I'm extremely lucky. I became fascinated with history as a child and I was already doing my family tree as a teenager. That meant that I had grandparents and all of their siblings alive to start me off.
Therefore I've known about William and Martha Milliken since about 1990. Twenty-two years later, I've only just got the break-through which will lead me into their past. I will use their story to demonstrate first hand how Ancestry is useful.
What did we know? William Milliken was born in Scotland between 1802-1804. He married Martha Hannah (born 1819), in Dailly, Ayrshire, on October 12th 1843. They had children, born in Scotland (no place-name, but let's assume that Martha went home to her mother for that one. First child and all.); Antrim, Northern Ireland; and Wolverhampton, England.
William died in 1869. Martha moved to Chorlton, near Manchester, in England, with her Scottish son and Irish daughter. Her English daughter was left behind in Wolverhampton, as she'd married a local man.
Other than details about occupation, that is it. And, let's be honest here, most of what you just read about Martha Hannah came from research on Ancestry.com too.
For the best part of the past two decades, I've been chipping away at this brick wall. Milliken is a very common name in certain places. Particularly when you factor in all of the variants: Millikin, Milligan, Millican and all of the rest. Galloway, Ayrshire, Strathclyde and Edinburgh are infested with them. Hop over the Irish Sea and you're completely overwhelmed.
Once I'd established that William Milliken wasn't from Dailly, all clues dried up. It wasn't that I couldn't find any trace, but that it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Then, this week, I happened to be in the Wolverhampton Methodist chapel records from 1829, like you do. Jean Milliken was getting married, happy days! But way too early to be of concern to me. Mine were still running around Scotland at this point. Or were they?
I glanced at the witnesses to this marriage and the two names practically glowed. One was William Milliken himself and the other was Agnes Smith. Yes, that could have been any William, but not in Wolverhampton. Everyone in that city was English or Welsh at the time. I'd have skipped right past a Smith or Jones, but not a Milliken. Too rare a name in that context.
Plus I'd seen Agnes Smith before. She'd go up Scotland, visiting the home of Martha Hannah's parents, in a few years' time. It was all way too coincidental.
I looked into it. In utter shock, I realized that I'd been looking in the wrong place all of this time. With William, Martha and all of their eldest children born in Gaelic countries, I'd been searching there for William's parents. The couple had patently emigrated into England, so I assumed. It never once occurred to me that he'd actually brought his bride and children home!
There they were. A whole mass of Millikens in the Black Country. They had all been born in Scotland, but were present and correct from about the 1820s. It took a few days on the genealogy sites covering the Black Country, then a trip to Wolverhampton's City Archives, but I had a sudden wealth of circumstantial evidence.
But also a perfectionist nature, when it comes to historical primary sources. I want it all proven before I call it. When the Wulfrunian chief archivist saw my evidence thus far, he was amused. He gravely told me that he'd have called it hours ago!
I still wanted it proven. I went as far as I could in the directories and micro-fiches of Wolverhampton's historical store-rooms. I needed what they had up in Scotland too. I had the names! I just needed the lines.
Around this time, I tried to persuade my Dad that he needed to renew his Ancestry.com subscription. As he has interest in neither the internet nor genealogy, he was surprised to find that he'd even got one to renew. I pointed out that it had been in my name until now, but I was skint.
He ignored all further attempts to get him to finance his own family's history, and returned to the serious business of watching the football.
So I did what any obsessed genealogist would have done at this point. I spent the money that I've saved up towards my car's insurance on an Ancestry.com subscription. I'll worry about the other this time next month. It's Samhain and I'm sure that the Ancestors will provide.
Within an hour, I had traced William Milliken, son of John and Elizabeth Milliken, from Kilmarnock, Scotland. The couple moved to Wolverhampton when he was just a baby. They retained a close connection to home, and frequently brought nieces and nephews down to find work.
My brick wall was smashed and I hadn't had to drive to Scotland, nor pay for accommodation and a week or more worth of research to find it. For all of Ancestry's monopolizing faults, this is what the site does best.