The Education of a GenealogistI am often asked "how I got started in genealogy" and "how I learned to be a genealogist." Some of the answers are simple and some are not. There's no short path to becoming a genealogist.
It has been a long time since I started my foray into family history research. I got hooked when my brother had to complete a four- generation family tree. I was in the fifth grade. Being on a child's budget, I hand-wrote family group charts and my mother made copies using some type of duplicating machine (all I remember is that everything came out in purple ink). It was several years before I migrated to pre-printed forms. It was before the Internet and largely before the computer, especially for use in genealogy. The letters I sent out were typed on my mother's 1960 vintage typewriter. I even used carbon paper. And I still "beat" on the keyboard as if hitting the keys harder will make the image on the screen darker.
And so it went from there. When I began genealogy, I had three living grandparents and one living great-grandparent. I obtained information from them as best I could and continued to fill out my charts. I had my parents drag me to as many cemeteries as possible. At some point in the process, I began going to the library and utilizing census records. I was fortunate that the librarian was a genealogist and took an interest in helping me to get started. The library had a few guidebooks to genealogy and I read them voraciously. They all kept mentioning records in the courthouse.
And so it was not long before I made my first journey to the courthouse. I was extremely fortunate to live a few miles from the courthouse in the county seat where many of my family had lived since the 1850s. It was a small town and I was allowed to view the records with little difficulty, even when I was still too young to drive. Once it was realized I was going to be careful and not leave things in a complete mess, I never had a problem. The fact that I grew up in a small town where everyone knows virtually everyone else (and knows their parents, grandparents, etc.) also played a significant role.
I was given an initial introduction to the records and their indexes and then I was on my own. Much of my learning was done by simply taking books off the shelf, and seeing what information they contained (except for the vital records which were off-limits). I can remember making numerous copies of the bound volumes of will transcripts only to learn later that the actual wills were filed in packets. The wills themselves were infinitely easier to copy and also contained the actual signature of the testator. The packets of papers also contained information I never dreamed of finding.
The case files were stored in metal boxes fourteen to fifteen feet high. Invariably the box I needed would be in the very top row of boxes. Obtaining the high boxes was done with a pole that had a hook on the end. The process is similar to fishing for metal boxes. The hook on the end of the pole is inserted in the handle of the drawer. The drawer is then pulled from the wall. With a little nudge the box would come free and be hanging on the end of the pole. It was a couple of years before I felt confident enough to use the pole myself without fear of knocking unconscious any of the legal secretaries using the other records.
In many cases, I knew how to find things without knowing what the records actually were or why they were created. For what I thought was some unknown reason there were (for a time) two separate series of indexes to court records. One usually contained the good stuff (divorces and partition suits) and the other usually contained a large number of financial matters. It was years before I learned and read enough to realize there were different "courts" for different purposes and they each kept a separate series of records. I just knew in which series of books to look for what I was after. In some cases, no one was familiar with some of the abbreviations and record keeping systems before 1900 and determining what the abbreviations stood for was a great process of trial and error.
Upon graduation from high school, I purchased the first edition of "The Source." I read it virtually from cover to cover. It explained some of the things that had previously confused me and helped me to realize that there was more information "out there" than I had realized. I had read manuals discussing some of the records before, but reading about the records again after using them for a while taught me much more than I had learned the first time. This is a practice that continues to be true today as well.
I learned a great deal about land records, partially because land records are so voluminous. The main reason was that virtually all of my forty-some ancestors who lived in Hancock County, Illinois, owned land there at one time or another. There was a fascination with finding out where the family lived and for farm families (at least those that owned property) land records are the way to do that. I also was obsessed with learning how much they had paid for their farm and how they obtained it. And for those who moved to the area as adults, land records are one of the first records in which they would be mentioned. The somewhat mathematical nature of land records only added to my fascination with them.
I wrote letters to potential relatives, including what information I knew and a self-addressed stamped envelope. And I am certain that I made many mistakes and made requests that would have required heaven and earth to carry out. Many of us make similar mistakes when we are starting out.
And I got extremely confused. Half of my ancestors are from a small
area of Germany where the spoken dialect is not really German. They have
naming customs that are different from other areas of Germany. These
customs can be confusing enough to a research with experience under their
belt. To a sixteen-year old kid they were initially very confusing. Today
there are societies and genealogy mailing lists for this area of Germany
that provide great help to researchers from this area (just as there are
for many areas of Europe). However, when I first started, I never found
anyone who knew where Ostfriesland was, let alone how to help me figure
out answers to my questions. So, I studied as many of the families as I
could and drew conclusions based upon what I observed. Sometimes there's
not much else you can do.
Michael's Articles from "Beyond the Index" in the Ancestry Daily News