And A Dozen Things I Got Right

Genealogists copy trees

Yesterday, I told you about some things I’d do differently, from the beginning of my genealogy adventure or as soon as I could, if I were starting over.  But while I made some mistakes, I did get a few things right too.  Now, I’d like to tell you that this was on purpose or a result of brilliance or stellar planning, but it wasn’t.  Mostly, it was either flat out luck combined with a dash of common sense, or a result of my training in a related field.  Still, I’d like to share these things, because they are every bit as relevant now as then – and in some cases, maybe more so.

1. Talk to the older people. Now you’re going to laugh at this, but when I started working with genealogy, my father’s family lines were in the south – in Appalachia – and many people didn’t have phones.  And I mean land-line phones – you know – the kind that were black with rotary dials. Those who did were often not terribly comfortable with them. I heard one man yell at a child who answered the phone when I called one evening about 8PM, “Hang that thing up. You know we don’t answer the phone after dark.” Seriously? So, if you wanted to have a “real conversation” with these people, you went to visit. In person visits are much better, because it encourages story-telling, helps people recall that they do have a box of pictures someplace, and maybe they’ll go and find them, and allows people to really get to know each other. Of course, today, I’d be carrying DNA kits in my bag too. Oh, and mind your manners – take a small gift when visiting – flowers work well for ladies and often, some kind of food goodie for men.

2. Visit local hangouts, like the local coffee shop, the local breakfast place, and mingle with the locals. You’d be surprised what they know, and what they’ll tell you – many times things that your family won’t tell you. And they know who to ask about who owns that land “up yonder” too, and they’ll tell you about the time your grandpa got arrested for tipping the outhouse over on the mayor’s daughter, or put feathers in the stove at the school, causing quite a stink, or getting in trouble for “taking a girl over the state line.” Ahem. But they’ll make you promise never to tell who told you. By the time you leave, you’ll feel like family and have had a great local meal.

3. Visit the local churches that were in existence when your ancestor lived there, and near where they lived. In some cases, I’ve found information in church records, including minutes, that I found no place else – including the fact that my grandmother’s birth year was “adjusted” forward by one to make her conception date after her parents’ marriage. You can’t be baptized a year before you’re born.

4. Visit the local libraries, genealogy societies and court houses. Ask for family “vertical files” which are contributed information on various family lines. Copy the entire file. Courthouses are infamous for keeping older records “out of sight” someplace, so ask what else is available. See if there is someone who is familiar with the older records. Not everyone who works there is and they may inadvertently tell you that they don’t have certain records, when they do. Ask if they have archives, which are often in a separate location.

5. Find your ancestors original land. I do this by following deeds to the current (or near current) and praying, praying that there isn’t a tax sale or estate sale where the land changes hands and I can’t track it forward because an executor made the sale. Sometimes if you “lose” your ancestor’s land, you can track the neighbors land and “find” who owns your ancestor’s land later. Sometimes you can identify the land based on an old family cemetery and don’t need to do the deed work. Visit that land (with the current owner’s permission, of course.) Stand where they stood. See what they saw. This is one of my all-time favorite genealogy activities. Be careful about bulls though….just saying. Daryl, my travel-buddy cousin in the photo below, can tell you all about our great adventure being held captive by a bull.  Yes, we were trapped inside the cemetery.  I’m sure our southern cousins are still laughing about this.  Sometimes you find more than your ancestor’s land.

Clarkson bull

6. Enter information into a genealogy program, along with notes for each person, along with the source and date for the note. Be anal. Enter everything. Your mistake won’t be entering too much, but not entering enough, or forgetting to enter your source.  Then, file those records.  Organize yourself and stay consistent.  A filing cabinet (or 2 or 3) are your friends.

7. Housekeeping. Back up your data. My profession was in a technology field, so I applied the same principles to my own data as I did to my clients’. Not only do I back my system up regularly (nightly), I keep multiple copies and I also make sure there is an off-site copy periodically. I figure if I do that, I’ll never need it. Also, make sure you have current anti-virus/internet protection software as well. I use Norton’s Symantic 360 Premier Edition and I wouldn’t be without it – on my desktop and laptop too.

8. Share. There is nothing I dislike more than someone who has information about an ancestor and refuses to share it. One woman sent me half a document once – on purpose – then told me to do my own research to find the rest – except there was no clue of where to look. That’s akin to holding the ancestor hostage and it’s flat out evil. Yes, I’ve run into a few, but not many. And it has made me resolve to never be that way. They are the perfect example of serving as a bad example. Some of my best results have come through collaboration – the Henry Bolton and Nancy Mann stories are wonderful examples of collaboration with multiple DNA testers and researchers – and there’s more coming to this story – again, thanks to collaboration. We’ve discovered things together we could never have found alone. In another case, a cousin was very generous, sharing with me. A few months later, I wrote to ask him something, and he told me he had lost everything. I sent him his entire package of information he had sent me, plus some. He was ever so grateful he had shared, and so was I, for multiple reasons. His own selfless act of generosity was in turn, his own salvation. Talk about karma at its best.

9. Love the journey. I can’t tell you how much researching my ancestors has enriched my life. The trips, the people I’ve met and the bond I’ve formed with those ancestors whose lives I never knew about before, but can now appreciate. I’m making sure they are honored and remembered, hopefully, long after I’ve joined them. Get in the car (or plane) and go. There is nothing like visiting where your ancestors lived. And I swear, sometimes they help you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called my husband from some ancestral adventure and said, “you’re not going to believe this.”

10. Love your cousins. I come from a very small nuclear family and they are all deceased now. Yep, I’m the last one standing. So, other than my children, my various cousins are my family now, along with my quilt sisters, which is a whole other story. I’m extremely lucky to have met those cousins through genealogy and many have become fast friends, some for just about as long as I’ve done genealogy. I would never have met those wonderful people without genealogy.

11. Stay current with technology and see opportunity in change. Having said that, I still have not forgiven Microsoft for various versions of Windows upgrades. You remember, I know you do. I hear you moaning. While change is not my favorite thing, I guarantee you, and I hate change for the sake of change – I still slog through what I need to slog through to stay current. Technology is the single biggest enhancement and tool we have as genealogists. It’s the foundation for delivering digitized records and other types of information, none of which was available 20 years ago online – and much of which will eventually be available, I hope. But without keeping current with the hardware, software and operating systems, you won’t be able to access the information. Furthermore, being flexible enough to adopt and adapt to new technologies like Facebook and messaging allows us to reach another generation – you know – the generation who are cleaning out the houses that may well have boxes of pictures, Bibles and old letters we covet.

12. Do not wholesale copy other people’s work. And yes, I mean those Ancestry trees. Don’t do it.  Make your own mistakes – don’t copy others. Genealogists don’t let genealogists copy trees. I don’t care how inviting it looks. I do look at the sources and proofs other people have for individual ancestors, and if I think there is something worthwhile, I evaluate that information separately. I never, ever copy/paste an ancestor into my tree.

13.  Ok, so it’s a baker’s dozen. Take pictures, lots of pictures. Of the area, of the old churches, of the neighborhood, of local landmarks – your ancestor would have seen them all and they are part of their story. If you find cousins with old pictures, sometimes the best you can do is to take pictures of their pictures, and of them of course. I now travel (don’t laugh) with a scanner packed in a special suitcase in my car, along with my laptop. And when you get home, of course, share with all of your cousins!

Your ancestor’s story isn’t over yet.  You and your family are part of it and so is your journey to document their life and times.

This picture has become one of my all-time favorites.  It’s my cousin (yes, who I met through genealogy) Daryl (at right) and me, wading in the creek at Cumberland Gap, where our ancestors are from.  It was a miserably hot day and that cool water felt so good.  We’ve had so many fun adventures together and this shows us enjoying ourselves in the stream that runs through my ancestor’s land.  While this isn’t our common ancestor, it’s our common Dodson line.  We’ve chased these families all over the south.  It doesn’t get better than this.

lovin daryl



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31 thoughts on “And A Dozen Things I Got Right

  1. Thank you, I have been doing research for more than 30 years and still do a lot of the phone calls, writing and visiting historical societies, libraries and cemeteries. One thing I do is when I am on a mad search for information and come across a tree that has information I’m not currently looking for is to copy/paste an ancestor into my tree along with a question mark so I can go back and research it later. But I agree never take a tree you find anywhere as gospel check your own facts. Too many people don’t check the facts out and quite often you will see children born before the parents or after the parents have been dead for years.

  2. Wow. What a great story and very excellent points too. I can especially relate to the sharing situation. Just recently I attempted to make connection with someone I share 2.47% DNA with. But the party wasn’t forthcoming. The individual, I guess, did me a favor by insisting that we had ancestors from the same place, “as you can see” – meaning same state/county. That was it. However, through sheer genealogy, reviewing her surnames, and the process of elimination, I figure out who she was . I sent an email with that revelation…can’t wait to read the response. LOL! This has only reinforced my vow TO SHARE.

  3. Funny, we were just discussing your Item 12 on LinkedIn. See the discussion thread:
    “Are family trees published on-line a help or a hindrance?” under New England Historic Genealogical Society.

  4. I live at our local Senior Citizen Plaza and considered “the baby” since I’m only 69.5 years old. Listening to the conversations of my neighbors is always inspiring, funny and sometimes tragic. So many are truly alone and their passing seems only important to their neighbors. No one comes to claim the collected history of a 93 year life; no one takes home the photo of a young man standing in the waves of the Malacon in Havana. On the back it says “Ceasar 1939”. He served his adopted country in WW2 and married a local girl in 1946, but no one recalls her name, only the photo of their wedding remains … unclaimed. He lived here for 10 years, but no one remembers him having visitors. A quiet gentleman who smiled shyly when checking his mail or doing his washing. Cesar died as he lived, quietly and alone. The physical, priceless, historical evidence of his 93 years were discarded in 1 day. As a newly DNA certified “real person with cousins”, I too WAS alone. I’ve done my homework for 56 years, but my “family tree” was always a hopeful mustard seed in a Dixie Cup. The odds are in my favor that one day I will know my ancestors. Your insightful, empathetic and realistic “Baker’s Dozen” inspires ME in my own tree building, but also encourages me to knock on a few of the usually closed doors of my neighbors. Thank you Roberta. You write … I learn.

  5. Oh that breaks my heart too. I am trying to find things but unfortunately the oldies are all gone and my sisters and cousins don’t seem interested. I have all kinds of printed sheets of paper from documents and family lines I have found on the internet and the more I read and look, the more names I find. When I use the geneanet site it seems that the ones that I thought were only people with the same last names as my immediate family really are related somehow. I find a relationship by only a percentage but nevertheless, we are related. Sometimes it is insurmountable. Yesterday I was on it for the whole dang day.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree about the visiting where your ancestors were from as this is what I do. I arrange tours for people who want to visit the East of England. I am lucky enough to live in the area where my direct ancestors lived (all of my ancestors so far discovered, lived within fifty miles of where I live today) and I know how important it is to stand by a grave, kneel in the pews or have a pint in the same pub as my ancestors. Visitors experience many emotions on the trips I arrange for them and my proud boast is that “I make my guests cry!” If you have ancestry from Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex or Lincolnshire, get in touch.


  7. I love your advice about tracking the land of your ancestors. Mine loved to move every generation. If I’m really lucky, they stay in one area for two generations, but they are typically gone by the time the third is born. However, one thing I discovered over Christmas were the county map collections by Gregory Boyd and I just fell in love since many of my ancestors were early settlers of various states and counties. I was at the library and immediately pulled up Google Earth to plot those areas so that if I ever happen to be visiting or driving through, I can swing by.

  8. Great guidance which I respect.

    I view the public tree hints a good starting point ; also MyHeritage provides “smart matches” which are helpful;

    But I had a Barham/Filmer relative and a Hougham tree take me all the way back to Ragnar Lodbrok and even to Odin himself…… Earl Siward of Northumbria and David I of Scotland should be real as they have been professionally researched (not by me) by The descendent of the Scott and Argall families.

    Oh, I am not a genealogist.. hahahahaha.

    Steve in Oro Valley

  9. I loved this article and the preceding one, and am taking note. I love to share the treasure trove of pictures my grandmother had being one of the oldest daughters of her family. Far flung and newly-discovered cousins are enjoying them.

    I feel so shy to ask my aunt and uncle (little sister and little brother to my deceased dad) more family history. I didn’t take good notes the first time, but they are the oldest folks in the family! I was so nervous to make them repeat themselves that my chicken scratch was unreadable!…. I don’t want them to think I’m “using them” for my hobby. 🙂 Anybody else overcome that shyness and glad they did?

    • You can always ask them if you can tape or video. You could also make a list of what u want to ask and just follow the lists and fill in the blanks. Maybe if you tell them how much The family history means to you they will talk to you again. All they can do is say no and they probably won’t. Just my experience of asking questions for the past almost forty years.

      • Thank you. You are right. It comes down to “this means a lot” and they are nice people. They will answer, but I should ask them about what they think would be the best method! Probably tape record or video, yes!

  10. Great article. I don’t even look at ancestry trees anymore, and I cringe when people contact me about DNA matches and quote anything from them. I was visiting a library once and couldn’t help but overhear an older gentleman (a volunteer in the genealogy dpt.) help a newbie copy information from trees found on Ancestry. He actually told the woman that “you want to go with the info that’s been copied by a lot of people because it’s probably more legitimate”. Gasp !

    Then he went on to talk about how some of her ancestors were rumored to have intermarried with “the Indians”. But that he was from the old school and he believed races should stay within their own. Yes, I almost fell out of my chair on that one and imagined him getting his DNA results back from a testing company !

  11. Roberta,

    You are hitting on all cylinders in this blog. One can never go back and change what is done, but you can certainly learn from past actions. I too am very quick to share my finds with cousins. In fact when browsing old records and newspapers I sometimes run across unusual records or news articles relating to people I have no connection to. I think, “someone would love to have this”, so I will research the person or persons on and determine who may have them in their family tree, and I send some of the obvious researchers copies of the record. On one occasion, I was browsing digital marriage records for GA and found a complete will from 1840 mixed right in with the marriage records. I sent it out to those who were related and they were thrilled. I would hope others would do the same for me.

    Thanks for the reminders.


  12. When I started my search in 1977 it was at my grandfathers request because he was just diagnosed with cancer. He loved his family history and asked me to write it down. He didn’t just tell me abt his family but also abt my mother’s because they lived in the same area. There were so many things I didn’t think to ask him. I have been blessed to know most of my g-grandparents and all my grandparents plus a great network of g-uncle and aunts and many older cousins. Plus my mom was my greatest source. If she didn’t know what or who I was searching for, she knew someone who would. She went to Heaven in 2011 and I am always thinking of something I need to ask her.

    The thing abt talking to older people is that they know things you may never find out otherwise. They may know the real father mother of a child who took the name of the family raising them. I was told things by people long gone that I will probably never telll due to problems it may cause. Sometimes documents are wrong and the old people may know the truth. Plus you get to know those wonderful elders.

  13. What great advice. I wish I had access to this advice when I started my genealogy research at about 76 years of age. Of course many of the old folks were gone and I was the old folks. Nevertheless, there is so much good information I wish I had known as I struggled to learn “how to do family research”. I do have an autobiographical memory and never forgot anything I heard my mother and father talk about in regard to their families. That helped a lot. I never knew either of my four grandparents. Three of them were deceased before I was born and the fourth died when I was four. Several years ago, I went to the Maryland State Archives at Annapolis, MD and while there I held my hands my seven great grandfather’s will – his original will- and cried like a baby because for the first time I felt my connection with my ancestry. Genealogy has enriched my life, as it has yours and I am so appreciative of your generosity in sharing.

    I am making a copy of this information and starting a file for my husband’s young great nephew who is beginning to work on his family history. Since I am 92 years old, that file will be his old folks when I am gone. I too, am the last one standing. He has an Estes ancestry through Nancy who married William Rutledge. I love your approach to research and your sense of humor. it helps after a long research session of finding nothing.

    We are blessed to have you and your teaching blog. As us old folks say, God bless you mightily,

    • Thank you so much Helen. I hope that I am paying it forward to the young people like your great-nephew. I only hope that someone in my family line will one day develop an interest too.

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