Recently, I volunteered to provide free genealogy assistance through a local genealogy society to which I belong. I try to help twice a year – fall and spring – which is advertised throughout our county. Every time I attend, I learn something new about genealogy practices. Here’s my latest revelations:
1. Keep your email accounts current – My first “client” had gotten everyone in her family to test. That included her siblings, children and herself. She had a DNA question for me but she couldn’t readily access any of her accounts because she had used an old email address she no longer had. I recommended she contact the DNA test companies to update her records. But that led to the next problem:
2. Know where you did your DNA test and when – She recalled she had last tested with 23andMe but when we clicked “Forgot your password?”, it was sent to her current email The problem was that kit was for her daughter. She then recalled she had purchased the kit two Christmas’ ago intending to use it but gave it to her daughter instead. We tried FTDNA, but couldn’t get in because that was the older email account. She thought she had used Ancestry.com for her sister but it turned out those were her results. Clicking around used up a good deal of time we could have spent analyzing the results. I shared how I save my info; I use Excel to keep a list of the Kit numbers, date the test was ordered, who the test was for and the company that was used. On a second tab, I record contact information from others after the results are returned. This way, I avoid duplication of effort.
3. Try, Try Again – Last fall I assisted a woman trying to find an obituary from the mid-1950’s. Her grandmother had been active in the community where she resided but she couldn’t find the obit in the nearest big city newspaper. I had recommended she contact a research librarian to find out the names of newspapers that were publishing at the time in that location and where the microfilm of those papers were held. She said, “I called and someone said they’d get back with me but nobody did.” Here’s a lesson we all need to heed, don’t think that call is going to happen now, months later. Call again. Ask to be connected with the Reference Desk. If a few days pass with no results, email. I love the Ask-A-Librarian online contact. Not only do you have a record that you made the request, it saves you a phone call and having to spell out the surname while the librarian is trying to take notes.
4. Two Heads Are Better Than One – I love paper but I don’t love having to sort through a ream and a half of every item ever discovered on a brick wall ancestor. In other words, be organized. If the information had been presented in time line order, we could have gotten through it much more expeditiously. The woman used the method of last found information was placed on top. I recommended she sort the information on a table by the year that the record was created. Sure, the immigration paperwork completed when the ancestor was in their mid 30’s had the date and place of birth but keeping the documents in created age order helps to determine the accuracy of the information found. She told me her method drove her uncle nuts but she was so into the hunt for records she didn’t like to take the time to organize them. I recommended she get with her genealogy buddy, the uncle, and see if he was more adept at organization. Then, they could put their heads together and make a timeline on paper (she hates software programs) to find holes. This approach also helps in finding information that was out there that you initially glossed over because you focused on something else. For example, she had the ship manifest so she knew where the ship sailed from. She also had a birth location from the immigration record. She had scant information between the birth and the immigration. I recommended reading the history of the area at the time the ancestor was born to determine if the family had relocated soon after (hint, it was probably the potato famine). If she wasn’t interested in that type of research, her partner could do it and then they could discuss where she could research further.
5. Know What You Want to Know – Your research question is imperative. “I want to know everything about my great grandfather” is not a question. You might be able to eventually get to the point where you know a lot about your great grandfather but to do so, you’ve got to start with a name or a place and a time from which to build. If you start small, you don’t get overwhelmed and quit. INMHO, that’s why people give up on genealogy. It is a practice in patience, analysis, and sometimes, dumb luck. You can control two of the three components. My recommendation for this individual was to focus on one area of a person’s life, like their career, and see what you can find. Then move to why that individual held that job. Perhaps there was indentured or apprenticed paperwork. Maybe the great grandfather or another relative was in the same line of work. Here’s an example I shared; my husband comes from a long line of carpenters. The original carpenter, however, didn’t build homes. He was a ship’s carpenter. That would have been a modern job when ships provided the largest means of transportation. His son was a ship’s carpenter early on in his career but switched as he aged to building homes. That man’s son moved farther inland and continued with the trade. That original research question could disclose a wealth of family information over generations. It pays to be specific about what you’re looking for.