DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

Writing Ancestor Articles in 12 Easy Steps

You might notice that this article is in place of my normal 52 Ancestors article I publish every weekend. That’s because I didn’t get this week’s article finished.  Sometimes life just gets in the way, plus, the ancestor I was working on has a HUGE amount of research data to sift through. I’ve worked on this family for decades now, as have others and I want to be sure to include everything that is correct and relevant, and exclude those items that are not. Easier said than done in some cases.

Lots of people have asked how I go about the research for these articles, so I’d like to share that with you, in the hope that you too will do something similar. If you don’t publish accurate information about your ancestor in one form or another, who will?

Not The Same As A Book

I’ve written books before, both specialized books in the technology field and books about specific ancestral lines. The weekly articles I write about just one ancestor are really different from books, although when I began the 52 Ancestors series two and a half years ago, I didn’t realize how different, or why.

First of all, if you look at writing a book, that’s an overwhelming task that you’ll do “someday.” Do you know how many books have gone to the grave in people’s heads? Surely more than have been written. But anyone can write just one article, then one more. Then, one day, before you know it, you do have a book. Voila.

These articles are different from books in other ways too.

When I was writing a book about a line or lineage of ancestors, I was not focused on just one person, but on the story of that particular lineage, which of course included every ancestor in that line. However, I never focused on just the story of any one person disconnected from the rest. I focused on all of the people in that line in the context of their relationships to the other people. In other words, I never looked at John Doe from birth to death, from only his perspective. Instead, in a book, John Doe is a son, he marries, moves to another state, has children and dies. There is little in the story about what was happening in his life at different times. How those events like warfare or drought or economic conditions might have affected him. In other words, the 52 Ancestors stories take each individual person from cradle to grave and it’s their story and theirs alone. I also write it as a story, their story, with as much empathy and detail as I can muster.  In other words, I try to walk in their shoes.

Of course, this too has presented some challenges, because I don’t want these stories to be boring and repeat information presented in parents’, children’s and spouse’s stories, so I try to utilize different information so that these individual stories could be combined into book format without too much duplicate information. So no, you won’t find the same level of detail about the 1816 famine in Europe in the father, mother, son, son’s wife, son’s wife’s parents, or their children’s stories. You may find mention of it, but only one story will have the details. Therefore, to really have the whole picture, you probably should read the story of each ancestor.

For example I generally list the children for John Doe, but I often go into more detail about the children, who they married and what happened to them in the wife’s story. Why? Because often the wife has less information – she didn’t own land, she didn’t vote, she (generally) didn’t go to court and normally didn’t get herself thrown out of church for drinking and swearing – so I save the children’s detail for her story so the stories are more balanced.

Research, Then and Now

While I attempt to compile and finalize a story each week, most of the research is not performed today. In fact, these stories have been an attempt for me to organize my information and file information away forever. I have a rule that the file folder cannot go into the file cabinet before the information in the folder is processed. Once it is in the file cabinet, it really should NEVER have to come out again.

And yes, I’m dead serious. I know that when I pass over, it’s likely that those folders will never see the light of day except maybe in the trash truck on the way to the dumpster – so I’m making sure all of that cumulative information is scanned and published which will hopefully make it more permanent. Yes, I’m also printing it, and donating it to relevant libraries. However the internet being what it is, I’m counting on the folks who are “gathering” to attach these stories to their tree records at Ancestry, etc., where, as we know, they will live into infamy! Yes, in essence, I’m hoping my ancestor stories become a sort of genealogical virus, infesting the genealogical community to last forever.  I figure it’s going to happen anyway, so I might as well take advantage of the phenomenon.

Let’s take a look at the various steps in the process.

Step 1 – Gather All Information

Step 1 is to gather all the information you have. I guarantee you, if you have researched very long, you will have information you’ve forgotten about and it’s probably scattered in various folders. Mine is.  Gather it all together in one place. 

Step 2 – Add Local History Resources

In addition to information directly about my ancestor, I check local and county history books for information about the family. You never know what you may find in a child’s vanity article that will provide information about their parents – or grandparents – for example. It was through a vanity story that I discovered that my Brethren ancestor married a German Lutheran and secondly, a non-German BAPTIST!!! Holy chimloda. Today, this isn’t remarkable, but when he did it, it was.

Many local genealogy societies have published genealogical history books where their membership has been encouraged to write articles about their ancestors. Often, these include photos and stories as well, so it’s always wise to check both local history books and more contemporary publications by genealogy societies.

Step 3 – Make a Timeline

Often, but not always, I make a timeline. When I have multiple people and families in the same location, I always make a timeline. This makes it easier to understand chronological order as well as see relationships. When you write the story, you can write it in chronological order as well. In some cases, where I have extracted huge amounts of information by surname in order to discern family relationships, I have created a spreadsheet that is sortable by column, so I can find surnames, locations, and more. In the example spreadsheet below, the Places column would include locations in deeds such as stream names.

Obviously, a timeline can be done in this manner as well. This is particularly useful when employing the FAN principle, Family, Associates and Neighbors. In other words, if I found Joseph Abbott consistently witnessing deeds for my family, I would begin to ask if and how he might be related. As it turns out, this Halifax County spreadsheet served to help me DISPROVE the family connected to John Moore. There were at least two Moore families, not related as eventually proven by Y DNA, in Halifax County quite early. DNA was a Godsend to the Moore lines, but so was the timeline spreadsheet because between the two, it allowed me to sort the families.

Step 4 – Add Events Into the Timeline

Normally, the events we track for people are:

There is a lot more that affected their lives. Did their grandparents live during their lifetimes? When did the grandparents pass away? Do we know where they are buried, because if you do, you know what your ancestor was doing that day, and where. 

Religion

Whatever religion they followed, it’s likely that religion was fundamentally important to your ancestors. One common thread in my family seems to be that they were extremely devoted to their chosen religion. I have hard core Catholics, Lutherans, Brethren, Mennonites, Protestants (1709ers), and more. What was happening in that time and place relative to their religion? Add this information into the timeline.

Warfare

Did your ancestor serve in the military? Was your ancestor the wife waiting at home? If so, how might she have survived? How did the war affect the life of your ancestors? Were the wars fought on their home ground? How did they go to war? Did they walk? Can you find a regimental history? If your ancestor served in the US, don’t forget to order their entire record packet from the National Archives and check Fold3.com.

Whatever you can find, add into the timeline.

Deaths

Did they have children that died? If you don’t know the answer, are there “gaps” in the census of more than 2 years between children’s births that suggest a child might have been born and died? Where would that child have been buried? Was there a cemetery on their property, such as was common in colonial America, especially in the south, or was it customary to bury the dead in a churchyard, such as in Europe?

Is the grave still there today? Have you checked Find-A-Grave?

How do local customs affect burials? For example, in Europe, graves are reused, but often in the same family. In one case, in the Netherlands, we found my ancestors grandchildren buried in the plots he bought, so he too was likely buried there at one time. 

Step 5 – Find or Scan Documents

Everyone loves a story book with pictures. Obtain relevant documents for your ancestor and include them. The best item is one with their signature because a signature is so personal.

Deed and will books are not original signatures, as the clerks copied the deeds and wills into the book. Only the original deed or will, which went with the owner, had the original signatures, sadly.

However, applications for bounty land, receipts, some estate documents, some marriage license applications, some naturalization applications and petitions all have original signatures.  Chancery suits are Godsends because often some records from those suits are retained, and even if your ancestor isn’t the plaintiff or defendant, they may be mentioned in a relevant way.

I’ve also found my ancestors’ signatures and information about their life in other people’s chancery suits.  Like the time a couple got divorced and my ancestor, a Methodist preacher, had originally married them.  He testified he though they were “simple” at the time he married them and told about their wedding day.  He also signed his deposition.  The Library of Virginia has indexed every chancery suit by every name in the suit and it’s a goldmine.  Not all counties are complete, but many are

In addition, finding your ancestor’s deeds from the deed books, wills, estate inventories, and naturalization records all lend to the historic feel of the articles.

Sometimes an article is delayed when I discover an item exists that I don’t have, or that I have not checked all relevant sources. The good news is that today, many times, the clerk or other official, depending on the item type, will scan and e-mail you the requested items, so obtaining them is easier than ever before.

Don’t forget libraries in your search either.  You never know what kind of resources of files they might have.  I’ve had wonderful items from local newspapers sent from librarians more than once.

Step 6 – Be Anal

After you assemble everything, go back over what you have to answer the question “What don’t I have?”  Go back and check one more time. Check Genweb, Rootsweb, Ancestry, WikiTree, Fold3, AmericanAncestors.org, Newspapers.com, MyHeritage, FindMyPast, FamilySearch and any other subscription source you follow. You never know what new record sources are available now that were not before. Records are being indexed every single day.

You also don’t know who might have posted photos, stories, etc., that are new.

Furthermore, check your original records and notes in your file. You will, I guarantee, see things you didn’t see before. In one case, I realized that somehow, I had overlooked in one census that the oldest child was listed with the wife’s maiden name – but just in one census. In subsequent census schedules, the child was listed with the husband’s surname which he used throughout his life. Later, DNA testing confirmed that the child whose surname was not that of the husband in the first census after they were married was not the child of the husband. Obviously no secret then, but being “discovered” now, it could be a scandal, had that census not recorded that the child was the wife’s, clearly before the marriage.

Step 7 – Document

Document your sources. Yes, I know, you’re groaning and I do too. I initially thought I would, of course, never forget, so I didn’t document some of my early sources. Pox on me. I don’t make that mistake now.

If you check a source and your ancestor is NOT there, sometimes that’s just as telling too. Don’t just omit that information and not write it down. Absence is informational as well. Document the source and that they were absent.

In one case, who is IN the census and on tax lists, and ABSENT from the militia rosters tells us who was likely a member of the Brethren faith in a particular county during the Revolutionary War when militia duty was mandatory.

When you have an unidentified wife, which happens constantly with the Brethren who did not believe in civil marriages so they didn’t obtain marriage licenses, this is one way to identify who her family might have been. Early Brethren also didn’t keep church records. Pox on them.

A Brethren male would only have married a Brethren female (or been thrown out of the church, unless she converted), so the list of who is absent from the militia rosters is a virtual pick list of who the wife’s family might be. Later, when you begin to get DNA matches on that line to unexplained Brethren families, look on the “non-militia” list. You might be surprised. So, in this case, “absent” might just the clue to breaking down a brick wall!

Step 8 – Find Their Land

I love to actually go back to where my ancestors lived and as one of my genealogist friends says, “walk the walk.” On my own personal list, that is a #1 priority and my bucket list items are almost all comprised of “walk the walk” places.

My top 3 right now?

Yes, I’m making plans for all 3.

When possible, and with permission of course, I take a rock from each place and bring them home to my garden, so my ancestors are all with me, both outside, in the garden, and inside (DNA.)

However, there are other ways to find their land that are almost as good. Google maps is an incredible tool. Old deeds often include landmarks such as creek names, churches, cemeteries, etc. Often, old plat or tax maps still exist that can help as well, especially if you can track their land backward or forwards to the time of that map to locate the land through the then-current owner.

Using Google, or in person, you can locate the land today and view the old homestead if it still exists, the land, their church and even cemeteries. All without leaving your chair. I know there are places I’ll never be able to visit in person, so Google maps is quickly becoming one of my best friends.

Even in Europe, where Street View is not utilized, satellite viewing is enabled and you can still “see.” Additionally, along the bottom bar, often Google Maps links to photos where the photographer has tagged the location you are searching for, or nearby, and you can then view their photographs.

Step 9 – Find Their DNA

After testing yourself and any family members you can convince to test, you’ll discover which ancestors DNA you have and which you do not. By this I mean, if you are a male, you automatically have available to you information about your mitochondrial and Y DNA. This means, of course, that you have information about your father’s Y DNA, his father’s Y DNA, on up the tree – shows by the blue squares to the left below.

Conversely, your mtDNA is inherited from your mother, her mother, on up the tree, so you have some information about those ancestors directly.  These are shown in the red circles to the right, below. Unfortunately, females only carry mitochondrial DNA, so they have to find males, such as brothers or fathers or uncles to identify their paternal line DNA.

For other people whose mitochondrial and/or Y DNA you don’t personally carry, you will have to find people who descend appropriately to test.

For example, you don’t carry your father’s mtDNA, because he carries his mother’s DNA and males don’t pass mtDNA on to their children. To find your father’s mitochondrial information, you’ll need to test your father. Don’t have access to test your father? Then test one of his siblings, or his sister’s children, since only women pass mitochondrial DNA on to their children. You may have to be creative with hunting for specific relatives whose DNA you need to complete their, and your, ancestral genetic information.

Here’s an example of what my DNA pedigree chart looks like.

You’ll notice that I have managed to identify the haplogroup information for several lines, but there are still others I need, and a few that have died out.

When you’re out of cousins to test directly, check MitoSearch and YSearch.org.

Also check trees at Ancestry to see if you can find someone who descends appropriately and ask them if they have had their Y or mtDNA tested. If not, offer to provide that test.

Autosomal matches at Ancestry show you how you and your match descend from a common ancestor – so check those matches for people eligible to take either the Y or mtDNA test.

Unfortunately, we still don’t have any good tools to discover genetic lineage and who has tested for mtDNA.  By this, I mean you can’t enter your ancestor’s name and find out who descends from her that has tested. But I have my fingers crossed that this will be a feature someday.

Sometimes, just publishing the article will be the key to finding a tester. You never know. And let’s face it, these articles are cousin-bait.

If there is any, and I do mean any, question in your mind about how valuable and informative Y and mitochondrial DNA can be – just read these two articles.

Y- DNA – Jakob Lenz (1748-1821), Vinedresser, 52 Ancestors #128

mtDNA – Elisabetha Mehlheimer (c1800-C1851) and Her Scandinavian Mito-Cousins, 52 Ancestors #24

The Y and mitochondrial DNA provides information that isn’t possible to discover any other way – the deep ancestry of that particular line.  You have shortchanged yourself, and your ancestor, if you don’t make every attempt to discover their Y and mtDNA haplogroups and the historical information that comes along with the haplogroup designation.

Step 10 – Google is Your Friend

Aside from Google maps, Google is your friend. Google your ancestor’s name and location. Google his wife’s name, both maiden and married, and location. Google just the location with the word “history” following. Google in different ways to find information that might not appear on your first Google search.

People write blogs now and it’s easy to create a webpage. They contribute to GenWeb. They post photos and memorials to Find-A-Grave. The old Rootsweb list and boards, which are often sadly inactive now, are wonderful resources. Ancestry bought the Genealogy.com boards and while you can no longer post, they have preserved the postings and threads which were already there, which are also goldmines. Don’t forget about social media resources like Facebook. Some people have started family pages there.

Furthermore, many local history books, especially those whose copyrights have now expired are available through various scanning initiatives.

So, Google, Google, Google.

Step 11– Revisit Earlier Conclusions

There is nothing I hate worse than proving my own work wrong – and I can’t tell you how often I’ve done just that. The only person who doesn’t make mistakes is the person who does nothing. My only possible excuse is that I never set out to be a genealogist, there were no “instructions” in those early years, I’ve been doing this for 38 years now and I’ve learned one heck of a lot!

Today, you may have far more information than you did when you formed earlier opinions. You may have learned more about cultural and social norms affecting your ancestor where they lived. You may have been flat out wrong or just overlooked something that is obvious now, but wasn’t then.

Don’t just accept what you, or anyone else for that matter, has previously written, without scrutiny in light of the information you currently have.

In one case, I made a logical assumption that was wrong. After a woman’s husband died, in the next census, an older invalid male was living with her. My assumption was that it MIGHT have been a sibling, hence, his name MIGHT have been her maiden name.  I did phrase it that way. Unfortunately, when that information was repeated, the word MIGHT never got included, and today, after later finding her husband’s War of 1812 pension application that contains not only her maiden name, but the name of her father as well – I constantly have to do battle with records that reflect my own logical, but incorrect, earlier surname commentary.  Often, people have grown attached to that wrong name, and refuse to change it.

If you don’t know, say you don’t know.  If the information is ambiguous or confusing, say so, and why.  Perhaps someday someone will find something that clarifies the situation.

Step 12 – Be With Your Ancestor

I know this sounds a bit bizarre, but when I write these articles, each article gives me the opportunity to “be with” that ancestor, focusing on only them, for a week, or more, at a time. I get to see through their eyes, as much as I can in this lifetime. I get to experience what they experienced, as best we are able from our perspective today. The ONLY way I can do that, though, is to understand their world, not just within the family in terms of who was being born and baptized, but in terms of what was going on around them at that time.

One of my favorite items that allows me to “be with” my ancestors are estate inventories. Those are the closest we will ever come to peeking inside their homes. I’ve learned a great deal about what they do, their skills, and even if they distilled liquor. I just can’t tell you how much I love estate inventories.

Often, after I’m done researching and organizing, I take a walk or otherwise just allow my ancestor’s experiences and life to just kind of simmer and percolate for a day or two.

Write Your Article

You may have noticed that I name each 52 Ancestors article. Each person has something that is defining or remarkable about their life.

My friend knew that her great-grandfather had been shot and killed. The story was rather hush-hush and no one would discuss it in her family. She ordered the old newspaper films from that location into her local Family History Center.

I was there the night she found the newspaper article about her great-grandfather’s death. She emitted a shriek that rivaled any smoke detector. We weren’t sure if that was a death rattle or just what, so all of the patrons and librarians went running in her direction. She couldn’t even talk. As we’re all fawning over her, she just gasped and pointed to the microfilm reader in front of her where the front page newspaper headline said, “Shot on the Whore House Steps.” Yep, it was her great-grandfather and yep, I’d say that was a defining event.

Now that you’ve gathered the information about your ancestor, sifted and sorted the correct and relevant from the chaff, organized it as best you can, you’ll need to decide how to write the article. In general, I utilize the timeline methodology, with a few segways. I find this to be easiest to follow, in most cases. The segways are often for historical discussions about things that were occurring or relevant socially and adds flavor to their life. After the segway, which is in the timeline-appropriate place, I continue with the events of my ancestor’s lives. I try very hard to write these articles with a narrative story feel and not the dry names and dates feel that genealogy often has. I want their life experiences to come through, for people who read the article to know them as people and see life through their eyes.

I want you to leave the story knowing what a vinedresser is, even though you had never heard this word before. I want you to know what they do, when, and why. I want my grandchildren to be inspired by these stories and to know the people well enough that when the story is over, they want to go and play “Jakob the vinedresser” and have enough information to do so.

I often don’t name these articles until during or after I write them, because it’s really not until after I utilize every scrap of information that I can discover about their lives, and percolated a bit, that I feel I “know” them well enough to select an article name. More often than not, the article pretty much names itself…or maybe it’s my ancestor helping out.