes from my mother’s mother’s side and i was like this is wrong there’s something wrong here and then i said who’s this group of cousin DNA has matched us to that all have the same last name and are all from the same place in Italy who the heck are these people that’s when I was able to dig in and find out that this particular man had been in the same place at the same time as my great-grandmother and that was the father of my grandfather not her first husband’s not her second husband great-grandmother was a busy lady she was she was getting busy I heard she was a horrible person I’ve heard no no the state took her kids away but then I’ve heard no she left her kids at the hospital she didn’t want to have any more oh yeah we figured that out and so we we were able to say okay grandpa’s dad was was this man from this particular place in Italy and we have second cousins on that side that help prove that and it was a lot of fun to figure that out most most of my family’s taken it well but like one aunt is not not too jazzed about it and this thing about DNA I was tell people be prepared for surprises so have you reached that to those cousins are you guys in touch yep we have contacted some of them the closest is a half a first cousin to my mom and dad and not my mom and dad my mom and uncle if he was a half cousin my mom and dad that would be weird – my mother and uncle and he was just like whoa I guess my grandfather was not faithful to his wife okay not everyone’s happy when they find out those sorts of things but for the most part like the second and third cousins think it’s really neat and are happy to be in touch with us that’s cool yeah that’s cool and it makes your Thanksgiving dinner table a little larger if anybody’s in around at the time hey yes you know that would be an interesting family reunion how much allowed hand-waving Italian people so that’s that’s one of the reasons that was one of the other things about what got me started on those paths because you know my father mentioned before my father raised me I didn’t have my mother and he would say why do you talk with your hands what are you Italian I’d say I don’t know maybe I am and then I found out I was more Italian than I then I realized that’s so interesting so that’s obviously a genetic thing that just passed on apparently I mean my mom’s side of the family is very they do gesticulate quite a bit when they talk and and they’re very huh huggy and warm and loving and that’s kind of a stereotype a lot of people have about Italian families is that they are very boisterous and and loving and and they you know care about family so much and that does seem to be true so you’re right I mean it is interesting this is interesting but do ladies I do watch out for surprises I mean if someone does take a DNA test you might discover things you did not expect I discovered a first cousin they didn’t know I had which was ultimately awesome because she is the daughter of an uncle of mine who perished and when a ship sank in 1982 and we had no idea he had a child out there no clue he never told anyone and when we matched up on a DNA test it was like happy tears for the entire family because he was like our favorite you know brother son uncle and the family so finding her was amazing but I’ve also found a first cousin to my father who has freaked out and she doesn’t want to be contacted because she took a test expecting it to tell her she was 50% French 50% Italian because that’s what her parents were what she found out was she was 75% English and she’s like no no no this is wrong and I’m like okay well you know what here’s my phone number when you’re ready I am here to talk to you and I just left it bad so the moral of the story is don’t lie to your kids cuz they’re gonna do a genealogy taste and they’re gonna figure out you lie anyway exactly please please tell them if they’re adopted at some point you know find a time to sit down and have some tea together and say I have something to tell you yeah because that’s harsh a just like discovering this way it must not be fun no I can’t imagine how she’s she’s feeling because genealogists those of us who are very into family history we get excited when we see a new DNA match we want to jump on you we if you are a very close match we once you grab you and hold on to you and say you are family and some people don’t want that some people take the test for the ethnicity estimate or they just they take the test cook because they think it will be fun and then they have a surprise and it can be really upsetting there’s a lot of foundlings who have been taking DNA tests so it’s not just for genealogy or adoption you know there’s so many stories of foundlings in the 1920s and 30s and 40s just being left in a briar hedge somewhere and found and raised and you know there’s support groups now for people to take DNA tests to figure out adoptions and who their actual parents are because then you have to reconcile like if you were adopted how does my biological family fit into my life with the family that raised and loved me so there’s a lot of a lot of that going a lot on a lot of emotional conflict for people so as much as people like me want to grab those new those new cousin matches and say yes I’m so happy I found you they might not always be as receptive on the other side so as enthusiastic as as we are as genealogists we have to step back and say I understand you found something you didn’t expect big can of worms so here’s my phone number you know give that out in like good faith that this is your first or second cousin and and just be ready for when they want to come to you you’re listening to the news bein talk show the lesbians or choke on your hub of podcast information what if you discovered that you’re like very closely related to like a serial killer or something something like that happening dude I don’t know if I could handle this there is a there’s a TV show that called relative race and it’s on BYU TV I admit I kind of avoided it for a while because that’s you know very Mormon flavored and I thought it would be very religious and I’m like I’m not watching the show but I decided to watch it and one of the people was told she was related to Ted Bundy and she just looked she looked like she just wanted to run far far in the opposite direction and then the guy was like well he was adopted into the family so you’re not biologically related to him but when he brought the name up oh my god that’s the look on this woman’s face was no please don’t say that I think most people would either embrace the kind of infamy of it or say no thank you they don’t want to know absolutely I can totally see that huh so that’s interesting okay so if other people wants to get into this apart from sitting down and writing down what they know what’s then what is there like a society you can join oh gosh there are so many societies there are many lineage societies for example the general Society of Mayflower descendants for those of us who have descended from the pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower but I would not jump to a genealogical society like that just yet because the next thing I would do is do your research people can look online at record collections they can look on free websites like familysearch.org which has records from all over the world that’s where I find a lot of Italian records actually on my family but they have records from every continent so you sit down you gather those births marriages and deaths you look at those census almost every country has a census at least at some point of their citizens and you just start putting that fuller picture together looking to see if your ancestor served in the military military records are really full of information particularly if they served in the Civil War in the United States you’re going to find a wealth of information in pension records so you just learn about the records out there slowly work your way back generation by generation see what you find and if you do have an improve a lineage to you know a particular ancestor who for whom there’s a society or a particular country then maybe you take the step to join a lineage Society or visit that country to learn more but I would just take it very slowly and not copy online family trees it’s really easy for people to get into the habit of copying online family trees and not verifying information and there are known lineages that are intentionally wrong out there there were actually skimmers in the nineteen I want to say I don’t want to say it was in the 19th early 1900s people who would make up lineages for people willing to pay to be told they were descended from like royalty and such so be really careful about which family trees you’re copying down online and verify everything independently finds those actual birth marriage death records those actual military records actual census records newspaper articles don’t don’t assume everything you find online is correct please do you think it’s going to become easier or more difficult to for future generations to figure out lineage we have an abundance of information but we also have an abundance of information I think right now is a really really great time for genealogy or learning about anything in general because yes we do have a lot of information but we still have physical libraries and I I seriously will spend hours in the library cranking through a microfilm still because some things still aren’t available online and I think we’re at a kind of a good midpoint of yes everything is available online no not quite everything still have to go to the library for this or that but I do think in the future oh gosh I think in the future it’s going to be harder to separate fact from fiction I mean it already is now already is so I think what’s gonna be most important is people using critical thinking skills and having a really good level of discernment in picking what records make the most sense making sure that yes that’s your family member and making sure to verify hypotheses about your family and not just coming up with a wild guess and going this must be it and and calling it good yeah I think it could it could get a little harder to separate what’s real from what’s not if if we’re not careful yeah absolutely it’s easier today than ever to spread information and that can be complete misinformation oh gosh yes oh my goodness okay do you have anything else you want to shoot I just want to say if you do take a DNA test and you have questions look for people who could answer those questions I’m always happy to answer questions and kind of help people out but keep an eye up for reputable reputable websites or Facebook groups that will assist you if you do that don’t cling too much to the idea of certain family stories passed down don’t be disappointed if you find out know grandma was not a Native American princess you know don’t don’t feel bad because of what you may discover it’s going to be something else that’s interesting to you and you know it may take a while to kind of come around to it but sometimes the most mundane stuff is is a little nicer anyway Sydney more believable not everybody can have a princess and sister all right Wendy you writers Jea Hawkins tell us about your latest book oh goodness so um my last release was as far as romance was as long as love lasts which is a historical and contemporary romance novel that kind of goes back and forth between two periods in time when a woman and her wife find the letters and diary of a great-aunt who was involved with a woman who worked for a circus so that is also the book I’m most proud of there’s also wonderful elephants there is you broke my heart oh but the elephant was a silly charming and the meet-cute is absolutely worth it and so you should run out and get the book and we can people find you online so they can find me at jeahawkins.com and I’m on Twitter not big on Facebook or anything like that except under my real name and mostly I talk genealogy there so if you interested in the genealogy you can find under windy Callahan on Facebook otherwise Jea Hawkins with the author profilers Jay hope you guys not you can use your hobbies in the show notes for more information about my guests and to find our new mate patreon where you can get extensive podcast and help us go talk to you if you enjoyed this podcast please rate us especially if you listen on Apple podcasts that’s all for this episode have a Hobbylicious day