In my over 30+ years of work in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario one ongoing request was for assistance in working on a family history.
Resources have certainly changed since the print-based 1970s, and the amount of material available on the Internet at no or minimal cost is phenomenal.
Online Family History Programs
For convenience, one can join one of the genealogy sites that help build your family tree. I belonged to Ancestry.ca for about a year. If you are comfortable with $180-$240 a year, that’s actually a decent way to go. Ancestry makes it easy to build your family tree, and gives smooth access to original sources like census records, marriage records, death records, and the like. You also get access to family trees of other researchers who may be working on the same family lines. Of course you’ve also seen Ancestry’s ads for having your DNA checked (for an additional fee). However because of privacy concerns, Ancestry and other sites of this sort, do not include searchable records for living persons. This can be frustrating when you are trying to add second or third cousins and more distant aunts and uncles into your tree.
A cheaper alternative to Ancestry is FamilySearch, a family history site operated by the Mormons. It’s free, but is clunkier to operate, though it includes some of the same original sources at no cost. Both services allow you to add photographs, and to include documentation that you’ve used in building the tree.
I left Ancestry.ca after a year because I found that their most useful original resources for me could be obtained freely elsewhere, though with a bit more work.
Computer-based Genealogy Software
If you don’t want to keep your family data online, you’ll probably purchase one of the genealogy software packages for your home computer. I use Brother’s Keeper, mostly because it was bundled with the GRANDMA database I use and will describe below. It costs $45 U.S. for the registered version, which is usually a good a idea because it provides some support, and helps ongoing development of the software. A popular alternative is Legacy Family Tree which costs $40 US for the basic registered version. As with Brother’s Keeper there is a free version with fewer bells and whistles. If you have built a family tree on one of the online services, you can download them to your computer if you install some of this software later.
Big Online Databases of Family Information
But where can you get a lot of family information in one place, you ask. This depends on the Mennonite historical stream from which you descend. If you are from the Dutch-North German-Russian line, your best sources are the GRANDMA database, and the Mennonite Genealogical Resources maintained by the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society.
GRANDMA includes information on 1.3 million persons, primarily of “Russian Mennonite” background. An online subscription for two years costs $20 U.S. The online version does not include date or place information on living people. To download the full database to your computer to use with your own software, the cost is $40 U.S., and includes more complete information. GRANDMA tries to reconcile entries so that an individual is included once, though not always successfully. Mennonite Genealogical Resources includes a wide variety of specialized databases that may be helpful in your search, including church records, local municipality records, etc.
If you descend from the South German-Swiss-Pennsylvania line, you have one large option. This is the Swiss Anabaptist Genealogical Association (SAGA). The database in 2017 included 5.2 million records, but the difference from GRANDMA is that no attempt is made to merge records. SAGA is a collection of dozens of genealogical files loaded by volunteers. Your online search covers all the databases, so that when you find your grandmother, you may see that she is listed in five different databases with varying amounts of detail provided in each. You need to discern which is most accurate, and over time you get to know which databases are most reliable on family lines of interest to you. The cost to be a member of SAGA is $10/year or $20 for four years. You’re on your own to discern quality, but a vast amount of information is available.
If you are more Ontario focused, you have some smaller options. The two best are Waterloo Region Generations and Ezra Eby Revived!. Generations is hosted by the Region of Waterloo and is based on Ezra Eby’s 1895 Biographical History of Waterloo Township, with additions into the current generation. In 2017 it included 300,000 names with 1 million source citations and some images. Most names will have some connection with Waterloo County. Ezra Eby Revived is a project of Allan Dettweiler, a longtime local Mennonite genealogist. The database includes 250,000 names, and follows Mennonite family lines with less emphasis on local connections. So the information varies between the two sites; use them both. Ezra Eby Revived? is presently not closely maintained because of health issues.
If you do not descend from one of the two large streams, your genealogical research will take you to genealogical resources more related to your own ethnic heritage. The Ontario Genealogical Society and its branches, or the local history department of the public library might be helpful.
Mennonite Archives of Ontario
The Mennonite Archives of Ontario holds many resources for Mennonite genealogists. These include hundreds of published genealogies that might be of interest, some unpublished genealogies, personal manuscript collection of prominent and not-so-prominent Ontario Mennonites, Bibles with family listings, cemetery listings, some birth and death records, photographs, Mennonite periodicals in paper and microform (some of which include extensive obituaries), and good advice. Making an appointment with Archivist Laureen Harder-Gissing would be a good idea. This may be a place to visit after you have already begun your project with one of the online services.
Family history can be fun and addictive. It can also be frustrating. Be kind to those in your extended family who are willing to take this role upon themselves.