By Bridget M. Sunderlin
Hindsight is always 20/20, don’t you think? It’s pretty easy to take a long look back and see the error of our ways. If we had that extraordinary vision, we might save ourselves countless hours of aimless research. Having worked on my own family tree or maybe “tangle of roots,” for over thirty years now, I have come to realize that my missteps may indeed be beneficial to others. In other words, “do as I say, not as I do.”
Honestly, though, for me, my own shyness in all unknown situations kept me from some answers that I only recently had the courage to secure. Not anymore! If I want to know something, I ask. If I need a specific record, I push until I get it. Why? Because time’s a wasting!
Here are 5 Questions About My Family History Research That Took Me 30 Years to Answer
1. How important is it really to talk to older family members about their lives?
Every single one of us has relatives, especially those quiet, elderly ones who quite frankly, scare us. Mine was my maternal grandfather. I loved him so much, but he was indeed “The Quiet Man.” His parents were born and bred in the old country of Ireland and he accepted little nonsense, it appeared to me. He was one of four boys who then raised four girls. Imagine that, if you will.
Of course, I had yet to see those silly photographs of my grandfather as a young man. I had also forgotten how much he joked with his brother Lou at family parties. My grandfather was actually quite affable and funny. He loved laughing and performing little magic tricks on us as wee children.
How I wish that I had recalled these moments when I was too shy to ask to interview him. He is my biggest regret. I just couldn’t muster the courage to ask to sit down with him and learn about his Irish parents. Sadly, his parents have long been my greatest genealogical problem. I knew that our family was from Ireland but I never knew where exactly we were from. I do now, after years and years of blind research. However, had I simply asked, I am sure that he would have gladly recounted childhood memories and tales of his parents, stories that I now, may never know.
My advice to you is to interview everyone before it’s too late. Be bold. Take that risk. Assume that they might actually love to share their memories with you.
Be ready to connect with them on a much deeper level, one that will create a bond that you will never regret. Schedule with them today. Do not wait for that perfect moment. Create an interview template from common questions (like the ones in the Family History Daily genealogy course), or borrow one from cyberspace.
Bring your camera with a scanning app for old records. Take photos. Shoot videos. Record their responses in audio. Create a timeline of their years and fill in the blanks with their residences, neighbors, cousins’ names, and jobs. Bring a map to share with them or pull one up on your phone. Add their addresses to a Google “places” folder. Ask them far-reaching questions about their parents, grandparents and great grandparents.
Grandparents and other older family members are your link to the past. Let them set the scene for you!
2. How can I know that my family tree is accurate?
I bet you have a few errors in your family tree. I know that I most certainly do. Even the most seasoned researcher has a few mistakes in their research. The worst part about errors is that they lead to brick walls. If you have a brick wall, chances are you have a quiet little error lurking in your research.
My largest error came from my paternal grandmother. I did interview her long ago, and I will say that the experience was wonderful. She shared photos, marriage certificates, and all of her knowledge. I was such grateful for her graciousness that I believed every word she uttered. Oops.
For years – and I mean years – I researched the Quinn family in Baltimore because my grandmother told me, without hesitation, that her paternal grandmother was a Quinn. She was not. Ancestry kept sending me little shiny leaves for some woman named Annie Fowler, and I kept pushing them away because my grandmother told me that her maiden name was Quinn. Boy, was I wrong. My paternal great-grandmother was indeed Annie Elizabeth Fowler, late of Baltimore City.
Lesson learned here is “take everything with a grain of salt,” especially oral histories. Be skeptical. Put your best analyzing hat on before you waste quality research time. Use words like “maybe” and “possibly.” Question everything that people tell you. Sometimes they lie. Sometimes they forget. Sometimes they mix things up. Sometimes the story is way more interesting than the truth.
Always check your sources. Rely on primary sources, and evidence that was authored closest to the original date. A bible with birth entries may have been written long after by the same author and on the same day. An original birth certificate was written at the time of birth, by an official.
And use your GPS, in this case, it’s the Genealogy Proof Standard. If followed closely, you will become a much stronger researcher, one who sets that standard for your family and this profession.
3. How can I make the most of the short time I have for research?
So, here I am at the Maryland Historical Society and Library. A wondrous place, I might add. Here, among so many volumes on all things Maryland, I find the most definitive tome on New England families. Say, what? It was written by the father-in-law of my second great uncle, Richard Anson Wheeler. Simply titled History of the Town of Stonington, Connecticut, and written in 1900, this book retells the genealogical history of one of the first settlements in colonial America. It is a must have for me.
So, just like any veteran professional would, I sit right down and start reading it. Oh my, what I wonderful find! Upon my arrival back home, this important resource landed right on my Amazon wish list, just in time for the holidays. Another day or two goes by and I am writing about research in the UK and need my resources. So off to my bookshelf I go. Are you serious? I have absolutely not one good book on UK research but I do have a copy of Richard Anson Wheeler’s most amazing book! How had I forgotten that?
You guessed it! Lack of organization. Organization is the key to not driving yourself crazy as a genealogist. Start early and start with your books. Place them on a shelf, prearranged by place or subject.
When you prepare to research at a local repository, write a research plan. Stick to it! Most importantly, add all notes to your plan. Include all citations so that you avoid duplicating your research. Save these plans by surname and make copies for additional surnames as needed.
Also consider creating files, binders or boxes for each surname in your tree. Place all documents inside, including your research plans, in an orderly manner. Maybe even invest in plastic sheet protectors for your most valuable papers and photos. Check into archival methods and materials. Keep things away from direct sunlight and protect them from dampness.
And don’t forget to organize your online files too. Use a naming system to make images and documents easier to retrieve. I use “LastNameFirstNameYearEventPlace.” This technique organizes my files by surname. I further organize them into surname folders. I cannot tell you how many duplicates I came across when I started to organize my files, so start today! For some help with online organization, read this article.
For more ideas for making the most of your research time, check out this article by Patricia Hartley.
4. How can I go beyond names and dates in my research?
This past autumn, I scheduled a quick genealogy trip for my husband. Imagine driving to Elmira, New York to research your in-laws. Needless to say, I was not overly excited. Not that Elmira isn’t a gem of a city. It is! I simply had no understanding of how wonderful this trip would be. All I can say about it is that it was completely fantastic and quite possibly the trip of a lifetime!
We traveled around the area trying to locate anything and everything about my husband’s grandfather, great grandparents and great-great grandparents. As usual, our sights were keenly focused on those greats, the people we knew little about. However, I think my husband had the most fun learning intimate details of his grandfather’s life. This was a man he had known, or thought he had known. It wasn’t until he learned that his grandfather was a sports star that we realized how little he knew of his own grandfather’s early life.
This man played football, basketball, baseball and ran track, all for Elmira Free Academy. He was the quarterback and at times, the captain of the teams! It was in the Steele Memorial Library that we located a plethora of sources from his life. There, we found his high school yearbooks, newspaper articles and city directories. In Elmira, we located his homes, drove his route to school and saw first-hand the bustling little town he called his first home. This experience offered my husband a new perspective and appreciation of his grandfather.
The best way to learn about your ancestors is to walk a mile their shoes. If you can, visit their homeland. Walk it, with camera in hand. See the sites. Once you arrive, find every repository available to you. Visit historical societies and archives. Check out the courthouses. Talk to the natives. Peruse the libraries. Find houses, churches, cemeteries, legion halls, schools, factories; every place your ancestor frequented. Gain access to genealogies, maps, yearbooks, newspapers, city directories, court documents; every imaginable scrap of evidence. Even if you do not feel completely ready to go, do it anyway! You will still be surrounded by proof of your ancestors’ life in their hometown.
Once your trip is over, write it up! Create a photo book! Include a diary of your time there, describing the sights and sounds from your perspective. Then add those wonderful artifacts you collected. Share it with your siblings and children, encouraging them with your excitement.
If you can’t travel to these places, do it virtually! Research your ancestors’ locations carefully using these ideas. Read newspapers from the region, look at maps, find old books on the area – know what was happening and how it may have influenced your relatives’ lives.
5. How do I continue to grow as a researcher?
When I decided to take a leap of faith and throw my hat into the ring as a professional genealogist, I felt very alone. More alone than I can express. I knew no one. They all seemed more professional than me. They seemed to know one another. So, I opened up a Word document, titled it “Time & Expenses” and leapt forward into the learning world of genealogy.
As I prepared to sign up for certification, I knew that I would have to find my tribe. RootsTech looked like a fabulous opportunity for me to do just that. There, I would be able to take workshops, meet new friends, and live among the world of genealogy for five glorious days.
Of course, it helps greatly that RootsTech is located at the Salt Palace, in Salt Lake City, Utah, only one block away from the famous Family History Library. It does not get better than this, my friends. I flew by myself, survived a huge snowstorm, and learned so much about genealogy and myself in those five glorious days. I overcame some shyness and I gained access to some of the best professionals in the field. The best part for me though, was hearing Henry Louis Gates, Jr. speak about “The Seedlings” project. I still get chills just thinking about it.
As with all activities we do, fluency can make us complacent. Growth requires reaching beyond with fearlessness and faith. You may think you have all the answers and all the experiences, but you’ll never move beyond what you know without a bit of drive and urgency.
My advice to you, as novice or professional genealogist, is to surround yourself by everything and everyone you can. Pop free from your bubble and join a local genealogy society. Attend those meetings. Bring snacks to share, too! Volunteer at your state archives or local historical society. Communicate with those you meet there. I actually met two distant paternal cousins at my local society.
And don’t forget to take courses or webinars online or join a ProGen Study Group, family history Facebook page or forum. Stay fresh within the field by remaining active. Never stop growing simply by being open to learning every single day.
Bridget M. Sunderlin practices in Maryland. In her view, she was born an artist. As a self-proclaimed career changer, she has been a graphic designer, art teacher and now, professional genealogist. She has been actively researching her Irish roots for well over 30 years. Her family hails from all of the countries within the British Isles. Last year, she visited Ireland and Scotland, meeting quite a few cousins along the way. Ms. Sunderlin believes that the act of researching one’s family history helps us to “be rooted.”
Image: “Miss Hesterley and Miss Christian, FSA (Farm Security Administration) home economists, discussing farm and home plan with Ellis Adkins family, rural rehabilitation borrowers, in front of their home. This is their first year on the program. There are nine in the family. Coffee County, Alabama” ca. 1939. Library of Congress