10 things I wish I had known when I began doing genealogy research
As a beginning genealogist in the early 1990s, I knew that genealogy research was important and could strengthen family relationships. However, what I didn't know was how to go about it.
In the 1990s, the available genealogy education was hard to come by.
As a teenager and then a young adult in college, time wasn't always available to visit research libraries, especially since the relevant ones were 1,000 miles away.
Traveling to national conferences or joining genealogy societies wasn't an option on my limited budget.
I hadn't discovered genealogy books available at the local library. Or the ones I found couldn't help me with the constraints of the previous two limitations.
Access to online genealogy records was non-existent.
There is something I did when I couldn't do anything else. I asked a LOT of questions of my mother and grandmother. As I was studying journalism at Texas A&M, I learned to ask my mother and grandmother questions about their childhood, how they met their spouse, and what they knew factually about their parents and grandparents.
I am so thankful for the foundation of talking to the living, but after nearly 30 years of genealogy research, there are several things I wish I would have known then that I know now.
Will you learn from my mistakes?
1. Don't blindly accept other family trees
In my early days, I copied the Book of Remembrance that my mother made. But, of course, I had to have my own copy.
Then I sent letters to distant relatives who completed the forms and sent them back. The one missing thing from these family group sheets was evidence that a fact was true. On the few that had them, I didn't follow up with the evidence to ensure the records said what my family said they said.
While most people will know the details about themselves, parents, siblings, spouses, and children, they often misremember details about their extended relatives.
Oh, and surprise, surprise. Many people lie.
People are unwilling to share family secrets such as separation, affairs, divorces, illegitimate children, adoption, suicide, and criminal activities. The black sheep and skeletons in the closet aren't a legacy people prefer to acknowledge.
Regardless of format, be it handwritten, published genealogies, or online family trees, I rarely accept family trees of others without supporting documentation. Instead, use the information as clues of where to research, but never believe the information without document or genetic evidence.
2. Look at the original record, not just the index
For years, I knew that my grandmother's biological mother, Agnes Anderson, died on 22 May 1920 in Columbus, Ohio. My grandmother knew her biological mother died the day after she was born. However, we didn't know anything about Agnes's parents.
In my early days of genealogy research, I only had access to a death index for Franklin County, Ohio, and it did not include her parents' names.
Years later, I discovered not one but two copies of Agnes's original death certificate. Both identified her parents as Wm Anderson and Amanda Sparks. One had an informant who later turned out to be Agnes's uncle. Discovering his identity opened up Agnes' lineage three generations.
It pays to look at details on original records rather than stopping at the index to such documents. With online genealogy databases, look beyond the search results. Click through to the actual image (or find it in another location) whenever possible.
3. Analyze your information before you accept it
Frequently, online family trees and documents are wrong. Thus, we need to follow Genealogy Proof Standards #3 and #4.
3. Thorough analysis and correlation of the collected information.
4. Resolution of any conflicting evidence,
Thus, when a marriage certificate of Caroline Geisley married Michael Billman, I need to analyze whether Geisley is her maiden name, married name from a previous marriage and whether the spelling of that name is accurate.
When I find conflicting information, I need to determine whether they are the same person or not. For example. Caroline Mack Geiszler Billman had a son named Henry Billman in the 1870 census. Was he was the same age as Henry Guysler from the 1860 census? I needed to analyze the information and then explain how I knew.
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4. Preserve the memories of the living at the BEGINNING
While I did much to preserve the memories of the living as far as I could, there are more things I wish I had done. I wish I had:
asked my mother and grandmother to identify everyone in the photos in their photo albums.
photographed family keepsakes and recorded stories about them.
asked my questions about the stories my relatives shared to paint a bigger picture
asked more questions to ensure I didn't have a gap in my loved ones' stories.
So much record and memory loss happen when tragedy and death strikes. So before trying to break through a genealogy brick wall, I should ensure that I'm preserving the lives of the living and their memories of their closest relatives.
5. Don't take your relative's knowledge as gospel truth
Just because a distant relative said that Angeline Gordon married BS Smith, we should tread lightly. Do we have the correct husband? Was it really R L Smith, but a previous researcher incorrectly read the handwriting on the consulted marriage document.
If a relative witnessed an event, we could believe their statements more. However, I would still back up their claims as much as possible. Remember, family members can lie or hide the truth.
6. It often takes more than one document to answer a research question
Since documents may have errors or falsehoods, we shouldn't rely on one record to provide evidence of a fact or relationship.
In my early days of genealogy research, particularly since I was doing this work to do temple ordinances for the deceased, we were taught that we only needed a name, a date, and a place before we took the name to the temple.
The early advice didn't require a source, but that has dramatically changed in the past 20 years. However, one source is enough for temple work. This might explain why the family tree looks like a big mess on FamilySearch, and we need to work to clean it up.
For instance, a 1910 census record might say that an ancestor was born in 1880. But, if we look at the 1900 census, the same ancestor (based on other factors) was born in 1870. Finally, the 1920 census said the same ancestor was born in 1890.
So, have we confused this female with three separate ones? Or, did this female lie to the enumerators and always say she was 30 years old, no matter what decade it was?
This pattern does happen, and Andy's family has a female relative who apparently never aged. Thus, we actually need even more records to determine when the relative was born.
7. Have a plan for when you research the wrong family
Some people call these rabbit trails. Other people call these waste of time. I call it experience. Plus, that research is beneficial to someone else.
So, what should you do with the genealogy research you've collected for someone's family? I recommend donating it. You can also ensure the information is on FamilySearch and WikiTree. This collaborative platform will leave what you discovered available to other researchers related to the people you found.
Why not bless the lives of someone else instead of tossing all your research into the recycle bin?
8. Re-search a 'proven' ancestor every so often.
New records are becoming available each week on online platforms. For example, one Ancestry.com research hint led to pages of information about my great-grandpa Victor Zumstein. I didn't know that collection was available online yet! Hooray for record hints.
Reference libraries and archives often receive new collections through donations.
Additionally, you acquire new knowledge about the records that might document your ancestors.
If you (or your Aunt Martha) have built your family tree back to royalty or the Mayflower, it will benefit your family tree greatly if you revisit the research of proven ancestors.
Have you researched all possible records for your ancestor? If you're not sure, grab the Brick Wall Busting guide for a reference list of potential records.
Also, review the records to ensure that the previous conclusions are accurate. Did someone take a wrong turn? Megan Smoleynak discovered someone had taken a wrong turn on a famous politician's family tree.
Revisit the proven ancestors. You might learn something new. Or you might have to alter your family tree.
↪️ Are you looking for more genealogy resources?
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9. Organize your research from the beginning for someone to inherit
Many genealogists will tell you the importance of organizing their research. Whether they live up to the principle or not, that's another story. However, I organized my research so that if I die tomorrow, someone can understand my organizational system.
When I inherited my mother's research box, things were in file folders by surname. But, the files seemed disorganized because she had a coding system she never explained to me. Without a legend to the system, I had no idea what to do with everything.
I've since downsized and reorganized her collection. I leverage online family trees and rarely print off copies of documents that would create more clutter for those who inherit my research. I also ensure that my work is publicly available or that my relatives have the passwords to my accounts so they can take over when I'm gone.
Organizing our research is a valuable skill. However, it's even better to file our research so that someone else can pick up where we left off. If your system only works for you, it's not a great system.
10. Create Research Plans
As a beginning genealogist, I didn't realize the benefit of research plans. I thought all the forms to complete were too cumbersome and poorly organized (see point 9).
I later learned two powerful principles of genealogy research plans.
When you're first learning to research, plans help you know what to do next and process what you find.
When you've gained sufficient research skills, use research plans for your challenging research projects.
With the convenience of online genealogy websites that allow me to search records and save them to their family tree, I don't always create a research plan. I will:
Explore a collection.
Save a source to a profile on the family tree (thereby citing my sources).
Leave notes about the information found in the document and what research question it answers.
Keep a to-do list when I discover another collection to search or think of a new question to ask.
Sometimes research questions become more complex. Then, I will use a genealogy research plan template and the online trees and write a report to explain the conclusions I make.
There are many more things I wish I had understood sooner as a beginning genealogist. I've also discovered mistakes to avoid, which I list in this blog.
If you're a beginner or experienced genealogist, make sure you implement this knowledge as soon as possible. And, if you've discovered something I left off this list, be sure to let me know.
Happy Tree Climbing. Remember to keep it fun.
For more tips, check out these blog posts: