The story of my margarine-moonshining ancestors is the genealogical gift that keeps on giving. One especially gratifying aspect is that from the beginning it has connected me to distant cousins — some of whom I’ve found, some of whom have found me, and all of us tied together not only by blood, but also by margarine.
It all began with my third cousin Nikole, who Googled her great-grandfather and came across the mug shot of him which I had posted online. I’ve seen her three summers in a row during her family’s annual visit to New York, and this coming summer I will fly out to the west coast to attend her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah and participate in the service! Wouldn’t our ancestors be proud!
Other margarine cousin meetings followed. Most exciting by far was my cousin Zach, who saw publicity for my margarine talk at IAJGS in Salt Lake City this past July and turned up most unexpectedly. Meeting him got me thinking about all the ways we all can attract more cousins to us. You don’t need to give a talk at a national conference about your family’s history to create good cousin bait online. You also don’t need to be a web whiz, nor do you have to worry about the privacy issues around making your whole tree public.
First, be sure to post genealogy information on a website that doesn’t require a login. Ancestry and MyHeritage are not sites where the typical person with only a casual interest in family history would sign up.
My favorite way of creating intriguing cousin bait online is posting pictures in public photo albums using a site like Flickr or Picasa. I found a second cousin on my Hepps side through the picture she posted on Flickr, and others margarine cousins besides Nikole found me a few years ago via my album of mug shots on Picasa.
If you want a richer site for your family, the easiest way is to start a blog on a free site like Blogger.com or WordPress.com. You don’t need to use it as a blog, though. You can just create posts for the branches of your family you want to share. If you want something that truly feels more like a website, try Weebly.com or Wix.com.
Of course, Treelines is designed to make it easy post selected parts of your tree along with stories and pictures. A possible Hungarian cousin found me through a story my father and I posted about a famous rabbi we think we might be related to. She’s helping us with the Hungarian research!
Whether on an album, a blog, or a website, make sure whatever you post lists people’s full names and any other identifying information that will let cousins feel more confident about a possible match.
Also make sure that anything you create online lists you as the creator of this information and provides a way for people to get in touch with you. Some of these sites allow users to comment on pictures, others have private messaging functionality, and some allow you to have a personal profile page. Putting yourself on a social network like Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+ is the best way to make sure that not only can people find you to contact you, but also you can screen connections to avoid unwanted interactions. (If you’re really averse to social networks, a site like About.me makes it easy to create a homepage yourself with a form for people to email you.) Whatever kind of profile page you create, be sure to include links to any family albums or genealogy web pages you’ve created elsewhere.
If you’re concerned about copyright, the Legal Genealogist has a lot of useful information about copyrights, both protecting your own and avoiding violating others’.
Please note that no matter how much work you do posting cousin bait, there are factors beyond your control. Google’s algorithms are complicated and constantly evolving, and if your family names aren’t particularly unique, your content may be buried under pages of search results. But the more you share publicly, the greater the odds a cousin will find it – and you!
Sometimes, though, we just have to do the hard work of tracking people down ourselves. The fun of meeting Zach made me determined to find more margarine cousins, four of whom attended my most recent moonshiner talk at the Jewish Genealogical Society of the Conejo Valley and Ventura County earlier this month. After my talk, they shared with me their stories and old photographs, which added a lot of color to parts of the tree I had previously known little of. And that’s why all the effort you put into cousin bait is worthwhile — the joy of being able to share your hard-won discoveries with a receptive audience as well as learning new chapters of your family’s history you could have never discovered on your own.