13 April 2012

The Tangled Web We Weave and How To Start Again

Whether we have been researching for six weeks or six years, everyone can fall prey to a messy tree. We know we should've kept a log or record of our progress, but we were so busy making discoveries! Suddenly we realise that "new" relative was already in the tree and we've now researched their ancestors twice and have several duplicate people. Or there are so many cross-overs between our maternal and paternal lines that we can't make heads or tails of the relationships and wish we had made two separate trees. Perhaps the most humiliating, a source we've used isn't actually about our relative and now all subsequent assumptions will need to be reviewed. Even worse, if we'd read the source more carefully the first time, we wouldn't have the wrong relations, town and dates. How do we fix these mistakes? Are there more? What if the whole tree is wrong? We have thousands of names in this tree! Doing them one at a time sounds horrifying! Why has God singled us out for the greatest suffering known to man???????

First, calm down. Seriously, try decaf. Now that you know better, it's time to really get serious about keeping yourself on track. There are many ways to do it, and each person keeps organised differently, so pick what works best for you. In the end, you want to know what you've already found out, where you have looked, what searches you've performed and who you've looked for in those searches. If you search the 1880 census for your great grandfather in Louisiana and then find your husband's second great aunt on the same page, it may not happen on the same day. So if you know you've searched that census, you should be able to look at your notes and say: "I have page 15 from district 33". And if your search lands on page 15 of district 33, then you can make a note for the relative without wasting more money/time getting a second copy.

I have an "action file" that is a research log for each repository/website/book and what I've used them to search for so far. Before I make a trip, I see if I've already covered the search in question. If I have, I've saved myself some time; if I haven't, I make a note of when I do go and what I find. I have a file cabinet that has files for each relative or family group (if I don't have a lot on one person, they don't get their own file). In these files is a main sheet that lists names, aliases, birth/death dates, dates/locations for life events, parents, sibling(s), spouse(s), child(ren), occupation and whether they were in the military. Basically what Ancestry's profile page will provide, but in paper form for when I'm offline. Behind that is a timeline that lists not only those life events in more detail, but adds the dates of their children's births/deaths as well as historical events in a linear way to help me visualise their life. Let's say you have a family group you make a timeline for and you see that several children/ aunts/ uncles/ cousins die in a very short period of time. Looking at a timeline of epidemics in the area may help you to see that Cholera was running rampant. Now you have a clue that could lead you to the local hospital to look for patient records (if available and they aren't sealed for privacy). Or maybe there was a war. Now you can search military records and sources for combat casualties. Behind the timeline is a source log so I know what I've searched for that person and what I've found. I'll get more into a proper citation format in another post. For now, let's just say you want to know Where you found it (online/library/church/etc.), When you found it (especially helpful on Internet sources), What you found (a transcript/excerpt/translation), Who wrote the source (author/court/government branch), How old the source is (publication date), and Which kind of source is it (primary or secondary). Behind that is copies of documents, photos, excerpts..... whatever I have on that person/family group. When I'm researching, I pull out the files and review what I've already searched/found so I don't double up on myself. I also use Goodreads.com to list a virtual shelf with all the books I own or have read on genealogy and my family so I can keep track of book sources. It comes in handy when you're standing in line at Borders about to by your third copy of "The History of Virginia".

Some people are super organised and can do it with some blank paper and really stay on top of things. Maybe you are like me and need someone else to make a form for you to start with. Ancestry has some forms including blank censuses. Print and fill them out, keep them together or in individual files. Family Tree Magazine has free forms that go a bit deeper into logs and sources. And if you want PDFs you can fill out, you can get them from BYUB's show Ancestors. If all else fails, make a spreadsheet or word document to keep the information together. The real question is: "when you look for it again, how will you find it easily?"

Now as for the big debate: is it best to start again and go person by person, or to go the "easy" route if their is one? Well, there are easy options for those who need them, but not on Ancestry's website. If you screw up on Ancestry's online trees, it's a person by person fix. And I'll be honest, that's the way I prefer it. Family Tree Maker software has reports, forms, merge features........ lots of helpful stuff. Need to know who died in one town/county so you can go cemetery hunting? There's a report. Need two trees to be one? Merge it. For some people, I've heard it's a great tool....... and some day I may look more into it. For now, call me old-fashioned, but I like to know I got all the mistakes and one by one is the only way to be sure.

I have six trees right now that I am trying to fix and merge on Ancestry. I have two GEDCOMs from relatives, my tree of 5000 names (which I will admit to some "hint happy clicking" early in my Ancestry usage. HEY! Everybody does it once! Don't judge me.), my father's side on a separate tree, my mother's side on a separate tree, a tree built from a book published in 1899 by a part of the family that does a good job of listing names (not such a good job of sourcing or providing any other information), and my new tree. My original tree with 5000 names was well sourced, but I noticed a few errors. And then I found some double people. And then I found a broken link where I must've deleted the wrong person. And then....... *sigh* it was just easier to start again. The GEDCOMs represent decades of research on my mother's side by her relatives and some of the information is good. But a GEDCOM doesn't give you sources. And I've already found some mistakes in both. The separate trees for the parents did fine until I found at least four cross overs and I really got tired of having the information twice. I can't just click a button to merge the trees, so I have to do it the hard way. So far I've put up the information I can use as "fact", relations I have first-hand knowledge of, direct line ancestors that the oldest relatives have knowledge of, cousins that living relatives know..... everything else will be added when I can double check the sources I have for them (or finally source them). I have a daily research log now and I am making a list of relatives using a genealogical numbering system (which I'll let you know more about in another post soon) so I can keep track as well as prepare a published work of my findings (an ambitious long-term project). It's an uphill battle, but that's what I get for being lazy.

Whether you are starting your tree or starting over, promise yourself that today is the day that you take it seriously and log your progress! Keep a list of websites, libraries, courthouses, churches and cemeteries that you use and what you've found already so you don't waste time finding it again. If you come up empty handed, write that down. You may go back to the source to try something new, but mostly you'll just stop yourself from wasting time on a useless source. Keep a tally of the enumeration districts you've checked for a certain relative so you don't forget and find yourself searching them page by page yet again. And log any sources that others cite in their work. Look them up and see for yourself! It's happened many a time that an excerpt of a will has names misspelled or doesn't have all the names the will mentions. Get a foreign document translated again (or translate it yourself if you know the language) to be sure that they didn't make a mistake. We're all human, so double check everything! It'll be hard. It'll "take forever". You'll feel certain that you are making no headway at all........ until that glorious moment when you realise you missed a source opportunity and stumble upon that one fact you've never been able to find in your disorganised mess of a search.


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