Lineage Journeys provides the unique perspective of the ancient spiritual traditions of North America and Europe along with research-based documentation of lineages, family histories and immigration pathways that define the heritage of your family. In this interview, founder Judy Nimer Muhn reminisces her journey into genealogy research and shares some valuable advice on how to start researching your family history.
Please describe the story behind Lineage Journeys: What sparked the idea, and how has it evolved so far?
I’ve been interested in genealogy since I was 12 years old. We were given a homework assignment by our teacher at school as a way to help us understand immigration. We were given a four-generation chart and told to go home and find out where our families were from.
Of course, I have heard stories before, at family gatherings and holidays, but this was the first time I’d ever been given some kind of paper to put names on. I went home to my mom and she referred me to her older sister, my Aunt Catherine, which ended up being an immensely bonding experience with her. She was the family correspondent. She wrote to an extensive circle of people and stayed in touch and with her husband, my Uncle Eddie, they would travel around by car and visit the far-flung relatives. So she was the one that got me started.
Once I started hearing more about the people and their stories, it got me hooked. This was back in the 1960s when there wasn’t the internet so it was much more time consuming to do. But I did it because I was intrigued by the stories. I became a professional genealogist while living in Germany, and the beginning of “Lineage Journeys” was around 2012.
My mom’s side of the family is Native American, French Canadian, and Scottish, so the many names were handed down over time. Then I found out that my father’s family was German and Polish with a little slice of Jewish. I started looking for people and talking to relatives about what they knew, so I inherited pictures and a wonderful three-ring binder from my Aunt Catherine. We would go to libraries together and I would write letters and send them off in hope that people would respond, with a stamped self-addressed envelope included. So, that’s the way I got started and as they say, the rest is history.
Who are your typical clients?
My typical clients are those who don’t know how to trace their ancestors or don’t have the time for it. Sometimes, they know a little bit and have someone in the family that has given them information, but the information doesn’t have citations so they aren’t sure how correct it is. And they may have stories from family saying they are related to a certain President or perhaps have a Native person in their history but they don’t know how to verify it. These are the most common cases.
I work with my clients to establish and prioritize their genealogy research goals, as it can be time-consuming and expensive. I also work with some clients as a “coach” – they do the research, and I give them ideas and places to look at. We meet at intervals where they share what they have found and then I offer some “next steps” for them to take. This is less expensive and those who have time for it usually find it extremely exciting.
If I wanted to do a genealogy study on my family, what would be the first steps that I should take?
Begin with yourself and start documenting going backward in time. For most people that means finding your birth certificate, your marriage record, and then doing that for your parents and grandparents. Soon enough, you’ll reach generations where people are deceased, so you’ll want to look for their death records, where they died, and where they were buried.
From there, you just strive to fill in the gaps. Using the census records certainly helps tremendously and there are wonderful websites like Family Search and all the paid sites, but there’s also a lot of free information available.
So, you want to document everybody in the family including all the brothers and sisters because, at some point, you’re going to find information on a sister, for instance, that you can’t find in your direct ancestors. It might inform you of a location where they lived, or a point in time when a child was born in a particular Parish, but you can’t find anything from your direct ancestor. Maybe they were living in that parish too so you should look at all the parish records. Somewhere along the line, someone may have transcribed it wrong or mistyped the name, so going into the original records is key.
How has DNA testing affected your field of work?
It’s affected my field tremendously. I was in the first National Geographic DNA collection study back in the 1990s. It was haplogroup research and it was very impactful for me because it got me to think beyond the immediacy of the most recent generations.
I was also a medical student and became a medical technologist. After graduating from Michigan State University, I worked in the medical field for a time. The linkage between DNA and medical history fascinated me and I began learning about it.
I first heard about the use of DNA in genealogy work in the 1980s when I attended a conference where researchers from the University of Maine were sharing a paper about how this Italian geneticist had used his own family as a study subject because he had the paper trail, but then he used his DNA. He was talking primarily about why using DNA was helpful and it truly intrigued me. He also shared about mitochondrial DNA. Having had very strong grandmothers and a very strong mother, I thought that mitochondrial DNA would be interesting to research.
At that point, in the 80s, I knew that my mitochondrial DNA likely was French Canadian and ultimately from France, but I hadn’t gotten back to France yet, I was still in French Canada. So I was intrigued by that and I went up to him after the lecture and asked him for further information. I ended up writing him in a letter and told him what I was trying to do and how well documented French Canadians were in the paper trail. I wanted to know if there was an element of his research that he was doing with French Canadians, and in fact, he was studying some DNA-based diseases that are hereditary. My family didn’t qualify and so that ended my correspondence with him, but it kept me very intrigued about mitochondrial DNA so I kept going with the idea that I would write a book about my mitochondrial DNA lineage.
I’ve since gotten back to France. The paper trail ends in Normandy in the 1500s. I’ve been reading that, and it’s admittedly a pretty long project. One of the things that I’m incorporating into this book, that I didn’t even know I could do, was trace all of the mitochondrial descendants of this singular woman.
So that’s what I’m doing in the book. I’m going to trace all the mitochondrial descendants, which means I’m following all the females, down to hopefully modern times, as much as I can. So, while that started as just a project to get me back to my earliest recorded ancestors that I can trace, it’s now broadened to who I am related to via DNA in this mitochondrial line.
I’ve used Family Tree DNA primarily for that because they’re the only provider of mitochondrial DNA research. I’ve been using their website to find my cousins in that line, as well as the paper trail, which is quite good mostly.
Overall, they’ve changed the field dramatically. I can do things a lot more easily now than when I first started working on it back in the 80s.
What other trends or technologies do you find to be particularly intriguing around your line of work
In the DNA area, I’m very intrigued by the way that a variety of companies give us tools that we can use. Whether it’s the chromosome mapping tools or grouping methods like the Leeds Method, which is one of the methods that I learned early on. My Heritage gives you a tool that does that for you now so you don’t even have to create a spreadsheet.
I have heard some things about taking our DNA into the future and being able to reconstruct the physical characteristics of our ancestors from our DNA markers. I’ve also been hearing some incredibly interesting things about creating holograms of our ancestors.
Moving forward in time, artificial intelligence will give us some resources and tools that we couldn’t even have dreamed of before. So I’m watching what’s happening in the AI field and its genealogy applications.
As a scientist, I’m intrigued about DNA studies as a whole, and how looking at markers for different diseases can impact our ability to identify cancer, multiple sclerosis, or any other diseases that we could find the cure for.
What are some interesting insights you’ve gained from your research?
I’ve learned a lot from my ancestors about resilience. It feels important to share the stories of the trials and tribulations of my ancestors to encourage us, especially in these times with the whole COVID pandemic. Our ancestors went through far worse than this. At least we can stay in our own lovely homes and thankfully most of us have enough food. But our ancestors went through Cholera, wars, and famines that we should take courage from because they came across whole oceans, in very treacherous times; they survived many different wars and battles and the raping and pillaging of any number of cultures over the centuries.
So, telling those stories has given me lots of examples of resilience. I think it’s important to share that with children, to help them understand that this isn’t the worst it could get and in fact, it’s quite easy.
Previously I was a licensed psychologist and I recognized that certain things come down in families as either traumas or behaviors that impact the current generation. From the native perspective, there was a lot of trauma, starting with the extermination of Indigenous peoples over centuries in so many locations, and coming down to the present day with remembrance of those traumas, both physically in our bodies and in our oral teachings.
Then there are also the lessons of how people develop psychological coping mechanisms that may have been adequate in the 1700s but aren’t adequate now. A family may have learned from their ancestors about what worked in the 1700s and so they pass that down, and it doesn’t work now. So it helped me, as a psychologist, to do genograms of people based on what they knew about their ancestors: who was an alcoholic, who battered their wife, etc. It tells us a lot about our family’s social and behavioral characteristics as well. Genealogy gives us benefits and learnings, and it also shows the darkness of our people as well.
My whole sense of it is just gratefulness for the opportunity to get to know who our people were. Knowing that we’re not just birth, marriage, and death dates, but that there is real flesh and blood between them and it’s actually the dash that matters. The piece that I find rich about genealogy is learning about the environment, the social history, the things that made my people who they are and how I came to be who I am.