Cousins Online
by G. G. Vandagriff

Here are some tips for using the Internet to find your vital genealogical records.

During the year 2000, because of the technology of the Internet, I began finding more cousins than ever before in my genealogical research. Part of what makes this new technology so much fun is that you can communicate instantaneously, scan and send documents, and chat and share several times a day. I have even been communicating on a daily basis with a distant relative in Germany!

After attending the Federation of Genealogical Societies and Utah Genealogical Association’s World of Records Conference in September of that year, I decided to broaden my use of the Internet in reaching out to potential relatives. One of the speakers I was fortunate enough to hear was Cyndi Howells, owner of Cyndi’s List, one of the most comprehensive on-line resources for genealogists. Using a computer projector, she demonstrated how to find lists you might want to subscribe to. I had already subscribed to RootsWeb surname and county lists without a lot of success, but I hadn’t thought about using the Internet for international research.

Two Difficult Lines

I have two especially difficult lines which account for a lot of the blank space on my pedigree charts. The first is my maternal grandfather’s line. He was born in a German colony in Russia, and though I had recently (through the Internet) gained access to old census records from the 1700’s, I had little information about the 1800’s. Using Cyndi Howell’s instructions, I scrolled down on her web page until I found Germany. Then I saw that there was a special web page for the Volga Germans, which is the area of Russia my Grandfather came from. There was a mailing list for the Volga Germans. I had three surnames of my relatives who came from the same colony. After subscribing to the mailing list by following the simple on-line directions, I posted three separate queries–Henkle of Doenhof, Stoll of Doenhof, and Lohrengel of Doenhof.I also looked at the surname archives to see what other people were researching those surnames in the same place. I quickly realized that there was one person I surely must be related to as she was researching both Lohrengelsand Henkels from Doenhof. I sent her a message to the email address given, just in case she no longer subscribed to the list. She answered almost immediately, giving me a brief outline of her family.

People with German families from Russia often communicate mostly by rumor. In many cases that is all we have. Our ancestors weren’t interested in talking about the old country and so facts are few. However, Heidi told me a few things that immediately sent me back to my Lohrengel file which I had given up on and filed in the garage. She told me that her ancestor Phillip Lohrengel had married a Katherine Henkeland, and that they had had, among others, two daughters named Marie who had died. A vague memory stirred.

I sifted through all the old letters and documents I had. Then, suddenly there it was before me. I had saved an old letter of a distant Lohrengel cousin written to my Grandmother in 1975! In it she mentioned her cousin Phillip Lohrengel who was married to a cousin of my great grandfather’s (Heinrich Henkel).They had two children named Marie who died.Bingo!

It was very exciting to compare notes with Heidi after that. She scanned and transmitted photographs, marriage licenses, and even naturalization papers. I got a complete family group sheet on Phillip’s family that I had known nothing about. Any details on families coming out of Russia are as scarce as hen’s teeth, so I was delighted to learn all about this brother of my great grandmother and his descendants. Heidi was happy, too, for she had not known Phillip’s parents until I gave them to her from my research. There is probably no other way I could have gained that information.

Exploring Pommerania Online

My other difficult line is my father’s maternal line that goes back into what is now Poland. It used to be Pommerania, East Prussia. Using Cyndi’s list, I found another mailing list which was actually in German and English, specializing in “Pommern” the German designation for Pommerania. I hadn’t been on the list for more than a couple of days when I made contact with Rainer Wagner, a German whose “specialty” was the Polenske’s of Pommern. Polenske is my family name. He had an entire website dedicated to them. When we corresponded by e-mail, I found that he even had many of the descendants of the Polenske’s down to my Grandfather Gibson! He asked only that I give him whatever I had on the American descendants of my Polenske ancestor, and he obliged by giving me pages and pages of information from the Ratzebuhr , Pommern parish records. I had gone over those records myself, so I knew that his information was legitimate. The thing that was so wonderful was that he was German and could read the old German schrift far better than I could. He clarified several things that had remained mysteries to me. He also gave me more complete genealogies of descendants, half-brothers and sisters, etc.

If I hadn’t already looked up the records that Rainer shared with me, it would have been of the greatest importance that I verify the dates and places that he gave me. A potential danger of the Internet is that people may become lazy and use it as a primary source, which it certainly is not. Where possible, everything we get off the Internet should be documented by using a primary source. In the case of my cousin, Heidi, she scanned and sent me the primary source material using the Internet. In the case of Rainer, I knew what film he had used to get his information from, because I had attempted to use it myself with some success.

The best thing about using the Internet to do genealogy is that it can point you in the right direction, uncover previously unknown sources, connect you with people who might have answers in their possession or know where to find them, and best of all, help you to find new relatives!

A Few Basic Tips

If you haven’t tried using mailing lists before and would like to, here are a few basic tips to get you started:

-Go to and enter your surnames in the search boxes. This should direct you to a surname community that will then inform you how to go about subscribing to a surname list. Once you are on the list, you will receive all the e-mail from all the other subscribers to the list.

-Follow a similar strategy for joining county and state mailing lists.

-Use to find ethnic or other types of lists you might want to subscribe to by scrolling down her web page and seeing what links she has to other sites.

-Read subscription instructions carefully and follow them exactly as they are given in order to guarantee success.

-Keep a copy of the welcome message you receive for future reference. It will tell you how to unsubscribe, how to contact the list owner, and how to post messages and reply.

-Do not send file attachments to a mailing list. Other no-no’s are junk mail and virus warnings. Also, make sure what you post is relevant to that particular list and is on the topic of genealogy. Some people can’t resist making political or other types of personal statements that are not appropriate for these lists.

-Do not post private or personal information about yourself unless you are entirely comfortable with this information becoming public knowledge. Remember everyone’s right to privacy and do not post information about living relatives to the list. You may do this in private e-mails to individuals if it is called for.

-Whenever possible quote your sources. Indicate titles of books, web site addresses, library names or any other reference you have used.

Have fun!

2004 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.