by Linda Lorda | Jul 2, 2009
You've heard the skeptical announcement, "I'll believe it when I see it!" Such a critical attitude is understandable when the subject is something like lowering the national debt. However, in the world of genealogy, an all-encompassing, inclusive, positive outlook will bring far greater research success. Allowing for a multitude of possibilities in your thinking leads you to finding information about your family that you simply did not know existed. Your family history might be staring you in the face, but you must believe it to see it.
When you embark upon the study of family history, a major question will be the focus of your research. We all have a different idea of who we include in our definition of "family". Will you search for your great-grandparents? Perhaps you want to research only your surname? What about all the grandchildren of your great, great aunt? Do you consider them to be a part of YOUR family? Maybe that seems "over the line"...but what if one of them happens to have inherited the family Bible or a cache of old photos? Nurture your family tree as you research; let it grow unlimited branches and even conflicting branches. You'll be able to prune it back later.
Do you think of your family as those who share your surname? It is much easier to research when you already know the surname. Far more challenging is the "umbilical" line, from child to mother. Hidden behind a maze of different surnames are the most genetically certain links, powerful physical and emotional connections that carry with them the passing of not only mitochondrial DNA but native language, culture, and more. Finding the umbilical lines will likely be your most frustrating "brick wall" research. Don't give up; the genealogical gems to be found are worth the effort.
I once heard a researcher say, "They can't be part of our family because they don't spell their name the same way. Exact spelling of names did not become important until the 20th century. In the past, even literate persons might spell their own names differently from one day to the next. Illiterate persons often had to rely on others to spell and write their names for them. This is especially important to remember when searching the census.
As you expand your research possibilities, expect the list of surname spelling variations to grow longer. Soundex systems can help you find variations, but they rely on the eye and wisdom of the transcriptionist. Our perception of what was written in cursive might not be what the original writer intended. For example, what you believe is a capital S might actually be a capital L, in which case you won't find anything at all in an alphabetical or soundex list. Sometimes, just skip the index and search line by line. Instead of searching for a specific name, look at and sound out each name. You'll often find people hiding in plain sight!
With each telling from generation to generation, the details of the family stories do change, ever so slightly. That's not to say that Grandpa lied. Much depends upon the age and personality of the person hearing the story and his own memory later in life of that early story telling. Great-Grandpa might have embellished a few things simply to make the story more interesting. Occasionally stories are deliberately altered, perhaps to hide something embarrassing or illegal. As you research keep in mind that all family stories contain both truth and fiction. Record the details of each variation of a family story, document the source, and make no judgments about veracity, if at all, until your research is complete.
The family "skeleton" is not something most people deliberately research; usually it is something we stumble upon. Be mindful that most people have something in their life, or the life of a loved one, that they prefer be kept private, making research a challenge. Family skeletons come in all styles: criminal activity, suicide, addiction, alcoholism, sexual orientation, sexual abuse, divorce, physical deformity, mental illness, disease, poverty, illegitimacy, adoption, incarceration. Don't back off...it is research worth solid but sensitive investigation, as it can bring understanding and healing to a family. Secrets lose their power once revealed. Research and document everything you can find, but reveal with consideration for the living.
The online world of genealogy is fun, exciting, and can bring wonderful results quickly. Archives and libraries yield rich resources. Even so, there is nothing quite like visiting the locations where ancestors lived. See where and how they lived, worked, worshiped, and where they buried each other. Feel the weather and the earth, smell the smells, hear the same noises, swat the same kind of bugs, follow their migration trail. You will find incredibly valuable research clues. You may even find your family still there!
After you have cast this broad research net, it is finally time to get critical and do some tree pruning! Use the volumes of information you now have to prove the relationships of people to each other. Let the facts fall where they may, even though they might not be what you expected. Somewhere in the foggy mist of too much information, your family tree will emerge with clarity, the stories will make sense, the skeletons will be gone, and the people will no longer be just names and dates and places on a chart. They will become real people to you and you will understand just how connected we all are to each other.
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