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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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Cousin Baiting: What is It, Should You Do It?

Cousin baiting is exactly like deer baiting in its purpose which is why the term is used.

Not from a long line of hunters? Confused? Wondering if you should you put out a pile of grandma's cookies to lure your cousins in (you'll understand this in a moment if you don't already)?

And why would you want cousins to come around, anyway (is that only a question with my family)?

Don't worry, we'll explain what cousin baiting is and why you'd want to do it, just like the post title says!

Find distant relatives to help with genealogy projects.

What Is It?

The purpose of cousin baiting is to attract research cousins. You're looking for people that have information on your genealogy and are willing to share.

There are two separate issues here.

  1. They need to have information.
  2. They have to be willing to share.

I could write several posts about how to encourage research cousins to share information. I don't want to. Sharing genealogical information is actually a complex issue. People have varied opinions about it and some have very strong opinions about it. You have to take all of that into account and I honestly don't want to find myself in the midst of a controversy. Let's just stick to cousin baiting which is about finding the cousins.

Deer baiting works by putting out food to attract the deer (for example, you put corn in front of your deer stand, it's illegal so let's move on before I find myself in another controversy I'm not interested in). With cousin baiting, you put out what will attract research cousins, your research.

Obviously, you aren't posting your research in front of your house---you're far more likely to post it online.

To bait dear, you "catch" them when you see them. How will you "catch" your research cousins online?

The answer is you have to get them to contact you. One way is on a query system where you are supposed to say "I'm looking for [descriptive details]. Contact me." Query systems used to be queries printed in journals and newsletters. They went digital on message boards and websites for groups (like local genealogy societies or groups about a genealogy topic). Many of these don't show up in an Internet search and there aren't as many as there used to be.

A better (i.e. more effective) way is to put out your research as the bait rather than just putting out a query. A query is like trying to attract animals with a mating call. It doesn't attract all of them. Research is like using food, everyone has to eat (all genealogists want information).

Here's the "finesse" of cousin baiting. You don't put out everything. If you put everything you have out there, cousins have no reason to contact you. They can simply take what they want.

How To Get Cousins to Contact You, or How to Get Them to Stop

I want to give you a first-hand account of how this worked for me because it was so effective. I did this with my personal research years ago (before I was a professional genealogist and when we still had to use RootsWeb WorldConnect to put trees online---or create our own websites).

I put some information on my website. I wasn't intentionally cousin baiting. It was hard to put up information back then. I would get a decent number of people asking about my information but they didn't have information that helped me. I also quickly discovered I was the expert (at least of those researchers online) in the lines I was interested in. I was just spending time having to email my information and not really getting new information in return.

When I was in college (and finally had high-speed Internet), I simplified. I put "everything" online (not all my research but family group sheets and public trees for the lines I had been sharing).

I didn't want people emailing me unless they had a question. It worked, I stopped having cousins contact me.

That is how NOT to bait cousins. Luckily, that was my intention.

If you want to "share," as in a two-way transaction, this is not the way to do it. I also mention this so you realize cousin baiting has a specific goal. It isn't another word for sharing what you have. It's about two-way sharing.

Now you know what cousin baiting is.

Should you do it?

It is totally up to you. There may be many reasons you might want to try cousin baiting.

You need to identify your specific reason(s) and design your strategy based on that reason.

What are some reasons?

  • Find others who may have done more research on a specific line.
  • Find others who have personal knowledge about a person, event, or topic.
  • Find others for research companionship (cousins to share the research work with).
  • Find others who have NOT done research and may be "untainted" by faulty research.
  • Find a specific document or photo.
  • Find known cousins who have DNA tested.
  • Find known cousins who would be willing to take a DNA test.

You wouldn't use this technique to find unknown cousins who have DNA tested, you'd use your DNA matches which isn't the same thing. You could alter the DNA reasons to be "known cousins of matches," though.

Once you identify your exact reason for cousin baiting (why and in which branch of your family), you can decide how to do the cousin baiting.

Popular options include:

  • Use message boards
  • Create online (public) trees
  • Write a blog or webpage/site

You can download our free "Cousin Collector Kit" here. It includes worksheets to walk you through planning your strategy.

The New Cousin Baiting: For DNA Testing

If you are looking for "cousins" for the purpose of DNA testing, you may need to try something different.

Traditionally, cousin baiting was looking for other genealogy researchers. At a stretch, you were looking for someone with enough interest to find your "bait" and tell you about their great-aunt with the family Bible.

DNA has changed a lot in the genealogy world and that includes the scope of cousin baiting. You may have identified specific people you want tested, but you don't have contact information for them (this could include being unable to identify children or grandchildren of someone by name, you just know they had children and/or grandchildren).

This type of need is something usually addressed as a DNA topic (and there is information online). I'm not going to try and cover it under general cousin baiting but if that's your goal, check out genetic genealogy lists, message boards, and blogs for tips and hints.

RELATED: Templates for contacting DNA matches
RELATED: How to Create an Email Template

General Considerations

This post isn't going to go into specifics of how to do cousin baiting. Here are general considerations.

  • Using message boards is possibly the easiest approach since users want to connect with others. Consider starting there. 
  • If you already know how to create a blog or website, that is the most customizable method. Creating a free blog (that is searchable) is a great option if you are willing to put in the time to get it set up but it is not for the tech-phobic.

Here are some additional considerations for online family trees since so many people today have an online tree, possibly even a public one.

  • Online family trees aren't designed for cousin baiting. You need to make a plan to use one for cousin baiting.
  • You can add a message (or text in a photo) like "contact me for more details" or "I have photos I'm willing to share if you contact me" but many people won't see such messages.
  • Adding a message to an online tree can help you attract "better" researchers (they took the time to look at your tree more carefully) but it won't help if you want to cast the widest net possible. Know which is your goal.
  • If you have a public online tree, and want to bait cousins, you don't want too much information in the tree OR you have to offer more than is there to get them to contact you. 
  • You can make your tree private but searchable to act as bait (consider making the title of the tree something like "contact me if you want to share info" since this will show amongst all those trees where the owner won't share or won't respond).
  • Make your working tree private and create a simpler public tree to be the bait.
  • Know what your priorities are. Create an image with text to be the profile picture only for the ancestors you want to connect with cousins. The image with text works well but it works even better when the tree owner clearly has a strong interest in that branch as opposed to using something generic in much of their tree.
  • When planning your strategy, think about your reactions as the "deer" (the one being baited). What would attract you? What issues have you had if you have contacted others? Think about solutions.
  • If your online tree is at a site that uses a messaging system, know how you'll deal with that (do you want to post your actual email address somewhere?). Also, make sure you have updated your settings so you can receive messages through the messaging system even if you post your email.
  • Consider not using your tree as bait, it's easy but might not attract the cousins you want.

Above all, make sure you are courteous and ethical. Genealogists that don't want to share have usually been burned by someone that was discourteous and/or unethical. Every day there are also new online trees created to help those using DNA. Many people are trying DNA because they don't know who a close ancestor is. They may not want to share the details with you, a stranger. Being courteous and ethical is good practice no matter the situation. It's also just the right thing to do, whether in genealogy or not.

The digital realm of genealogy today makes cousin baiting much easier. Yet many people don't even consider the concept, not to mention being unaware of the term. If you want to get in touch with cousins, even distant cousins, learn more about cousin baiting.

Do you have questions about cousin baiting or a success story to share? Leave a comment!

Cousin baiting is a genealogy technique you can use for traditional research, genetic genealogy, or adoption research. | The Occasional Genealogist