DNA Tidbit #6: Search Your Emails

I know, this sounds ridiculous doesn’t it.

How long have you had email? I had email before most people because of my technology-related profession, but I’d wager you’ve had email for at least 20 years.

Have you ever forgotten about anything?

Of course not, right?

Let’s do a little experiment.


Go to your email and find the oldest email message you have. (Sort by date, oldest first.)

Before you read the email, do you remember receiving it? Do you know what’s in it?

It may be nothing at all and simply needs to be deleted – but it also might be important. If not then, now.

When I did this experiment myself, just now, I discovered that my husband had sent me a few really cute photos of my granddaughters – MANY years ago. I had forgotten all about them (the pictures, not the granddaughters,) but now I’ve filed them where they are supposed to go.

In the case of photos, I file the photo in the proper photo folder on my system itself, NOT in email, and then I delete the email. But other emails get treated differently.

Email Folders

For years, I’ve filed most emails in a series of logical folders. For example, if I’m working on my Estes line, I have an Estes folder and inside that folder, correspondence by either topic or person – or maybe more subfolders.

I try to file emails after I process them when they arrive – but notice the word “try” and the other word, “process.”

Unfortunately, I never get around to processing some emails. I have the best of intentions, but it seems like I’m just chronically pressed for time. I used to think this would stop and I’d catch up, but now I know it’s a permanent condition.

Things fall between the cracks.

About Searching

Every email provider works differently, and I can’t begin to advise you HOW to search on your email platform.

I use a combination of synced platforms, meaning one iteration is online, plus I download my emails to my computer system through Microsoft Outlook. That’s where I have folders set up and move messages to the appropriate folders.

I also have, (ahem,) many emails in my inbox that I’ve never done anything with. When I have a few minutes and I can choose between processing old emails or working on genealogy or writing an article – you can see what wins out.

I discovered by accident recently that I had more information about an ancestor than I realized – including emails from people no longer living with details about their lineage.

This has happened in part because I had forgotten about 20+-year-old conversations and partly because some emails weren’t filed in the appropriate folders. It’s also possible that some emails are filed, but have two surnames, a location, or information relevant to your current research that you didn’t realize at the time.

That’s why you need to think in terms of using your email provider’s search functionality to cast a broad net and search your own archives.

Search Techniques

Using Outlook, I have several options, including:

  • Just searching the inbox or current folder that’s open
  • Searching all folders and subfolders
  • Searching all mailboxes or all Outlook items
  • Filtering by specific fields
  • Including or excluding attachments
  • And more

If you’re uncertain how to search on your platform, Google and possibly YouTube are your friends.

What I typically do using OutLook, unless I know I’m going to get a huge number of hits, which often crashes Outlook, is to search for the surname in question.

Searching for Estes would return way too many, including every message I’ve sent or received. I’d need to find something more specific. Like maybe Halifax for Halifax County, or Moses for Moses Estes. Sterling for my father’s middle name. The most unique word I can think of relevant to my search.

I might be searching for anything having to do with the village of Beutelsbach in Germany, so I’d enter that word.

If I select a specific folder and open it in Outlook, that makes things easier because I can search for Moses within the Estes folder and receive only relevant hits inside that folder. Of course, that’s assuming I filed everything like I was supposed to. In my case, that’s not a valid assumption.

Beutelsbach won’t be as easy, because I have several ancestral lines from that village so emails pertaining to Beutelsbach will be filed in numerous places.

So, What Happened?

You might be wondering how or why this came up. And you might have guessed that I found something quite important that I have forgotten entirely about.

You’d be right.

How did that happen?

I simply forgot.

However, when I saw the email, I remembered immediately. Turns out, it was an email with photos of one of the villages where many ancestors lived in Germany. The best pictures anyplace on the internet were right on my own system, with permission to use them, all along.

What have you forgotten about? What’s buried in your old emails that might be valuable?

Let me know what you find.



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18 thoughts on “DNA Tidbit #6: Search Your Emails

  1. I had to chuckle when I read this. Before I retired, people at work always laughed at me for hardly ever deleting any emails. However, they usually came to me at some point in a panic trying to find a critical client email that they had deleted. I don’t delete many of my personal emails either, but haven’t had many genealogy related emails, so nothing interesting to search for. I don’t use folders, I just use the search function when I’m trying to find an email.

  2. This post is very timely for me, as I had started to clean up files and change email providers, but got waylaid, so thank you! I too found some important info I have recently spent too much time searching for- arrgh.

    In the process, I have recently learned that not all email actually ‘lives’ forever on my computer hard drive, despite my email organized folder system, so wanted to share with others who might not know this. My decidedly non-professional understanding is that Gmail and some other mail programs actually keep the mail in their servers in the cloud, and you are only reaching out and accessing through your device.

    Mail ‘clients’ like Outlook- and MacMail- actually put a copy of the message on your hard drive, as Roberta said. Apparently how you access your particular email address(es), such as forwarding, can make a difference too as to where the email is stored. So I have been going through email and ‘printing’ my important conversations to a pdf or cutting and pasting to a MSWord file (make sure you get all the emails you want from a conversation rather than just one of the emails). I use the dates of the conversation, family surname, and a brief description of who the email is from plus the topic in the file name. I also download any attachments, like Roberta does with her pictures, and then upload all of it to my folders on my hard drive for each family name, place, or event. That puts everything neatly in those specific folders so I do not have to search also in email when I am planning to write about a person, or remember who told me what in a note. This helps with citations too, and ensures I have a copy on my hard drive in case I change providers or the service goes down or folds (!!).

    Big project for sure, but a good way to review what you know, and remember fondly the folks who helped along the way with information. Thanks for inspiring me to get back to it, Roberta!

  3. I can’t believe with all that you do and your busy lifestyle and hobby, that you would ever think you would get caught up. lol. Love your blog, your stories, your DNA help! Well just everything you do. Don’t thank you enough so here is heartfelt THANK YOU!

  4. Thank you, Ms. Roberta!!
    The tidbits and “golden nuggets” that you share with us are alwas so helpful.😊

  5. I just went searching on my Apple IIe for my old CompuServe emails – no luck. I must have moved them onto a floppy I can’t find now. Oh well.

  6. As an IT professional, I also had an email system early on. We switched to Lotus Notes after IBM acquired it in 1995. I cleaned out the account when the college transitioned to Outlook in 2011, moving my personal email messages to a personal email account. I had access to all of my email until I exceeded the max threshold for my email account. This forced me to clean my email house. I have a backup copy of these email accounts but no text editor that will open these really large files. The oldest email I still have access to is from March 9, 2001. It’s an email about sending me a copy of some pages of the Mabou Pioneers Vol 2 book.

  7. Our old cable company was bought out by Comcast in 2006 or 7. For the older email, access was through Outlook Express (now defunct), downloading the emails to my computer when they were read. Those are still out there, needing to be dealt with. I’ve figured out a way to access them, just not the time to get it accomplished. Thanks for the reminder I need to get back to that . . .

  8. What a great idea. I went back to my earliest email, and Yes! I found information about research I had forgotten. Thank you — I will create a saved document and put it in my surname folders on my computer. This was info from 2010!! My earliest “old mail” (aol.com account).

  9. I have always made pdfs of important emails— and made sure that I captured the individual’s email address as they are often not visible. As noted, they can have valuable information which is better recognized at a later date.

  10. Just a cautionary note. I am switching all of my email related to finances, bill paying, etc. and some personal item to protonmail.com
    I will do much less on gmail.com, which I moved to from yahoo mail years ago.
    For companies like Alphabet/Google it is good to keep in mind that if you are receiving a free product, then YOU are the product. Google scans emails. Ten years ago that would have been a challenge but with high powered computers and artificial intelligence every word can be scanned and conclusions saved.
    That’s why I am going to protonmail.com. They encrypt emails and don’t use their content. They are also in Switzerland and harder to reach by some of the most invasive intelligence agencies.

    • Wow! I never thought of that. I’ve got eMails in my Google Mail account to do with finances. I’m going to do a cull right away. Thanks so much for posting.

  11. I tend to read and file a lot of eMails to do with my genealogy but then, like you, I am over-organized. My downfall was downloading tons of newspaper articles many years ago when Gale had some free time. I finally got around to reading some of them and discovered that my 2x grandfather, who I thought had spent his entire life in Bristol, had spent some time in Australia. This led to the discovery that his cousin went to Australia as well and died there. It was all included in an article in the Bristol Mercury reporting on the bankruptcy of my 2x grandfather,. It listed every job and address he had ever had. What a gem that was!

  12. My emails and files on Randolph and other families of Caswell County, North Carolina,were deleted by Yahoo before I could save most of them some years ago. I have not been able to find some of the sources and information since then. Fortunately, Yahoo was an extra email account, not my main email, so I did not lose everything. I have never used Yahoo since. Beware.

    I gave up on trying to have tidy filed emails some time ago. I did try in the past, and some files are almost twenty years old. It is time to take a look at what I have, again. In January, I try to clean out all my household paper files from the previous year, and only keep the things that might be needed. A very boring job. I should do the same with genealogy emails which is more entertaining, although I usually get side-tracked in the process. I sometimes send genealogy notes and copy & paste notes to myself in emails when researching, or looking at DNA. Now I save my good files and photos in external storage so they do not have to be moved, like when I get another computer, or lost if I have a computer disaster. Some things I print. I have not yet managed to get to saving on the cloud except for temporary items I do not want to lose when I am involved in something, like the emails sent to myself. I may never get used to the cloud.

    Unfortunately, most of my old email genealogy friends are now deceased or can no longer do research, but I still have some of their emails which gives me a bittersweet feeling when I come upon them. You might find you want to save some of these things not necessarily for the content, but for remembrance. That is valuable.

    I think we all suffer with excess emails and organization.

    Thank you for another appropriate post, and a reminder that we do not always remember what we have squirreled away in haste.

  13. Here’s another idea if you don’t want (or need) to save the entire email to a pdf – use the Windows snipping tool: Snipping Tool (WIN + Shift + S)
    (WIN is the windows icon key for those of you like me aren’t too computer literate!) You have to press all 3 keys at same time.

    I have found this tool extremely helpful for saving parts of emails or sections of newspaper articles or web pages, etc. You can also add highlighting or handwritten notes. You can save the snipped section to a file on your computer. Or what I like to do is paste it into a Word document and then only print it when I have several small items (for the same relative or same topic) saved to one page, saving ink and paper.

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