In the Beginning – First Steps in Genealogy

Everyone starts someplace in their genealogy. A lucky few have the opportunity to springboard from another family member who has documented the family carefully. Most of us, me included, began in the simplest of ways – asking family members.

Thank goodness I did that while there were at least a few family members left of older generations. I wish I had begun sooner, but that’s probably the most common lament of genealogists.

The next most common lament, today, would be that we wish we had DNA tested every single person in the older generations. If you haven’t, please do, immediately, while you can – and be sure they are in at least in the Family Tree DNA, Ancestry and MyHeritage databases. I also recommend uploading to GedMatch as well which will catch genealogists that test at 23andMe. Generally, only genealogists upload  to GedMatch.

I didn’t start out to be a genealogist. I was simply interested in my family. I didn’t even really grasp what a genealogist was. One day someone said to me, “Oh, so you’re a genealogist,” and I replied, “No, I’m just curious about my family.”

Famous last words.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as a pedigree chart, and my notes for the first few years were on plain paper with little organization other than a page or folder for each person. I then advanced to a green bookkeeping columnar pad to keep track of what was in the folders.

Eventually, some poor soul took pity on me and gave me a pedigree chart. I started filling in what I knew and it would be another decade before I made my first “genealogical” find in the local Family History Center. I refer to that as my first genealogical find because I wasn’t talking to a family member and had begun researching through records. My curiosity had gotten the best of me!

I remember the thrill of that obsession-defining moment well.

It was my first visit to the Center, following a brief introductory session that I had discovered in the local newspaper, and I was filled with trepidation. I didn’t want someone trying to convert me, but I was also very curious. I needn’t have worried. In all the years I visited the local FHC at the Mormon Church, no one ever tried to convert me and I visited regularly, making discovery after discovery.

The first discovery that life-changing evening, the marriage of Lazarus Estes to Elizabeth Vannoy, is what hooked me. We found it in an index, and I was terribly disappointed to discover that I had to order a microfiche and wait until it arrived from some distant location to find out WHEN Lazarus married Elizabeth. Oh, the torture!

But hooked I was, and I anxiously awaited the call from the FHC librarian telling me that my fiche had arrived. I drove to the church in record time!

I had taken my daughter with me on the first trip to the church, just in case I needed a quick “escape.” Kids are always great for “not feeling well” and she was always having stomach aches. Obviously, no escape was needed – except maybe for her.

Recently, while going through some papers, I discovered my very first pedigree chart. My first reaction was, “ahhh, how sweet,” which quickly turned to mortification when I realized how much was blank or worse, incorrect.

Let’s just bask in the “oh so sweet” for a moment.

We all start with the information we gather from family. You can see by the different ink and white-out (you do remember, white-out, right?) that I gleefully added to this pedigree as new information was discovered. Some is written in pencil, with question marks. People weren’t sure about some things, but I made notes anyway. Thankfully!

The blank spaces aren’t blank anymore, today, but that information was revealed slowly, like peeling an onion, through records research. I had talked to my mother and my great-aunt on my maternal side, and my father’s sister on my paternal side, and I gathered all that they knew. From that point forward, I had to do the research. It fell to me.

When I looked at this pedigree chart and realized how much was wrong, my initial reaction was horror – BUT – we all have to start with what we have available. If there was ever a textbook example of why verification and documentation is essential – this is it.

Much to my embarrassment, the red arrows point to information that was wrong. I’ve sized the arrows relative to the magnitude of the inaccuracy.

For example, the biggest error is that Rebecca Rosenberg or Rosenbaum was NOT the mother of Margaret Clarkson/Claxton. For the record, Elizabeth Speaks was, but she was related to the Rosenbaums through her father’s sister’s marriage. My aunt had her in the right neighborhood and family, but attributed the wrong person as her mother.

Of course, if I hadn’t figured it out through records, eventually DNA might have revealed the problem. BUT, since the Rosenbaum descendants were related to the Speaks family, autosomal DNA might not have divulged the problem since the Rosenbaums would have matched some Speaks too. However, mitochondrial DNA would have immediately showed a discrepancy because their matrilineal ancestors weren’t the same. Don’t forget to utilize all tools available.

Oh, and based on the Rosenbaum/Rosenburg surname, my aunt informed me that we were Jewish. Also that the Bolton’s were German, and that my great-grandmother Elizabeth Vannoy was Cherokee, all of which were subsequently proven to be incorrect by using historical records plus DNA, but I digress. Point being that I believed my aunt at the time, because surely she knew – and she obviously knew more than I did which was absolutely nothing.

Notice that several of the dates have smaller arrows. Those are off by one or two years, so again, the right ballpark but the wrong information. At least the information for my parents was accurate! (humor)

It’s also interesting that on my mother’s side, much more was known about the female side of the family. But then again, my great-aunt who I was able to interview was my maternal grandmother’s sister.

My Aunt Margaret on my father’s side didn’t grow up in Tennessee and most of what she knew was second hand. For example, she told me that her Bolton grandparents, Joseph and Margot (Margaret) had both died a day or so apart in the 1918 flu epidemic. He died first and the family put him in the barn waiting for her to die the next day so they could bury them in the same coffin. I didn’t know if that was romantic or simply expeditious for the survivors, under the circumstances, especially if many were ill and coffin-makers and grave-diggers were in short supply.

Well, Aunt Margaret was close. Joseph died on February 23, 1920, not during the 1918 flu epidemic. Still, they did both die of pneumonia following the flu, according to their death certificates, which certainly weren’t available to me in the 1970s or 1980s. Joseph’s wife died on March 11, 1920. Of course, there’s no way to know if they were buried at the same funeral, or in the same coffin. Their deaths were separated by more than two weeks.

I’m certainly glad I recorded every tidbit that I did. I’ve returned to my original notes years later and found extremely valuable hints that I had originally forgotten about or didn’t understand the value of the hint initially.

How could I forget something important? It wasn’t important then or we’re human and we do forget.

Every piece of family information needs to be viewed as a hint, not as gospel. As well-meaning as our family members are, and lovely for sharing, they can only provide us with the information they know or have been provided by others. Who’s to say if it has been conveyed or remembered accurately? The most reliable information is first person, but even that is subject to lapses of memory or the softening of time.

Don’t believe it? Just remember how often you forget what you went into the other room for😊

Documenting every piece of information is up to us and seldom does that documentation process and subsequent review not provide some new tidbit or surprise.

How accurate was your original pedigree chart?



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19 thoughts on “In the Beginning – First Steps in Genealogy

  1. “Of course, there’s no way to know if they were buried at the same funeral, or in the same coffin. Their deaths were separated by more than two weeks.”

    I smell a cover-up.

  2. The thrill of the chase! LOL

    We never know what we will find when we wake each morning and power up our computer, then dance along to our fav sites. I love it. My raison d’etre!
    This week I found out I share 1800 cMs with my 1/2 niece.

    Well, duh, and DOUBLE duh, me doth think she is my WHOLE niece! I truly am still reeling!

    But, as we know, DNA does not lie. People sometimes lie, paper and documents sometimes lie; but good ole DNA, never, never lies !

  3. It is SO funny that you bring this up. Just a couple of months ago, a long-time friend of mine was going through his genealogy paperwork to organize it and found a printed out pedigree chart that I had given him probably back in 1994-1995. That was 10-11 years after I had begun researching, but how much I’ve learned since! He scanned it in and emailed it to me. I actually even wrote down a few sources on the papers. Interestingly, some of the same brick walls still exist, too, and I can’t say I haven’t tried.

  4. I was one day wishing I had an “older generation” to interview and to test, but then it hit me that I am the “older generation!” LOL I then put myself in the place of my granddaughters, and older siblings’ great grandchildren, and looked at all I have documented for THEM, and I was very impressed with myself! 🙂 My granddaughters will be able to go back at least 6 generations on all sides, and those great grands will go back at least 7 generations, and hopefully more before I pass. And there is an impressive number of pictures that go with all that documentation. 🙂

    • I had to fill out a medical form recently and every person they asked about is deceased. Parents, grandparents, siblings. Eventually, we are the older generation, or we too are deceased:) I’ll take older any day.

  5. I am the ONLY person in my immediate family who has DNA tested. No one else will agree to do it! Therefore, I have told my children the tree I keep on my computer is a big guess! I know more about 2nd cousins and 3rd cousins twice removed than I do my own close family! It’s very frustrating. But, I keep going because it’s interesting and fun even if there are a lot of mistakes! Eventually, I hope more of the family will join in the chase!

    I can certainly relate to forgetting why I sent myself in to another room! About 30 years ago Bill Cosby did a routine called something like “On turning 50.” He had the same forgetting problem but claimed he had found a solution. He was sitting in a big chair on the stage. He demonstrated having a thought. Then, he got up and walked in to the “other room.” He wondered why he had gone in there and walked back to the chair and sat down. He immediately jumped back up and said “I REMEMBER.” He explained that the shortcut to remembering is to goose yourself in the backside when you don’t remember. That’s because that’s where THE REMEMBERING SWITCH is that’s activated by the chair when you sit down! My problem is, I don’t remember the remembering switch until I sit back down…and then I REMEMBER!

  6. For what it’s worth, the Spanish flu epidemic (which was called that because, with the wartime censors, the only accurate reporting on the epidemic was coming out of Spain at first) started in 1918 but lasted until December 1920. And the reason that the pandemic was so deadly was because it often turned into very very virulant pneumonia. So she wasn’t really wrong on that, either.

  7. I made my first big breakthroughs while researching at our local LDS, which was an hour away by car. I can relate to hours of searching microfiche and films, which took weeks to arrive. Wouldn’t have had it any other way. Nearly 20 years later I have still to put my mother’s side into order. The journey has been incredibly fascinating. Those who went before us have all contributed in some way to who we are today. Still searching for a few elusive relations! 🤔

  8. Another great message Roberta where we begin, the thrill of finding your ancestors who came before you and so much more. Very informative and thanks for all you do for us as I for one so appreciate and learn so much.

  9. Thank you very much for the post or otherwise I would not have found out about about the updated estimation as I received no notification from Prior to taking the DNA test in 2013 I believed my ancestry to be mainly Scots-Irish with some English and a trace of “Pennsylvania Dutch” from my maternal grandparents, mainly English but with some Welsh from my paternal Grandfather and pure German from my paternal grandmother (born in U.S. of just-arrived German immigrants). My original vs. now updated ethnic origins are as follows: The original results had me listed as 47% “Great Britain”; the new estimate is 55% “England, Wales & Northwestern Europe”. The original estimate was 7% “Irish”, later changed to “Ireland.Scotland/Wales”; the new estimate is 26% “Ireland/Scotland”. The old Estimate was 39% “Western European;” the new estimate is 14% “Germanic Europe.” The old estimate was 4% “European Jewish;” the new one is 2% “European Jewish”. The old estimate was <1%" Scandinavia;, the new estimate is 3% "Sweden". I was one percent each "Iberian Peninsula" and "Finland/Northwest Russia" in the old estimates, but neither of these areas show up in the new estimate.
    The new results seem to be much more in line with what my genealogical research indicate my ancestries are. However, the "Irish/Scotland" percentage still seems low; one other test indicates about a third. What is "Wales" doing with England and Northwestern Europe as the Welsh are Celtic like the Sots and Irish? The "Germanic Europe" total should be at least a quarter, and probably about 30%. I have no Swedish ancestry that I am aware of. I wonder if they came from Viking invaders of England. I was not aware of Jewish ancestry before taking the DNA test here, but since then have learned there is rumored Jewish ancestry in my maternal grandmothers family. My research indicates that it came in my maternal great-great grandmother whose maiden name was "Broder." If so, I am 3.2% Jewish, assuming there is no other Jewish ancestry (and I believe this to be the case.) However, the new estimate of 2% Jewish is in line with estimates from four other tests the indicate a range between 0 and 2%, so I believe I am 1.6% Jewish with the great-great grandmother being only 1/2 Jewish (although I cannot find baptismal records for her on as I can for all succeeding relatives.) At any rate, this is of great interest to the numerous relatives descended from my maternal grandmother (she was one of 12 children, nine of whom survived to old age) as no one knows much about family before coming over to the U.S. ca. 1870.

    I very much enjoy your column. Overall, I would give a qualified "thumbs up" to the new vs. the old estimates.

  10. Ah yes, the thrill of the chase! For me, I don’t think anything has ever trumped the hundreds of hours I ended up spending in the FHC in Edmonton (Alberta), so very many years ago. At first when I looked at the IGI and found my dead rellies in there, all with LDS baptisms, no less! – it did bother me a bit. Then I decided I didn’t really mind, as LDS had done so much wonderful work for genealogy. The next biggest thrill for me was locating copies of the “Malton Messenger” from Yorkshire online. And then, probably using Trove, the fantastic collection of Australian newspapers available through the NLA (National Library of Australia). It is a wonderful resource!

  11. I am just getting started and compared to you rather late in life. My motivation was my adoption at birth and not knowing even the names of my birth parents. My search brought me to a realization. Sometimes the official government records can be absolutely wrong. I try to have good documentation of all my family relationships but my mother left me a real puzzle to solve. When she put me up for adoption the state records listed her husband as my father when in fact it was another man. Likely the cause for my adoption! It sent me on a wild goose chase for a time. Finally with enough DNA matches my birth father’s family because evident and my AHA! moment came. Moral of my story: you can’t even believe every record obtained directly from a government agency.

    Thanks for the blog. It has provided great information and good practices to follow.

  12. Pingback: First Steps When Your DNA Results are Ready – Sticking Your Toe in the Genealogy Water | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

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