Sarah, a client based in Washington D.C., wanted to learn more about her paternal grandfather’s side of the family. When she lost her beloved aunt—the last link to her grandfather’s generation— Sarah longed for connections to her past more than ever, worried it was forever gone.
Sarah engaged Family History Intelligence (FHI), providing them with the only document she had: a single 100+ year-old letter she found buried in her attic. The narratives, ancestry and family history the Family History Intelligence Team discovered and crafted was more than Sarah could have ever imagined.
Sarah had always known plenty about her mother’s side of her family: their ancestors, their history, their roots. But her father’s side was an untapped mystery.
Her father had always described his childhood as enveloped in a Christian environment—his father, a preacher. But everything beyond Sarah’s father was a closed book aside from vague rumors that their ancestors hailed from Mennonites or Amish.
Sarah’s grandfather passed away from Alzheimer’s when Sarah was a mere 11 years old. Of his three children, Sarah’s uncle died a year before she was born, and her beloved Aunt Joan passed away (also to Alzheimer’s) in July 2020, leaving behind just Sarah’s father. Aunt Joan, however, was the family historian and her loss hurt.
“She was the last connection I had to any kind of history on my father’s side,” Sarah shared. “It made me of course miss her, but miss the connection. It made me yearn for the family history I never knew I was going to get.”
Or, so she thought.
During the pandemic, Sarah, like many others, embarked on bouts of decluttering. When she reached her attic, she dusted off a container she thought housed her now-teenage son’s box of arts and crafts.
Inside, she found a small box she had never seen before. It belonged to her mother. It was full of tattered family letters, messages between brothers and sisters in the 1970s. Then, Sarah came across a precarious letter, written from her father’s mother (Sarah’s great aunt) to her father. Her father had inquired about their family background, their past. Her great aunt’s reply contained cursive scribblings of names and bits of information on the family crest.
Sarah never had much documentation on her father’s family, making this discovery very special.
Engaging Family History Intelligence
Like many, Sarah had casually fiddled with Ancestry.com and 23andme in the past, but the results proved to be disappointing dead ends. Sarah needed a specialized genealogist, a dedicated professional and story-teller to help her discover her family history.
Sarah had a friend, who previously commissioned Family History Intelligence, a specialized genealogy firm founded by Lisa Maddox, a former CIA analyst with an uncanny knack for finding what no one else can, and piecing together narratives like no one else will.
“I was immediately intrigued and excited about the application of Lisa’s background that brings an air of credibility to her work,” Sarah said. “She respects data and leverages it to tell the story; she doesn’t manipulate data to tell a story. I wanted to know the truth and the real deal and I knew she’d get me there.”
Sarah sent Lisa the only copy of the letter she had, and the Family History Intelligence Team was off and running.
For that moment, Sarah kept the discovery of the letter a secret. She wanted to come back to her family and her father, with Family History Intelligence’s findings as a surprise and way to bond with her family in a time when connection is more important than ever.
The Dig Begins
“When you have a mystery or different misconceptions about your family history, whether it’s unknowns or gaps, our team researches and pulls data to help our clients find the truth,” Lisa Maddox, founder and owner of Family History Intelligence, said.
But the key is pulling that data and research into a thoughtful narrative, taking the form of a customized website with narratives, visual captures and more, that can live on for families for years to come. And it provides a place for history to continue to live. Lisa ensures her clients can edit and add more to the website over time—as history is happening.
“If I have a personal family story, I always pull that into the narrative, because it’s a meaningful piece of the puzzle,” Lisa says. “All families have myths and legends; it’s part of the identity of the family. I pull in pictures and documents to tell a dynamic narrative.”
And it just takes Family History Intelligence minimal information to get started. A name. A birth date. A letter. The team goes back to the beginning for their clients, putting pen to paper, drawing their family tree by hand, identifying all of the missing branches and then they get straight to work.
Like Sarah, most of Family History Intelligence’s clients start at Ancestry.com or other heritage websites, which unfortunately contain misleading and confusing data, which Lisa consistently finds to be a problem for many users.
“They have a lot of artificial intelligence tools that recommend connections, but when I verify my clients’ family trees, unfortunately, I typically find 50 percent of it is incorrect,” Lisa says.
Family History Intelligence digs into vital records, censuses and historical newspaper articles; every piece of data you can imagine, the team gets their hands on it. Once the FHI team gets the family tree down, they go generation by generation, seeing just how far they can trace back.
The beauty of a good historian is that they spend “too much time” on a project. The Family History Intelligence historians will often be up late at night, tracking down leads and following a hunch.
Piecing it All Together
Just weeks later, Lisa and her team had answers for Sarah and her family: five generations worth, in fact.
The Family History Intelligence team uncovered archival material from France and Germany to help fill the gaps of Sarah’s past. They found crests, birth and baptismal records, census records — troves of data to build the family history they never knew they had.
Lisa invited Sarah to a Zoom call to walk her through her findings, all with links to each ancestor, complete with documents and narratives centralized on her custom website.
She introduced her to the stories of her fourth- and fifth-great-grandfathers, a family of butchers hailing from the Alsace region along the border of France and Germany. And that rumor of the family’s Mennonite connections? Family History Intelligence traced the family’s religious roots to the little-known Apostolic Christian Church community (with many similarities to Mennonites and stemming from the same parts of Europe), later bringing the church to Ohio when they immigrated to the United States.
Sarah couldn’t wait to comb through the site, popping in and out of rabbit holes of a past she’d never been able to dig deeply into. But most of all, she was eager to take it back to her father and cousins.
The big reveal to extended family
Several weeks after receiving the final product, Sarah shared the website with her cousins over Zoom one evening. After pouring through the details, the cousins started sharing new stories and insights. The resulting conversations that evening brought Sarah’s family closer together, and offered a cathartic, sentimental moment in the wake of Sarah’s aunt’s recent passing
Lisa expressed that, “this type of discussion is exactly what I want my projects to achieve: lively family debates and discussions–people coming together and remembering family stories and myths.”
“I’m so glad that I engaged Family History Intelligence,” Sarah said. “I have learned invaluable information about my family. It has made me feel more connected in a time where I have not been as connected to the rest of the world as I would like. It was an incredibly valuable experience and I am looking forward to engaging the entire team again on my next project.”
Lisa and her team are already underway on Sarah’s second project.