With a smile—and perhaps a twinkle of the eye—some researchers talk about "cousin bait" when they discuss strategy for working on brick wall ancestors. It all seems so far-fetched, this hope that a total stranger who happens to be a relative might know more about an ancestor than we do. After all, we are the diligent researchers, doing everything possible to find that elusive answer to our research question. But think about it: even if your immediate family wasn't the one to inherit great-grandmother's treasure trove of family photographs, surely somebody did.
That is the cousin we all want to find.
Face it: our family story would not be complete without the addition of all the voices in that family. Even those cousins for whom a two minute talk about genealogy would sent them into spasms of "MEGO" (My Eyes Glaze Over). The challenge is not only to find those cousins, but to inspire them to become part of the family history conversation.
Some cousins may want only to share a picture, then back out of the research project. That's fine. Every little step is still a step forward. One clue can lead to another. That old sales question—"if you're not interested in buying, could you refer me to someone who would like this?"—could apply here. Never leave one participating cousin without securing a referral to another cousin who might know more.
Others, though, may offer up one gem, then another, and pretty soon you realize you have been bestowed with a wealth of family information.
Those contacts may arrive after a well-planned "cousin bait" campaign, or they may come at you unbidden, at the least expected time. The other day, I mentioned meeting up unexpectedly with a distant McClellan cousin while touring a local genealogical society's library holdings on a visit to my great-grandfather Rupert McClellan's birthplace in Wellborn, Florida. While I descend from Rupert McClellan's grandfather George, this cousin claims George's brother Henry Young McClellan, also a Florida pioneer. She was quite willing to give me a printout of her McClellan line from her desktop genealogy program. Since I set aside this last week of November to work on my McClellan roots, I've revisited that document and am slowly working my way through it, confirming details as I add the information to my tree at Ancestry.com.
As I work through this gift from a cousin I never knew, I'm reminded of all the other times I've benefitted from collaborating with cousins. Some cousins have turned out to be longstanding research partners, each of us working on parallel projects, then sharing our results with each other. It makes for a more enjoyable exchange.
But how do you find such willing cousin collaborators? Years ago, when I first moved my research online, I relied on those genealogy forums—remember RootsWeb and GenForum?—where people could post their research queries in hopes of connecting with The Cousin Who Has All The Answers. Many times, those efforts gained me nothing. But other times, the results were like striking gold in the mother lode.
That was then, but this is now, you might be thinking. True, genealogy forums have morphed and migrated to social media sites, with results not quite as spectacular. There is, however, another way to find cousins, something many of us have accessed for a quite different reason: DNA testing. After all, what do you hope to get lots of when you send in your DNA test kit? Lots of cousins. Yes, many of them only wanted to see if they could exchange their lederhosen for a kilt and will never reply to messages from matches. But there are many other DNA testers who are quite interested in connecting with their DNA cousins.
These can be our best potential collaborators if we can approach them tactfully and interest them in at least beginning to compare notes. Those who are truly interested—and able to equally share in the research process—will make themselves obvious in the process. Though some will not follow through, it is so worth the investment in time to find cousins who are willing to enter into an ongoing research conversation to discover all we can about our missing—or misunderstood—ancestors.