Eleven Things I Would Do Differently

I’ve been feverishly working each week on my ancestor for the 52 Ancestor’s challenge.  Of course, this means I’m going back through everything for that ancestor, and for the county where they lived, and everything about their siblings and parents and aunts and uncles….oh my.

This process has given me ample opportunity to take a look at what I could have, would have and should have done differently over these past 37 years, had I known that one day I would be doing this.

Remember, I never started out to be a genealogist.  I just wanted to know something about my father’s family.  That was before the days of internet and there were no online classes.  I don’t even know if there WAS a Mormon Church or Family History Center where I lived at that time, and it didn’t matter, because…remember…I wasn’t doing genealogy – so I didn’t need a class in how to do something I wasn’t doing.

One day, a few years later, someone said to me….”oh, so you’re a genealogist”….and I told them, no, I wasn’t.

Famous last words.  I once said I wasn’t pregnant too…

So, now that I’ve admitted to my genealogy addiction and long-ago declared that I have absolutely no intention of recovering…what would I do differently had I known I was going to become thoroughly addicted…to make the process easier on myself and to be more productive.

1. I would write down everything and DATE it. I can’t tell you how many notes I have from early interviews with people in Claiborne County without even the name of the person I was talking to. Of course, I KNEW at that moment and I would NEVER forget….right????

2. I would note not only who I was talking to, but where, why and something about the person other than their name. I can’t tell you how many times, later, I was to discover that the person I was talking to was actually a cousin through an entirely different line and I so wished I had asked a different set of questions.

3. I would write down on every piece of research not only what I found, but what I didn’t find. In other words, not just that I found the following Estes records, but that I looked for ALL Estes records, not just ones for my first names, and that I also looked for Dodson records, but found none.  This also applies to entirely nonproductive lookups when you find absolutely nothing in a reference resource. Otherwise, you’ll probably look in that same place several times over.

4. I would transcribe my research into two documents (utilizing copy/paste), described below, and at the time I did the research or shortly thereafter, when I still had a prayer of reading my own handwriting.

5. I would create a master county research document for all research from that county, regardless of the surname. Most of your relevant counties are going to hold more than one of your ancestral surnames. After all, people got married, even if they didn’t record it or the courthouse burned and you can’t find it.

To give an example of this, all of the tax records for Moore, Dodson and Estes, including surrounding neighbors, by year, including years where none where listed, would be in the county file, where individual records pertaining to a specific family surname or ancestor would be in their own or family file – see item 6.

6. I would create a master timeline of all family items by surname. I call these files “John R. Estes Everything” files. Clearly the John R. Estes Everything file will include some things that would also be in his father’s and his children’s files. In essence, this is what I’m doing with the 52 ancestor’s articles, except I’m interweaving the stories as told by the facts.  In some cases, like in Halifax County, I have the “Estes Everything” file that is later broken into individual files when I can sort through the data.  If I have a theory, I also write it in this document.  It’s so much easier if I can see what I was thinking or trying to prove or disprove at a particular point in time.  When I think I’m wrong, I don’t delete it, I write WHY.  In some cases, I’ve later discovered I wasn’t wrong and had  deleted that info and discourse with myself, it would have been gone.  Yes, this is considered talking to yourself, just to be clear.  And yes, I answer myself too because if not me, who?  I mean, it’s not like my ancestor is going to reach down there leave me a note.

7. I would utilize a spreadsheet and record everything from the beginning.  Of course, spreadsheets didn’t yet exist on computers when I began but I’ve since made up for it.  I have now done this for most of my surnames. I transcribe the item, and then the spreadsheet is indexed by every surname. This allows me to go back and sort by surname and to discover that, for example, John Doe signed as a witness for deeds for several members of a particular family. This sometimes is extremely useful in sorting families in a county with the same names.  And sorting a spreadsheet is so much more accurate than my memory.  “I think I remember seeing…..”

Halifax spreadsheet example

In this case, the spreadsheet started for all of my Halifax County, VA records but quickly expanded to cover all entries for all of my Halifax County, VA surname families in Virginia and NC.  Abbott is NOT one of my surnames, but you can clearly see that the Abbott family is somehow connected to the Moore family.  In the example above, if I wanted to see the will of Joseph Abbott, I would sort for item 171 and the full text would be there under his entry.  This entry would not be in this spreadsheet, were there not something in Joseph Abbott’s will that involved one of my surnames.  Some of the Moore lines are mine, and some are not, as proven by DNA – but they all lived in the same county.  That should be illegal!  And they should not be allowed to name their children the same names either – but they did and now it’s left to us to unravel the puzzle.

8. I would take pictures of everything, meaning research documents, including the cover or title page. I started this using a good camera that does NOT require a flash years ago – but since then many counties and state archives don’t allow the practice. But I would do as much as I could. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to see the original document again. If in doubt about focus or quality, take 2 pictures. By the way, this is not in lieu of transcribing or extracting, but in addition.  Sorry.

9. I would NEVER, ever read any historical fiction books. Not only can I not remember the difference between the historical fiction and the actual history of the family or area, neither can other people. There is one particular surname, Brock, that appears as a spouse of Abraham Estes, the immigrant, that was introduced in a well-meaning historical fiction book in the 1980s and is now the surname of Barbara, the wife of Abraham Estes, in thousands of trees everyplace – without even a teensy tiny shred of evidence anyplace except for citing each other’s wrong trees. And there are so many of them…they surely must be right. Right? In fact, if you ask the tree-owners, they will tell you they are sure that’s her name. But not one can tell you HOW they are sure, except that there are so many trees that they can’t all be wrong. Right? Wrong! Makes me pull my hair out.

10. I would rethink sharing a hypothesis. Years ago, I found a census record in which one of my ancestors, who was widowed, was found with an elderly man by a different surname, living in her household. We’ll call that surname Hell, because that’s what this became. (It was actually Helloms.) I hypothesized to another cousin that I thought Sarah’s surname might be Helloms and that this invalid male might be her brother. Not long afterwards, I discovered that Sarah’s husband, James Clarkson/Claxton had died in the War of 1812, ordered his paperwork from the National Archives, and discovered in that paperwork that Sarah’s surname was Cook, when and where they were married and that her father’s name was Joel Cook. No question. Hands down.  Not Helloms.  However, in the mean time, the Helloms surname from Hell had attached itself to trees, as fact, and now you find Sarah Helloms, Sarah Helloms Cook and more permutations, or mutations. And while that cousin should never had published speculative information as fact, publicly in her tree, I probably should not have shared that speculation either. On the other hand, collaboration is important – so I don’t know exactly what I should have done differently – but the result has been a disaster. Ironically, when I tell people that Helloms isn’t correct, and give them the source for the original problematic information, and the correct information, they often argue with me.  Go figure!

11. DNA test everyone to the fullest extent possible at the time. I have cheap-sized myself and often, it can’t be fixed later. For example, I mitochondrial DNA tested the one living daughter of my paternal grandmother many years ago now. At the time, I only paid for the HVR1, which was probably about the price then of the full sequence today, thinking I could upgrade later. Well, guess what….NADA. We tried to upgrade a few years later and the quality wasn’t good enough, and she has since passed away. So, no full sequence and even more crushing, no autosomal upgrade. It’s killing me. Eat beans if you have to. Get the DNA when you can and test as much as possible. It’s ultimately worth it. Don’t put it off.  Otherwise you will live to regret it and you’ll wish you had eaten those beans.

12.  (Yes, I added this one later.)  I would write the full source, not just a note like “Halifax County Court Order Books.”  I would write the full book title, the book number/letter, the range of years it covered and the page number, of course.  Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t, probably related to how tired I was at the time.  My notes pages that went together would get permanently joined as well, immediately, so no strays floating around.

13. (Ok, I added two later.)  Label all photographs, including contemporary ones.  One day, they won’t be contemporary anymore and you’ll be trying to figure out by kids clothes, haircuts and relative sizes, living pets and the house at the time which Christmas was which.  For digital photos assemble them in one place and then back up that source onto a different medium or computer.

Reflecting back upon earlier errors and mistakes through ignorance and learning from them instead of repeating them (again) is called wisdom, and it’s one of the only benefits of getting older.  I hope you can benefit from some of my oversights.  There has to be a silver lining someplace!



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47 thoughts on “Eleven Things I Would Do Differently

  1. Having done genealogy research for almost 30 years, there are many things I would have done differently also. What a great post! Hopefully, new and upcoming genealogists will learn from mistakes made by others.

  2. You stated, “You did the mtDNA of the one living daughter of your paternal grandmother”. Can you now do the mtDNA full sequence of this deceased daughter’s living daughter/s, or their daughters, etc.?

    Did your paternal grandmother have other daughters, who had daughters and granddaughters you could test?

    Or, am I just having another senior moment?

  3. Roberta – a great list and, based on my genealogy experiences since 1974, I second every one of your recommendations. I’ll add one more. I’ve become a big fan of Ahnentafel numbers for each ancestor. So, for instance, in the spreadsheet for all you records, you already have the surname and date of the record. If you keep a column for their Ahnentafel number it’s a piece of cake to sort by Ahnentafel number and date – you’ll get the equivalent of a pedigree chart with a timeline for each ancestor – automatically. I often run a copy sorted by surname and then Ahnentafel number and get everything grouped for a surname focus (or a surname timeline)

    Thanks for sharing your list,

  4. Oh, yes, Roberta, been there, done that! More than anything else, I wish I’d kept track of every microfilm and microfiche I ever ordered, why I requested it, what I searched for, and what I found. It’s expensive and time-consuming to re-order the same item I looked at way back when, and not always easy to find a Family History Center that’s open at a convenient time. Oh, well, at least it’s some comfort to know I’m not the only one!

  5. Roberta: You said “We tried to upgrade a few years later and the quality wasn’t good enough”. That is scarey. I thought the kit samples were supposed to be stable for a VERY long time. That isn’t the case? That means I had better upgrade every kit that I have ordered and upgrade (or attempt to upgrade) immediately before they are also “not good enough”. Some of those samples are nearly ten years old.

    • Sometimes the DNA does degrade with age or due to bacteria. She was quite elderly when the sample was taken and the person with her said she had a hard time, so it could have been marginal to begin with. The Big Y and the autosomal are the most sensitive of the tests, the Y STR panels and mtDNA not as much, but hers failed both the mtDNA upgrade and the autosomal, from both vials. Yes, I would upgrade now.

  6. Wonderful article! I’ve only been doing this (seriously) for a bit over six years, I’ve built up a tree of nearly 2600 names, but find myself falling into the some of the same traps you mention here. I wish I could have read this back then!

  7. Great article Roberta. Thank you so much for all you do. You have been a great inspiration to me. I started in 2000 just wanting to find info on my Mother’s family. There have been many wonderful finds, some brick walls but all together a great journey. Of course documentation wasn’t one of my favorite things. This year I started the Genealogy Do-Over with Tom MacEntee & taking some courses. Bound and determined to get it right this time around even if it takes me a couple of years 😊

  8. Good retrospect but you can’t beat yourself up now. I started when I tried to fill out the information in my son’s baby book. 36 years and counting! I haven’t made it to the Family Center yet so I have miles to go.

  9. Great list. I was reading quickly, so it may be in there somewhere, but just in case. BACK UP EVERYTHING. Scan all your documents and photos. Keep a backup drive in your home, but do not keep it plugged in. Backup; unplug from the computer AND the power. Do NOT think that your Dropbox copy is anything but a handy tool. If a hacker wipes your computer, they will be wiping your Dropbox also because you probably have provided the entry information for them along with the passwords for your bank and charge card accounts. Use Carbonite or a similar backup system. Share your information, photos, and documents with your family. The more copies, the more protection.

  10. Glad to see I’m not the only one who didn’t keep records as accurately as I should. Having married into a family of perfectionists, it’s really been getting me down.


  11. Fantastic article with many great tips. I’ve been in that Halifax County courthouse and pawed through their amazingly old books and I regret I also did not document them as thoroughly as I should have. And will I still get such open access to everything next time I visit? And when will THAT be? (Arg, the things that keep me up at night…)

  12. Good advice! I’ve been researching my family tree for 20 years and during that time I’ve realized that I have made duplicates and triplicates of material I already had xeroxed years earlier. That’s one of the reasons why I still have Brick Walls. I’m the first to admit I’m not organized and need help.

    • Unless there has been a mutation between you and your Mom, your mtDNA would be the same, but your autosomal absolutely would NOT be the same. You didn’t inherit half of your mother’s autosomal DNA, so if you don’t test her, you’re sacrificing that heritage.

  13. Newbie here .. on recommendation of a dear and trusted friend. Your “11+2” is Old School Rules 101. I’m the delighted recent recipient of AncestryDNA results and awaiting 23&Me as well. Survived the GEDcom upload process and now having fun with 1 of my 3 3rd cousins matches who knocked down my 1st Brick Wall and said “Hello”. Have been digging my way to ME for 56 years and if I didn’t have my steno books I would have given up a long time ago. As a grateful member of an Adoption Search group, I have posted numerous times the importance of Detail, Detail, Detail. Old business proverb: “the work isn’t done till the paperwork is” and I’ve added the caveat “if I can’t read it, neither can anyone else”. Smart phones, tablets and the mentality of “instant mash potatoes” will never replace Hard Copy Fact. Your wisdom and humor is a most rewarding introduction to the “Smart Kids Table”. Thank You.

  14. Roberta,
    If only we would have known our files would become so big. Great idea to separate by counties instead of surnames. On the mtDNA test, could you point me to your article/articles on autosomal DNA matches. I have tested my maternal grandmother’s brother’s son and I am getting matches with him on the chromosome browser but then, on matrix these people are not showing as matches. I thought that his chromosome matching me would only be attributed to my mother’s line through her mother. I can’t have matching there from my father’s line, can I? I am now confused still trying to figure out this autosomal DNA. (all this with family tree)

  15. You have my story and regrets in a nutshell, but you have done such an excellent job of consolidating and getting yours on the computer.  I started on genealogy (curiosity because of total lack of knowledge) 25 years before I had a computer, and it was almost five more before I had internet.  By that time I had a 4-drawer file cabinet, a line of 3-inch binders, and many books with family history.  Now I have a total mess, and keep amassing more without the will power to get my papers all in order.  I started gathering family information just for myself and my children, so did not post sources like I should have, because as an old legal secretary I insist on facts that would stand up in court.  And while it helps me to discuss ideas with others, it is a mistake because even though I stressed it was only speculation, I have seen so much of my speculation posted on the internet (over and over) as fact, even after it has been proven wrong.  Also, Ancestry has also furnished some of my cousins an ancestor that I ruled out over 30 years ago after intensive study.  Ancestry said he is their grandfather, and they are not going to take him off their tree.  He is not on mine, and neither is gr-gr-grandmother Minnie Harvick, who actually was a Hardwick and not a Harvick. You will find her on every family tree that includes Adam Harvick in Benton County, Arkansas, although I believe he was living in Texas before burials were made in that cemetery. But you can’t get through my house for the genealogy records, and I am totally addicted.  I only wish I had it as well documented and recorded as you do.  I enjoy gathering, not recording.

    Frances Willess

  16. Just one more tiny little thing. Be cautious with media backups. In the past 30 years digital media storage has increased in size and hopefully longevity. Over the years my backups included cassette tapes, floppy disks, small hard drives, zip disks, CDs, DVDs, etc. The problem being each incarnation of readers change with the incarnation of the pc your using and may not be available on the next pc. Other than maintaining a system capable of reading each and every type of media strive to keep at least two copies of images, notes, genealogies in a variety of current media and in the newest media. Print the most important of these as another backup. All will help you should you change computers and hopefully you won’t need to worry about your media decaying or pc crashes.

  17. Just a quick note to say, You’re awesome!!! I love reading your articles and I have learned so much by reading them as well. Not that it always sticks, but I can always go back and reference. I happen to like your writing style. It’s very easy to read and just enjoyable. Please keep doing what you’re doing for all of us out here in family search land. It is very much appreciated!
    A faithful reader/follower and FTDNA member,
    Suzanne Floyd Morgan

    Sent from my iPhone

  18. Roberta thank you for this post. My husband chuckled all the way through. Especially close to home was point 10, I would rethink sharing a hypothesis. After 43 years of on-site research I too had a researcher through back the argument, “You would be surprised how many people disagree with you” as if that made the error correct. This is one of the worst reasons to except a posting on any family tree and wonderful to have you put it in print for so many others to consider.

  19. Great POST. If only you could posted it 25 years ago when most of us started.:) Love the blog. I shared your post on FB today because I think it would resonate with a lot of genealogist.

  20. LOL I love beans and I am usually broke so its a good thing, We are just about ready to move into our new house after a wildfire and I am contemplating taking the ancestry test!

    • I have been also working on finding more ancestors. I was especially excited about seeing note of Joyce Shockley Wilson. Family Finders says that I am a distant cousin to both the Shockley and Wilson families. My Shockley’s came from Accomack Co, VA in the 1600’s.

  21. Speaking of what one might do differently! My brick wall is my great grandmother & earliest known person in my matriline, Jane Hawkins. I know she was born in Delaware, moved to Ohio, married there, & died in Iowa, but have been unable to find out who her parents were. I just ran across a census record in one of my notebooks with the name Thomas Hawkins highlighted. But would you believe, I neglected to write a date or location on it. I have absolutely no notion of the where or when of it. If I were given to tearing my hair out, I would be bald.

  22. Love reading your posts. You’re a great storyteller! Always good for at least one chuckle. Great list too! I’ve only been doing this about a year and a half, but already, I know where you’re coming from. Would you share the specifics of your column headings in the spreadsheet? I’m sure you’ve thought of things I wouldn’t think of yet. Thanks.

    • Column Headings:
      Item Number – this is the item number of this entry. Starts with 1 – each entry gets it’s own number but each person in the entry gets a row in the spreadsheet. So each item will be in the spreadsheet once for each person’s name in the entry.
      Source – Where I got this. Sometimes this is my cousin’s letter. If I have additional commentary about this, I may add it in the text field.
      Year – of the entry.
      County – This spreadsheet started out to be all Virginia. You might want a state column too.
      Last Name – this field has caused me some heartburn. If you spell the entry exactly like it was spelled, you won’t fine More with the Moores. If you spell it the “common” way, it’s not the way it was in the original record.
      First Name – same as above
      Position – their role in the entry. Plaintiff, defendant, bride, groom, etc.
      Places – in deeds often things like “Reedy Creek” are mentioned. I enter them here so I can then sort by this column
      Text – the actual text of the entry itself.

  23. Roberta, thank you for the great article. As soon as I started reading it I immediately thought of the one thing I kick myself for over and over. I began researching in 1973 and there were dozens of people I could have talked to back then who have now passed on. I didn’t ask my parents enough or all their sisters and brother ……all gone now. My grandfather was born in 1878 and he was still alive then . There is so much I could have learned.

    • Yes, there are things we did not ask, which we consider very important today. I would give anything to know how my mother chose my first name, which is not a family name.

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  25. Good article. Totally impressed and overwhelmed with the spreadsheet. But why mtdna test my daughter if I am tested. What would be different? Mary

    • One generally wouldn’t also test your daughter’s mtDNA. There could be a mutation, but it doesn’t really matter if there is and it’s very unlikely. You would however, want to test both of your autosomal DNA, because she received half of yours and half of her father’s.

  26. I’ve only been doing this about 5 years and I agree with everything you said. And I might add, Don’t put your hypothesis on ancestry.com in a public tree. You will soon find it everywhere. And like you, everyone will argue with you that it’s right even if they have no proof and you do. However, it’s far more accurate than any other tree for my family that’s at ancestry. I wonder why it comes up 5 spaces down the page in a tree search. I have lots of pictures and sources but it comes in below an unsourced tree and several trees with one source and no photos. Hmm?

    • Yes, whenever you do a search the order seems very random. I usually keep scrolling until I find trees which have the most sources and attached records. Then I look at the records and compare them to the individual to see how correct the entry may be. Also, you will see sources listed as other Ancestry trees….that’s a catch 22. I keep my tree private also and only invite those who have a real reason to look at it. Years ago it was public until someone copied a photo of my grandmother and attached to a person who was not my grandmother. I thought it was simply a mistake and wrote the person. They replied that they were sorry but would not remove the picture. Now my grandmother’s photo is out there attached to the incorrect person and on a public tree. That’s when I made my tree private.

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