How to Approach Living Relatives for Genealogical Information

Have you met a new relative online and aren’t sure how to approach them for genealogical information? Here’s how to ask to get the best chance of a “yes.”

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If you are researching a “brick wall” ancestor, one of the best things you can do to find out more about them is to seek out other people online who are part of that ancestor’s family tree. These are your distant genetic cousins. You probably have never met them, or even heard of them, since they are so far removed from your own direct line. Yet, you share a common ancestor somewhere in the past. If the paper trail on a brick wall ancestor has run cold, finding someone else who is descended from that person and talking to them may yield new information.

You never know where the family artifacts are going to go. When an ancestor had a dozen children, any one of them could have inherited the family Bible, family photos, and other important genealogical information. Other children may have inherited only a few trinkets, or nothing at all, and the genealogical information for that branch is lost. Somewhere out there, though, there may be a branch that has everything you need to get past the brick wall and more.

It’s easier than you think to find these people online. Searching through public family trees on places like and can turn up other people doing research on the same brick wall ancestor as you. You never know what information they have until you ask them.

While most people doing genealogy are very open to sharing information with others, as it is part of what opens genealogical doors, sometimes people are wary of talking to strangers they’ve never met in person. This is especially true when it comes to sensitive family information. There is a rightful concern about privacy and identity theft among a segment of the genealogical community. If you want to get these people to talk to you, you have to know how to approach them to make yourself seem like the trustworthy person you really are.

The best thing you can do with someone who seems reticent to talk to you about family history is to prove to them that you really are related to them on a particular line. Tell them everything you know about the line, and connect yourself to your shared common ancestor by providing them with your own family tree information back to that person. Include photos of ancestors on that line in your email to them, if you have such photos. This will all serve as proof that you are who you say you are and are only enquiring to fill in the gaps on your own family tree.

Above all, be polite and respectful in your initial and follow-up emails. Don’t be demanding. Just because they share an ancestor with you doesn’t mean they have to share information with you. Tell them why you want to know more, let them know where you ran into the brick wall and how long you’ve been trying to break through it, and ask if they can help you. Let them know how important it is to you to fill in your family tree on this line.

If they still don’t want to provide any direct information, ask them if they can at least point you in the right direction for further research. Maybe you can at least copy the research they’ve already done by re-tracing their steps. They may also point you to other genetic relatives who may be more willing to talk.

Once you find a genetic relative on your brick wall line, you have a possible avenue for breaking down the wall. Approach the relative correctly, and you may get the information you’ve sought for such a long time.


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