Remember that old saying, “Measure twice and cut once?” It is an appeal to be careful and make sure you know what you’re doing before you get started.
Much like carpenters, we genealogists have to be careful and make sure we know what we’re working with before we get started. It is imperative we take a "Sir Mo Farah" versus a "Usain Bolt" approach to our research because research is a marathon, not a sprint.
Many times people overlook or miss important information or fail to glean it from documentation they find because they are simply in too big of a hurry.
Slow down, people!
Especially slow down when you are in an unfamiliar repository—whether you are standing in it or accessing online in your pajamas. Slow down.
Allow me to give you a “fer instance.”
I love to research from the comfort of my own home as much as the next genealogist. HOWEVER, I also LOVE to pick through musty, old, crumbling deeds and wills in courthouses.
When I arrive, I have a thing I like to do. I like to slowly walk around the room a couple of times just looking at what’s in there. Then, I like to walk it in the opposite direction.
I know many a courthouse clerk has thought me cuckoo, but there is a very good reason for me, or anyone else to do this: No two courthouses are the same.
So all that walking around before I dig in is useful.
Here’s one more reason to slow down: Sometimes there’s more than one “Will Book 1.”
I took the picture above. You can see this courthouse had THREE Will Book 1’s! It wasn’t the first time I’d run into that, just the first time they were close enough together to pose for a photo!
So, slow down and look around—measure twice, cut once!
Last week, in Genealogy 101 Part II, we addressed sources and source citation. If you missed it don’t worry, just like Genealogy 101 Part I, it is still available!
This week, as promised, we will explore how to begin to fill in the blanks and how to find more information.
The first place to begin is with your relatives.
You’re probably thinking, “Duh.”
Not so fast with the condescension.
You would be shocked by the number of people who have told me everything from, “They [grandparents] don’t know anything” to “I really don’t know him [uncle], he probably won’t help me.”
After asking, “Well, have you ever really talked to them about the family history?” or saying, “Think of it as a way to break the ice and get to know him better,” you later hear, “We talked for hours, they had pictures and everything!”
So...talk to your relatives first! ALL of them:
Before you meet, prepare. If you are unsure about how to proceed, read a pdf from UCLA, Conducting Oral Histories with Family Members, Guidelines and Tips, or watch the YouTube video below, “Interviewing Family Members to Grow Your Family Tree.”
Otherwise, rock on!
When scheduling the meeting, ask your relative to bring or make available any photographs or documents he or she is willing to share. Helpful items would include scrapbooks, family bibles, photo albums, old letters, journals, birth certificates, marriage certificates and death certificates, obituaries, newspaper clippings, and “In memory of” cards from funerals, to name a few.
Be sure to have a copy of your pedigree chart with you when you talk to each relative. They may be able to help you begin to fill in the blanks. Get their permission beforehand to either record the conversation or to write down everything they say. Ask for permission to copy, scan, or take a picture of any documents or pictures they have and remember to check the backs!
While relatives can corroborate facts you already have, and add facts you don’t have, there's also a blue ton of value in the stories they remember having heard as they grew up. Those stories flesh out families and turn facts and dates into the real lives that were lived.
After you’ve worried the hair off the head of every relative you could find, it’s time to move on.
Conveniently, you can go to the next place in your pajamas. No, not Walmart! The internet!
There are many free sites to get you started online. Cyndi’s List and One-Step Webpages by Stephen P. Morse come to mind. They will point you to databases of information which may or may not be free to use, but undoubtedly will have some value for you in your quest. FamilySearch.org is a completely free site. Subscription-based sites such as Ancestry.com, Fold3, Genealogy Bank and Newspapers.com can be very valuable.
Okay so you’ve arrived at your computer in your jammies with your seaming mug o’ coffee and a bajillion databases at your fingertips. Where should you begin?
The U.S. federal censuses are a good place to begin because they are available from 1940 back to 1790, depending upon the locale you are researching.
The availability of birth, marriage and death certificates vary from place to place as states weren’t required to document the information until the early 1900s.
At some point, usually after the acquisition of information for grandparents, it will be wise to choose one line to pursue. It is impractical to try to search all your lines at once. Pick one. Follow it back as far as you can. When the trail goes cold, you have two options:
Continue in this manner, remembering to check back often as records are now coming online at a brisk clip.
And that, my friends, is Genealogy 101.
Please feel free to comment and/or ask questions about this series.
Last week, Genealogy 101 Part I, covered how to begin your genealogical research. If you missed it, no worries, it is still available!
This week’s post is supposed to explore how to begin to fill in the blanks and how to find more information.
Before that, however, we must address sources.
Sources will be the foundation of your family tree. Every name, date, or location you place on your pedigree chart or family group sheet should have a source.
The quality of your source matters greatly. Sources can be original or derivative. An original source is one created by a person with firsthand knowledge. Examples of a derivative source would include a transcript or an abstract of information from an original source. Because information sometimes gets lost in the translation, so to speak, original sources are most desired. While they are less likely to contain errors, they aren’t always correct—people lied in the past. That is why your research should be as comprehensive as possible. Don’t take the first thing you find and assume it is correct. Keep digging.
For example, when I climbed out on my NELSON limb, I was told by my mother that my great Grandpa Frank Nelson’s mother was named “Lucy.” Digging around in census records revealed “Lucil.” It makes sense she would have been called Lucy. Her mother’s name, from the same census record, was “Lizzie Hackney,” so it would stand to reason Lucy’s maiden name was Hackney. Ironically, Lucy’s death certificate, the informant being her son Aaron’s wife, had no information on Lucy’s parents. “Dont Know” was typed in each blank.
I kept digging because at this point, it would have been wrong to go with the the “Lucy Hackney” assumption. All the possible sources had yet to be exhausted.
A look at marriage records told that Lucy J. Peck married Coleman Nelson. This was corroborated by great Grandpa Frank’s death certificate which gives his mother’s maiden name as “Lucy J. Peck.” The informant was his brother, Aaron who, more than likely, would have known their mother’s maiden name.
It took five different sources to find the given and maiden names of great-great Grandma Lucy!
You have to have the sources to substantiate the information you are claiming, so make copies of everything you use—citing when and where you obtained each one and from whom. Of course, you should always ask permission to make copies; never assume it’s okay.
Proper citation of sources is crucial to properly conducted research. While it is a blog post of its own, in these early stages of your research, make sure you are source labeling the copy of each document you find. At a minimum, the source information needs to include:
It is best to use a full, rather than a short, source citation because you can pull the bibliography, and endnotes and footnotes from a full citation.
The full reference note citation for the census image used above is:
1. 1880 U.S. census, Greenbrier County, West Virginia, population schedule, Blue Sulphur District, Enumeration District (ED) 25, sheet 18A (stamped), dwelling 161, family 164, Lucil Nelson; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 January 2013), citing Family History Library microfilm 1241759.
The full reference note citation for a conversation is:
1. Interview with Jane (Swope) Nelson (Mrs. Robert Nelson; 123 Happy Street, Boondocks, WV 12345), by Cynthia Saddler Maharrey, 28 July 2012. Transcript held in 2018 by Maharrey (456 Happy Street, Notintheboondocks, KY 23456).
The best thing about the full citation is that it has all the information you or anyone else will need to find it again.
Two books I have used frequently for citation help were both written by the same person, Elizabeth Shown Mills:
Clicking on one of the titles will take you to a link with information about that book. Clicking her name will take you to a brief bio about her.
Now, all that information you rounded up last week...make sure you cite it before you move forward and forget where and when you found it!
Remember: NEVER write on an original document! If it is a photo, scan it and put the citation in the metadata (if there’s writing on the back, scan both sides!). If it is a document copy, you could cite it on the back, but you’d have to remember to scan both sides when you digitize your records. Otherwise, place the citation in the margin.
Next week we will explore how to begin to fill in the blanks and how to find more information--I promise!
Understand that your family history begins with YOU.
While it is tempting to jump back to the Civil War era and begin unearthing your relationship to Jefferson Davis or Abraham Lincoln, it is not the proper way to realize that connection.
Genealogical research moves backward through time, collecting pertinent information from reliable sources which allows us to form a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion, one ancestor at a time.
And it takes time. Lots of time.
And organization. Lots of organization.
Before you begin, you really should consider how you will compile your research or, at some point, the lack of organization will bury you. All-hardcopy? Digital only? Both?? If you go all-hardcopy you need to decide, file system or three-ring binders? If you go all-digital, you need to decide, online or desktop program?
Do a bit of research and decide what will work best for you. I began with a paper only, file system. Now, almost all of my information is on two separate digital platforms and backed up on an external hard-drive. I still have the hardcopy files, but have added very little actual paper to them in the last five to ten years. Likewise, you might begin with an appaloosa and later trade for a palomino. Or you may go appaloosa all the way. Whatever works best for you is what you need to do.
Although your search begins with yourself, first gather anything and everything you have that contains information about a family member. ANY family member. Organize it using whichever system you chose. Family bibles, photographs, and scrapbooks are usually the easiest and best places to begin. Some people also have vital records (birth, marriage, and death certificates) that they can utilize.
Next, write down all your pertinent information: your birth date, your marriage date, the addresses of all the places you've lived, schools you attended, your religious affiliation, occupation, and any special interests and/or interesting things you’ve done thus far. Your genealogically minded ancestors will greatly appreciate this. You can compile this information on a family group sheet or write it like a story. I suggest both. You can download free blank family group sheets by clicking one of the links below:
Ancestry Family Group Record or FamilySearch Family Group Record
Then, compile your parents’ information. Same as what you collected on yourself. Make sure you list your mother’s maiden name. If your parents are deceased, include the dates and causes and places of interment. Don’t forget to include siblings on each family group sheet with all their pertinent information. You will likely have blanks on the sheet. This is okay.
Repeat the process with your grandparents on both sides of the house using maiden names for the ladies. Again, you will likely have blanks and again, that’s okay. Once you’ve completed their information with what you have on hand and in mind, you will be ready to begin to fill out an ancestor/pedigree chart or family tree and commence your family history research in earnest.
Need a free blank? Like the family group sheets, you can download free ancestor/pedigree sheets by clicking one of the links below:
Ancestry Ancestor Chart or FamilySearch Interactive Pedigree Chart
Next week we’ll explore ways to fill in your blanks and find more information.
While television programs like Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are have done much to throw a spotlight on genealogy, they have also created some pie-in-the-sky expectations.
As a Pro-Gen, I have been asked questions which sadly, but truly, reflect the Burger King attitude of most U.S. citizens.
Often, one of the first questions I am asked is, “Do you watch that TV show, [insert one of them here]?” This is usually rather quickly followed by, “It is so cool how they do that!”
Most people stare at me like monkeys working math problems when I reply that I do not watch [insert that program here].
I’m not trying to be a jerk. To be honest, I watch very little television that isn’t NFL, NHL, or NASCAR affiliated.
Those genealogical television shows dramatically reveal what a team of professional genealogists have unearthed. I don’t know that they show all the unsuccessful searches and negative results, but I have to believe they do not. Otherwise, every Tom, Dick, and Harry wouldn’t be so keen to become a member of this or that society by Friday next.
It isn’t going to happen, Skippy. Genealogy is research. Takes time.
I have seven documented generations in one of my personal lines.
But I didn’t discover them during a commercial break.
It took me over 20 years to gather the documents which eventually led me back to Jane Hargo, a free person of color in 1810. Granted, I’ve not spent 20 solid years searching one line. Also granted, I’ve found more information on that particular line in the last five years than the fifteen plus prior.
What took me so long?
When I was new to the game, time constraints, travel constraints, and very little online information were great impediments to my progress for many years. Later, learning to distinguish a "reliable source" and how to cite findings slowed me down.
Genealogy is a rewarding, time consuming endeavor.
While it ain’t diggin’ ditches with a shovel, it’s certainly not a fast food order.
Last year in December I posted a “Remembering Traditions” blog. It was about Christmas trees.
This year, Christmas decorations came to mind. In particular, outside lights.
When I was a kid, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I remember very distinctly the routine for putting the lights up on the house.
It was almost always nose-running cold.
Mom ran the strings of lights using a hammer and old fashioned “steeples” to secure the light cord to the house, while Daddy’s job was to secure the star on top of the porch right over the entrance.
Daddy made that star from scraps of lath and secured the lights to it by tacking smaller “steeples” over the cording. Obviously this construction took place before my parents became disciples of the staple gun.
Each Christmas season, the neighbors would admire the star and compliment Daddy on it while strangers wanted to know where we “got” it. Daddy would just chuckle.
The lights on the runs and the star were made of glass, so you had to be careful. Bang a strand into the banister in those cold temps and you were sweeping up shards and trying to find the needle nose pliers to get what was left out of that socket on the strand.
And then you had to go find that box that held the extra bulbs.
And hope that they worked because you couldn’t shake them like an incandescent to tell.
And for heaven’s sake don’t bring a bulb that was the same color as the bulbs to the left or right!
You would think we would have learned and dragged the whole extra-bulb-box out with us, but hope springs eternal, “I don’t think we’ll need it,” someone would always say.
Inevitably, or so it seemed, the years we managed NOT to break a bulb, there was a bulb burned out when we turned them all on!
“I thought you plugged those strands in and checked them before we came out here!”
“I did! I didn’t see them. Where’d that ladder go? Go get me some more bubs. Hurry up, it’s cold!”
Once the lights were up and on, however, we would all "ooh and ahh" over them before scurrying in to thaw.
Coming home of a cold dark evening, before making the last turn onto our road, I could begin to see our lights intermittently through the bare trees. As a little kid, the sight always made me smile because I thought they were pretty. As an adult, the thought of the sight always makes me smile because it was something we always did, usually all together.
Over the years, the star came off the top of the house and onto the fascia below. Driving snow and wind began to take a toll. In an effort to save the star, Daddy attached support laths to it.
The runs of lights became “run” of lights. Just across the top, no wrapping of the porch posts.
I rummaged through my old photographs trying to find one of the way the porch looked when I was a kid, but to no avail. The only one I could find was one from 1991.
By then, my parents were long past their prime and had long since stopped decorating the outside of the house.
But in 1991, the star and the house lights came out one last time. That was the year my brother took his five-year-old daughter to West Virginia for Christmas.
A good reason indeed to bring out the lights.
My maternal grandfather was a SMITH.
Off and on I have toyed with the thought that perhaps one of my ancestors had been a blacksmith and thus, adopted the SMITH part for a last name.
The word brings to my mind a dude with a grimy soot smeared face swinging a ten pound hammer onto a piece of red hot metal to shape a horseshoe.
Or something like that.
Or maybe he was a tinsmith....
Recently, while perusing the Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness website, I ran across a page that listed occupations of old.
To my great surprise, there were TWENTY kinds of SMITHS!
What the what the?!
While I had heard of various kinds of “smiths,” archaic occupations aren’t my wheelhouse and I had never heard of some of these.
Of course there was the “smith”—a metal worker—okay, my blacksmith. Who was also known as an assistant coachsmith, a brightsmith or a forgeman.
Then there were the ones you could figure out what they were:
Then, the metal dudes—coppersmith, goldsmith and silversmith.
But there were also colors: brownsmith, greensmith, redsmith and whitesmith!
What did they do? Well, a brownsmith worked with brass or copper, a greensmith worked with copper or latten (a copper and zinc alloy), a redsmith was a goldsmith, and a whitesmith was a tinsmith.
The last three...I had no idea.
The jack-smith was a “maker of lifting machinery and contrivances,” the smugsmith was a smuggler, and the sucksmith was a maker of ploughshares.
Perhaps one of my ancestors had been a smith.
I wonder what kind?!
Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, https://www.raogk.org/ "Listing of Some Early Occupations" accessed 4 December 2017.
Over the weekend I had the occasion to attend a Thanksgiving celebration. It was a nice event, really nice people.
At one point, several of the cousins attempted to work out the various relationships. You might think I would have been Johnny-on-the-Spot to help them with it—Pro Gen and all.
But not because I didn’t want to.
As a matter of fact, halfway to the way to the event, I thought, “Dang it! I should have, brought my chart.”
But I didn’t.
You see, I can really explain consanguinity, but not effectively without my chart! I checked my phone for the chart, hoping I had a screenshot of it.
But I didn’t.
So I did the best I could in the circumstance.
I retreated to the safety of the kid’s table and remained uninvolved.
Honestly, I had been in another room during the deliberation and they pretty much had it completely figured out when, during my run for seconds, happened to overhear the end of the lively conversation. They didn’t need my help.
So what’s my hang up about the chart?
Consanguinity, or how descendants of a common ancestor are related is known as “kinship” because it deals with blood relationships. It can be confusing. The chart is the easiest, quickest way to explain how Michael is related to Lauren. Or how Sharon is kin to Lauren. Especially when you begin removing cousins.
I type that from experience.
“Here, let me show you on the chart.”
Repeating—verbatim—how X is related to Y while pointing to their respective spots on the chart always rewards me with light-bulb expressions and a chorus of, “Oh! I get it!”
A picture is worth a thousand words.
At this point, you’re probably saying, “What kind of professional genealogist is she? Why didn’t she just Google a chart and use it? Sheesh!”
Well, I’ll tell you why.
Because there are about a blue million different charts of consanguinity out there.
Some use boxes, some use circles, some have ellipses. Some are only concerned with a few generations. Some don’t address cousin removal. Some you read from the inside out, others, outside in.
I learned on “my” chart. I’ve tried other charts. I like the chart I learned on.
It’s the fork I know.
Regarding cousins, understand first that a cousin and a first cousin are the same thing. First cousins share grandparents. Second cousins share great grandparents and third cousins share, you guessed it, great-great grandparents.
The removal occurs when the number of generations between the two individuals and the common ancestor is not the same.
My first cousin once removed would be the child of my first cousin. My mother’s first cousin would also be my first cousin once removed.
My first cousin twice removed would be the grandchild of my first cousin. Another cousin twice removed would be my grandfather’s first cousin.
That’s why I only explain it with my chart in hand.
Born and raised in a small town in West Virginia before the turn of the century, Cynthia has always been fascinated by the intricacies that make up her own family history. As a result, she has been researching and studying it since the late 1900's.
-Association of Professional Genealogists
-African American Genealogical Group of Kentucky
-Kentucky Genealogical Society
-Kentucky Historical Society
-Greenbrier County (West Virginia) Historical Society
-Monroe County (West Virginia) Historical Society