COLUMBIA — Mike Trial has always had a deep connection with members of his family. But after sifting through hundreds of pictures, slides and documents, he’s never felt closer to them.
Two years ago, Trial decided to research his family tree by sifting through 360 slides, 170 photos, a journal, newspaper clippings, birth certificates and other documents.
Along the way, he learned more about each family member’s personality, gained a new appreciation for his past and uncovered some family secrets. He was surprised, for instance, to find divorce papers showing his father had a wife before marrying Trial's mother.
In April, Trial pulled together his research and published “Distant Horizons," a story tracing his parents' journey from the rural Midwest to Saudi Arabia, where his father was stationed in the military.
It begins in 1925, when his parents were children, and ends in 1950, when Trial was 4 and a sister was born. Along the way, he introduces his grandparents, aunts and uncles, providing a rich narrative of the vibrant intricacies of his family network.
Trial said his book represents a journey of discovery.
"There's really two journeys," Trial said. "My parents' journey through life, and my journey of discovery about them."
Tracing the trends
According to a 2009 Harris Interactive survey, 87 percent of Americans expressed an interest in exploring their family history. In December 2010, traffic to 10 popular genealogy websites exceeded 17.5 million unique visitors.
Ancestry.com, one of the most popular sites, has more than 2 million subscribers, a number that has reportedly doubled over the last three years. For the starting rate of $13 a month, subscribers can access more than 11 billion online documents and images.
Matthew Deighton, public relations specialist with Ancestry.com, said that the interactive nature of the site and introduction of a mobile app have propelled interest in genealogy to a younger generation.
“Younger and younger people are getting involved with tracing family history, and it’s exciting to see it,” Deighton said. “Advancements in technology have really done well with tracing that history.”
The widespread interest has resulted in television shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” on NBC and “Finding Your Roots” on PBS. Both document the family history of celebrities such as Martha Stewart, Robert Downey Jr., Sarah Jessica Parker and Spike Lee.
Tim Dollens, a local genealogist who teaches classes about ancestry at the Columbia Public Library, helps people navigate websites and records to help them find exactly what they are looking for.
He believes the recent increase in interest of tracing genealogy stems not only from more accessible records, but also from the retirement of baby boomers who have more time to search for their roots.
“So many people say ‘I wish I would have listened to my grandfather when he was telling a story,’” Dollens said. “This technology is at your fingers, and these people see the connection to tracing your family history.”
Finding his roots
Trial decided to trace his genealogy the old-fashioned way by following a paper trail.
"It's daunting the way I did it," Trial said. "At first I thought, 'Where do I start?'"
Trial remembers his father taking a lot of pictures, always dating a slide or photograph on the back and adding the location. His father used a classic Leica camera, which Trial still owns.
"All the slides are 50 to 60 years old, and the color is still as bright and sharp as when they were taken," Trial said. "I was floored when I first saw them."
For starters, Trial organized all the photos, slides and documents in a rough chronological order.
"I had to make sure I had enough table space first," he said with a laugh.
After examining hundreds of photographs and slides, Trial said he learned the most about his family through their facial expressions.
"I feel like I became an amateur psychologist," Trial said.
He also discovered lost and forgotten facts about his family. He found of a picture of his paternal grandfather's tombstone, for instance along with a newspaper clipping citing the cause of death as suicide.
"It blew my mind," Trial said. "It was something so dramatic, and now the reason for why he did it is unknowable."
Trial said the most rewarding part of conducting his research and writing the book was getting to know his parents in different stages of their lives.
"Usually, people are going to write a family history so they can give it to their kids or grandchildren," Trial said. "I wanted to get to know my family.”
Dollens, who has been active in genealogy for 33 years, said the biggest benefit of tracing his personal family history was a greater appreciation of American history and the people who lived before him.
“It helps you appreciate what you have now when you look at the past’s hardships,” he said. “I’m in awe of what my ancestors have done just to survive.”
How to get started
Genealogists, such as Nancy Thomas with the Missouri State Genealogical Association, recommend starting with the records in your possession before moving online or elsewhere.
Once those are cataloged, the next step is building a family tree. Ancestry.com has developed a number of features, including a “family tree” tool with a TreeSync option that links information together.
Thomas suggests double-checking any family trees matched on Ancestry.com to make sure they are accurate. She said the best way to do this is to search for digital copies of records created at the time of the event.
These can be found either online or can be verified by going to libraries and courthouses that house records in their original form.
The state genealogical association is holding its annual convention in Columbia on Aug. 2 and 3 with sessions devoted to tracing ancestors through Civil War property claims, circuit court records and even music history.
Thomas said familysearch.org, a free online database of records complied by the Latter-day Saints church, is a helpful site to double check records as well.
Most websites also have tips for searching census data, immigration records, vital records, phone directories and military resources.
“You have to do an exhaustive search,” Thomas said. “After a while, you can definitely get addicted to it.”
Writing the book
For Trial, however, tracing his family history was more about discovery than obsession.
Once he had organized his records in chronological order, he realized there was a natural flow and progression of the pictures that created a rich story.
The timeline also revealed gaps that stretched, at most, a couple of months.
"I had to make logical guesses on what my family would have been doing during the years I couldn't find any photographs or pictures," Trial said.
He decided he would write a book in narrative form with his family as characters in a novel who would develop as they did in real life.
"I didn't want it to read like a textbook," Trial said. "If you tell a story, people are more likely to listen."
He carefully verified the historical accuracy but also used a measure of creativity when constructing dialogue.
"Of course, I'll never truly know what my parents said on a trip to Egypt," Trial said. "But I write my perception of what I believed they would have said to make the novel flow."
He said it's a universal desire to research your family history after reaching a certain age, but the book takes his research a step further.
"In the end, a novel, all organized and nice looking, is better for me than boxes of unlabeled photographs," he said.
Planning another project
Trial hopes to write another book, starting where "Distant Horizons" ends. He plans to use the same research techniques to complete the story.
"I don't even want to think about how much photographs I'm going to have to sort through again," Trial said with a laugh.
Although he knows how overwhelming the process of tracing family lineage can be, he is a strong believer of the benefits it brings.
"It gives meaning to our own lives to find out what our family has done," Trial said. "It tells you a lot about yourself."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.