Much of my
early genealogy research was done by trial and error. This week's
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
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
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
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
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?"
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.
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.
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 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.
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 currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical
Societies (FGS) www.fgs.org. He
conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of
genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several
genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical
Computing. You can e-mail him at email@example.com or
visit his website at: www.rootdig.com/,
but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.