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  Michael John Neill – 6/6/2001

The Education of a Genealogist

I 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.

In most ways, I was really self-taught, at least initially. I read whatever genealogical material I could get my hands on, but like most, my knowledge and study focused on those records that helped me research my ancestors. I had researched for several years before there was even a short course in my area on how to research.

Frankly I never learned what enumeration districts were for the census until after I started researching my wife's family. All of my own ancestors were rural, one could easily research in all census records without worrying about enumeration districts. All one ever needed to know was the name of the township (and a county map) in order to locate them. The few who retired to "town" lived in communities of several hundred people or so. Enumeration districts aren't usually a problem in these areas.

I performed research for others as a way to earn extra cash during summers in college (I NO longer do this). Researching other families was fun and provided a diversion from researching my own families. I saved the money to hire researchers in other areas to perform work for me. Desperation had set in on one of my Kentucky lines and I decided to hire a researcher to perform work in the court records. The work (and well over one hundred pages of copies) cost me around $80, which to this college freshman was quite a bit of money (it also used virtually all the research money I had saved that summer). The huge packet of pages arrived shortly before I was to be home for Christmas break. When my mother told me over the phone the material had arrived I immediately had her open it and read the letter. Unfortunately the letter did not mention whether or not the records contained the information I needed. I could not wait for finals to be over. I spent my first several hours at home reading copies of court records from the 1820s and 1830s. I was nearly shouting when I read the paragraph that proved the parentage I had desperately wanted to find.

Spring breaks during college were never spent on the beaches of Florida or Texas. Usually two or three days were spent at home cleaning out the cattle barns after the spring calving. It was an unpleasant job to be certain. My seventy-five year old grandmother would always insist on helping. There were usually one or two days that could be spent in the courthouse once the task was complete---it wasn't a total loss.

I began reading genealogical journals and other publications, mainly in the stacks at the university I attended. Fortunately for my genealogical development, my alma mater (Western Illinois University) was the home of the Illinois Regional Archives, where I had access to a great body of material for my research. Unfortunately the archives closed at 4:00 P.M.! Fortunately my grades did not suffer. I desperately wanted to be an intern at the archives, but unfortunately I was not studying the "correct" discipline. This gave me time for my own research, so it actually was a good thing.

I had been researching nearly ten years before I attended my first genealogy workshop. Workshops, conferences, and formalized instruction are another great way to learn about genealogy. The difficulty can be in fitting them into work schedules and budgets. Even today, I try and attend one workshop a year where I'm not somehow involved. When I am involved, I try to attend sessions that I think will help with my own research. Genealogists have to continue to learn, whether it's about sources they have never used, areas they have never tried to "tackle" or technology they think can augment their research.

Learning can take place in many ways:
— Doing research
— Reading journal articles, magazines (and yes, e-zines!)
— Attending conferences and workshops
— Taking classes

However, there's a critical ingredient in all of this that can be found in a book, journal, magazine, conference lecture, class, or courthouse. That's the willingness to THINK! Sometimes all of us (myself included) need to be made aware of this.

But no matter what, our genealogical education is rarely complete.

Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including
Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing.

Copyright 2001,


Michael's Articles from "Beyond the Index" in the Ancestry Daily News