From the 14 December 2005 edition of the Ancestry Daily News from my former “Beyond the Index” column.
Much of my early genealogy research was done by trial and error. This column takes a look at some things I wish I had known when I started research. Things always look obvious in hindsight and it is easier to see the error of our ways once we have spent years going down wrong paths.
Cite Your Sources
We’ve all heard or read it numerous times, but keeping track of where we obtained information is crucial. Time is wasted if we need to review or check something and we have no idea of where the data or record was originally located. I have a letter written in the 1850s that I typed up. Unfortunately on my typed up copy I did not indicate where I located the original. Now all I have is the typed up copy with nary an idea of where I obtained the letter in the first place. Don’t make this same mistake.
The Importance of the Original
When I began my research, I was content with finding an entry in a transcription or a published extract. After all, why did I need the actual record when I had an easier to read typed version? The day someone finally told me to “get the original” (and it actually sunk in) was the day I started realizing that transcribers do make mistakes and that published extracts can leave out significant clues. And genealogists need all the clues they can get.
People Married More than Once
An ancestor’s marriage after the death of a spouse may have changed the family significantly. It may also be the reason for your brick wall. Children may not get along with a step-parent and may leave the household. If a widowed mother remarries, her resulting name change and the potential last name changes of her children may cause additional confusion. If a widowed mother and her children disappear consider the possibility that she remarried instead of moving across country.
We Can Always Learn
When I attended a conference, I was hesitant to go to any lecture unless I knew it would really apply to my specific problems. The more I researched, the more I realized that learning methodology is what is important and that lectures on things not related to my background may teach me a great deal about how to research. And sometimes when the entire topic is unfamiliar to me I tend to pay more attention anyway. Take advantage of your own learning style to increase your research expertise. No one has as much motivation to learn about your ancestry as you.
Relatives Are Everywhere
I wish I had been aware of how many of my ancestors lived within a few miles of another relative or migrated to a location where a cousin or more distant family member lived. I have learned to pay more attention to the names of an ancestor’s associates during his first years in a new area. This is the time when he is less likely to know his new neighbors and more likely to rely on people he knew
Time Has Passed
I never thought about how a name got on an official record. But think about it for a second. If you are looking at a copy of an ancestor’s death certificate, it has been years since that document was recorded. What has happened since that moment when the question was asked, “What was her maiden name?”
The informant may have thought about it for a split second and remembered the name to the best of her ability. Verification was not required. The informant then said the name and may have pronounced it the way they thought it should be pronounced.
A clerk then heard the name and mentally thought of how it should be spelled based upon his own education and experience. The clerk then wrote the name on the record in his own handwriting. He could easily have been thinking about something else and unintentionally made an error.
And the record still has not made its way to you. The paper may have deteriorated over time. The ink may have blurred or faded over time.
The microfilming or photocopying might have been hastily done. And now you are looking at that name on that record. Is there a chance for an error or a misinterpretation? You betcha.
The Importance of the Law
I was fortunate that I was able to start using courthouse records very early in my genealogy search (you are close to the courthouse when you can see it chasing cattle on the back forty–which actually happened by the way). However it was a while before I realized that it was important to know something about the legal process that created the records I was using. Records were not created for genealogists; they had a specific purpose outside of family history. An understanding of the purpose of the records (learned via how-to guides, conference attendance, and journal reading) better prepared me to use and interpret these materials correctly.
It Might Not Be a Mistake
There were times when I thought something on a record had to be wrong. After all, if it conflicted with my information, it had to be incorrect. I learned a long time ago to stop jumping to initial conclusions and compare each fact with previously located information. Maybe the record is wrong. Maybe I am wrong. Or maybe there is something I do not know about the records, the law, the time period, or the culture.
The Importance of Location
Knowing the residence of your ancestors as precisely as possible is key to locating them in records and determining if the correct person has actually been located. Location is important for rural and urban ancestors. When I originally began researching my wife’s ancestors I neglected to obtain information on their specific residential address. Addresses were never a problem with my rural ancestors so I initially did not bother. After some time struggling with my wife’s Chicago families, I learned that tracking every residence was extremely important. Never neglect asking for former addresses when interviewing older family members.
Most of us ask questions of older relatives when we begin our genealogical research. As we venture into libraries, archives, online databases, cemeteries and other data rich locations, it can be easy to forget that a significant amount of information can still be obtained from the living, long after we have started our search. In fact, after we have done some research, we often have more questions we need to ask the person we originally interviewed. It is always worth regularly revisiting those living sources to see if they can answer your new questions or if they have remembered something they forgot to tell you on previous occasions.
Life Was Different
A relative of mine was left a widow in 1855 with two small children. She quickly married again and apparently made a not-so-good choice. What were her options in a small river town? Her list of choices most certainly did not include getting food stamps, government aid, and student loans to go to school. She was not independently wealthy and likely saw a quick marriage as a way to support her children. Unfortunately the man she chose was not an ideal candidate. When we look at our ancestor’s choices we must remember that their options may have been limited and that it is not our job to judge their decisions. (However, learning from them sometimes is not a bad idea.)
Siblings Are Important
I could have saved numerous hours early on in my research if I had spent a little more time on my ancestor’s siblings. If records on my ancestor use the word “unknown” on virtually every blank, perhaps a record on her sister will be more informative. If a search does not locate an ancestor, perhaps looking for his brother will be the key to finding the entire family. Our ancestors spent a significant part of their life with their siblings. Perhaps we should at least spend some of our research time looking for them.
There Are Few Absolutes
For virtually every rule in genealogy, there is an exception. There will be individuals who do not follow societal norms, who leave little paper trail, and who move where they know no one. Those ancestors who break all the rules are the ones who build the strongest brick walls.
8 thoughts on “What I Wish I Had Known”
Sally p says:
Thank you for the lesson. Recently dug into a census report and accidentally discovered three generations living next door to each other. Wasn’t even looking for it. Sr, Jr, and 3rd. You never know
What a great refresher and comforter ‘What I Wish I Had Known’ is, especially The Importance of Location section. Thank You! Some time ago I added a section to the narrative portion of each individual in my Family Tree Maker records simply called, ‘Residences’. It is there I record any physical addresses, geographical information on that person. Glad to know others are doing the same.
Colleen McCann says:
Seeing the original document clarified the ages of 18 and 21 that my ancestors were given on the index of their marriage license. I knew the couple to be older, and realized the transcriber was indicating an ‘at least’ as ‘age’. Viewing the original page where everyone appeared to be the same ages at marriage time made me read the boilerplate language more carefully.
Carol Ballard says:
Thank you for this great compilation. It will be most helpful to share with my genealogy group here in my senior community.
Norma Longmire says:
Marvelous article! May I republish it in my genealogy newsletter for group members, with attribution, of course? Many ideas and hints for folks that just come to meetings! I enjoy getting your blog. Thanks.
That’s fine–just include the author, date, and place of original publication along with it.
All lessons I learned too, about the same point in time as you. Finding stuff the 2nd time isn’t always as easy as finding it the 1st time.
Finding it again is rarely as easy–and that just makes it more frustrating 😉