5 Tips For Tracking Down Your Family Tree

Have you ever wanted to track down a branch of your family tree, but aren't sure how to go about it? Well, here's a story that'll not only inspire you to get going, but that'll give you some not-so-obvious tips for finding your ancestry that will actually be useful. Paula Williams Madison knew this much about her ancestry: she was part Chinese, looked Black, and would probably never know anything about her maternal grandfather, unless she was willing to go to extreme measures. Luckily, probably like you, Madison is a woman who likes a challenge.

Madison grew up hearing about her mother's yearning for her lost father. Her mother was an "outside child," a daughter born of an affair between a Chinese businessman, Samuel Lowe, and a Jamaican woman, Albertha. When Albertha found out that Lowe planned to take a Chinese wife, she fled in outrage with their daughter, refusing to allow Lowe any contact with her. Nell, Madison's mother, grew up without a father, a fact that haunted her all her life and spurred Madison in her quest to reclaim her Chinese family and, perhaps, give her mother's soul some rest.

Madison's memoir Finding Samuel Lowe chronicles her journey to discover her past, spanning from Jamaica to Harlem to China as Madison struggles to track down a branch of her family that doesn't even know she exists. As she tries to find her place in the world, she gives some tips for others trying to discover their family tree. Spoiler: It's not easy.

Gather As Much Information As You Can Before You Set Out

It's a big world out there, and going out searching for your ancestry blind is a fool's errand. Madison had some knowledge of her grandfather to start with: His American name, the time span he was in Jamaica, and his occupation. From there she was able to gather more information that would eventually lead to a breakthrough. But without at least some lead to start with, you might as well just run up to anyone on the street and ask them if you're related.

Keep The Reason For Your Search In Mind

Madison hit a lot of dead ends, and it took a massive amount of time and resources to eventually find her family in China. Luckily, she had some pretty strong motivation: fulfilling her mother's dream of finding her father. With this idea fixed in her mind, she was more willing to work through the setbacks she encountered, rather than giving up.

Be Willing To Ask Anyone (Including Strangers) for Help

I should probably say be willing to ask anyone, ESPECIALLY strangers, for help. In order to learn more about her grandfather, Madison asked anyone and everyone that she could think of for help. She went to a Hakka conference to try to find others who might know her distant family, and even roped in a documentary film maker to help her out. Apparently finding long lost relatives is not for the shy or anti-social.

Be Prepared For the Worst

Madison's husband warned her that she, a black woman, might not be readily embraced by her Chinese family. In fact, her entire search could just be building her up for heartbreak. Although happily this was not the case, there's always the chance that, when you go digging, you could find something that you didn't want to find. Maybe your family isn't so happy that you want to be a part of their lives, or maybe they have an unsavory past. So be prepared: your ancestry might not be all rainbows and sunshine.

Know That Your Perception of Yourself and Your World Will Change

For Madison, finding her Chinese family opened up an entirely new world for her: suddenly she held claim to a culture and a history that she never before felt connected to. More importantly, she went from being a woman with limited extended family to suddenly having a ton of aunts, uncles, and cousins that all wanted to be a part of her life. For better or worse, finding out more about where you came from can and probably will change you. Before you start looking, be comfortable with the idea that you may not be exactly the same person that you were in the beginning of your search.

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