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.
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.