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…..”
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!