Sunday, November 15, 2009

Some Random Observations on Genealogy Research

I get a lot of requests from fellow genealogy researchers asking for help, or ways to overcome the "brick walls" in their research. I don't claim to be particularly wise. However, over the last ten years that I have been researching my family tree, I have learned a few things from the process. Here are some random observations for you to enjoy.


I am probably going to step on some toes here, but here goes.

A few years back I was at a meeting with several women, all of whom are well-educated, and family history somehow came up in the discussion. Several of the women expressed the opinion that the best, most wonderful way to learn one's family history would be at grandmother's knee, listening to her recount the stories of her life and her ancestors' lives. Everybody nodded sagely (except me; I was preoccupied with biting my tongue), and a warm fuzzy glow descended over the group.

The truth is, your grandmother's treasured family stories are just that--stories. It IS wonderful to spend time with our elders and hear them talk about their lives. But consider this: memory does not serve us well, at any age, and the older we get, the more it is "out of service."

(I have seen a great deal of misinformation passed on as gospel truth by well-meaning relatives)

Besides, you may not be getting the whole story. You are getting one person's view. Someone else in the family may have a completely different perspective. There are many many reasons why people omit, sanitize, embroider or even fabricate what they tell their children and grandchildren. Embarrassment over illegitimacy is one of the most common I have found.

I have spent years trying to verify stories from parents, grandparents and other relatives. Often there is a kernal of truth--sometimes barely even that. And you have to be careful WHO you ask. When I approached one family member, who was particularly gifted as a "story teller", I was told the tall tale that one of my great grandmothers was a Cherokee Princess (not true), her father a renowned Cherokee chief who was arrested & imprisoned for selling bootleg whiskey while attempting to cross the Mississippi River (not true), and that my great grandmother and her sister were orphaned at a very young age and raised in an orphanage (only a teensy weensy bit true). It made a great story, but most of it wasn't true!!

So go ahead, enjoy Grandma and her stories. Sometimes those stories are all we have to go on. Just be ready to play detective and find out "the rest of the story".

2) YOUR ANCESTORS ARE NOT SOLELY YOURS. Maybe you have already noticed this. It was one of my first big realizations when I began researching, and it is especially true the farther back you delve into your family tree. Your great great grandmother-- who you may have come to think of as your own, somehow a distinct part of YOU-- may have had ten siblings. She may have had ten children, and each of them may have had ten children. You get the picture. There are probably multitudes of people related to her, and thus to you. This is something you can use in your research. Perhaps there is someone out there who knows far more about your great great grandmother than you ever dreamed. The Internet has been very very helpful. Find a way to publish your family tree or genealogy research online. You might be surprised at the response.

3) YOUR ANCESTORS DID NOT EXIST IN A VOID. This goes along with number two. Sometimes beginning researchers tend to view ancestors & their families as tidy little domestic units, somehow distinct & separate from the rest of the world. The thing is, our ancestors lived lives nearly as complex as our own. Think of how many friends, acquaintances and relatives you yourself have at any given moment, how many clubs or organizations you are active in, how many jobs/careers/occupations you have held during your lifetime, what military service, which schools you have attended, which churches you have attended. Perhaps you have even been married more than once. Well, the same can be applied to your ancestors. So if you get stuck, consider this: Who did your ancestors live near when they settled in a particular region? Was there extended family living nearby? Did they have strong church affiliations? Fight in any wars? I have gone so far as to research ALL the families in a particular community, because I discovered that nearly all the families had come from the same place originally, were deeply intermarried, and had all migrated together, along with my ancestors.

4) CONSIDER THE LARGER HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE. PLEASE. Several years ago, a fellow researcher contacted me with the exciting information that he had just found the name of the wife of my great X 4 grandfather Isaac Thompson. I had been looking for this information for a very long time! But when I examined the marriage record that he sent me, I was sorely disappointed. My great X4 grandfather Isaac Thompson lived in the mountains of western North Carolina, and was a soldier in the Revolutionary War in NC. This marriage record had him marrying a woman in England in 1780. Clearly the man who sent me the record did not even stop to consider the historical ramifications of that marriage record. For starters, the Revolutionary War was not officially over until 1783. And the idea that a Rev War soldier in the mountains of western North Carolina would drop everything during the middle of the war, make his way to the coast, sail across the ocean to ENGLAND (!!) in order to take a bride, then sail back and resume his fight against the British is, well, just plain ludicrous!

Besides, I'd already seen Isaac Thompson's Rev War Pension papers. He had other things on his mind in 1780.

Which is what I told the other researcher. Politely, of course.

5) YES THERE ARE MISTAKES IN PUBLISHED GENEALOGIES AND RECORDS. Even US census records. There is no holy grail in genealogy. Unless it's the DAR. I'll have to check with them.

6) DON'T GET TOO HUNG UP ON EXACT SPELLING IN RECORDS. Especially if your family had an unusual surname. Or a German, Swiss or Dutch surname. I have a Siegfriedt that was anglicized to Saferight. Van Arsdale was transformed to Vanosdall in Kentucky. Huber can be found as Hoover, Hoober, Hover & Huver. Lueckhardt morphed into Luckhart, Lukehart, Lookhart and even Lockhart. You get the picture. It's tedious, I know. But it helps to be tenacious and check out all variant spellings.

You'd be surprised how many people just don't get this. Sometimes it's hard for us, living in the 21st century, to realize that the first North American settlements were very very small. And pretty well documented, historically speaking. So if your ancestors weren't mentioned in available records or lists of original first settlers living at Plymouth MA, or Jamestown VA, or on the Mayflower, then, for goodness sakes, they PROBABLY WEREN'T THERE. No matter what your Aunt Mabel says

OK. enuff said for now. Maybe you have more observations to add to this-- your comments appreciated!



Renate Yarborough Sanders said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Renate Yarborough Sanders said...

Hi Betty. Welcome to the Geneabloggers community! I've enjoyed reading your posts, especially this one! (I plan to "tweet" it, so you can expect a few more eyes to be on it today.:)
I look forward to following your blog, and hope you'll check mine out too! You can find me