17 February 2014

More Than One Road to Roam

It happens in every skill: you reach the level of expertise that you forget the basics. Trying to explain to a beginner how to start isn't as easy as it used to be. You do the first steps by instinct more than conscious action. Math teachers were hounding us as children to "show the work", because they wanted to make sure we had the fundamentals clearly in hand. Sometimes you found a faster route; other times you just "knew" the answer. When you have to split a restaurant bill between your friends, do you pull out a pencil and do it longhand or do you figure it quickly in your head? This is why professionals and enthusiasts in every hobby will recommend a frequent and regular refresher on the very basic rules of any endeavor. Genealogy is no exception. Once you've gotten your tree on a healthy growth spurt, you just "know" what the next steps will be. You know what paths to take in your research even when the evidence isn't conclusive. Explaining either the conclusion or the road you travelled to anyone else is made difficult because you've forgotten how to "show the work". And when you forget the starting steps, you can sometimes get into a rut of which road you take.

One of the most popular ruts is the census. For most people, outside of interviewing family, this is the first document one will try to find. It's a good document! Every 10 years, family names and relationships, occupations, birth years and locations...... lots of information. A snapshot of  your family unit. But some people become so blinded by the need to find a census, that when one is not available (1890 US census, anyone?), they are at a loss for next steps. Their usual route is washed out and they're lost in the woods. So they relearn the need to look at siblings and neighbors for clues. They need reminding to review city directories, newspapers, military history, land deeds, or occupation. They know of the other records, to be sure. But they are used to a different starting point, so starting somewhere else is too foreign a concept. It takes a minute to readjust.

My own personal genealogy has seen a boom in activity thanks to new digitised records (one less trek in the snow!!!), DNA tests, and more receptive family. I've never pestered any family member to share information and always believed that was the best way to go about it. I want people to feel comfortable talking to me, not feel interrogated. But I'm always excited to find someone finally willing to open up. Until we start talking and they can't remember names or dates. Or they leave things out, because they don't think it's "important" and I spend two hours prying stories out of them to hopefully glean some sort of fact out of it all. My fiance, who has done research for his lines but never really gotten the "genealogy bug", is slowly sharing what he knows. Suddenly I've got a new to me country with new to me relatives. And I've got new to me hurdles.

You see, my fiance is British. His family is English and Welsh. I've got a lot to learn about what I can find long distance and what I need local access to work. I need to work around a 100 year privacy law and an ocean. And I need to start at the beginning. He was smart enough to ask relatives for their information and share what he had already researched. I am smart enough to take this unsourced information and verify. As I worked on the information, I often found myself texting or calling my fiance to ask for clarification. Having already done the work, he was giving me a lot of conclusions without the show.......... which meant we had some problems remembering how we got where we did.

Just part of the conversation:

N: So grandpa Ken, what have you found out?

A: Ken? Your mom's dad.

N: Yeah, Kenneth. Mum's dad. He was nice. (family story time)

A: Okay, when did he die? When was he born? When did he marry your grandmother? Was your mom their first kid?

N: (to all of them) Dunno. Can't remember.

A: Okay....... um, how old were you when he died?

N: 11 or 12 I think. Grandma moved. (New family story time)

A: Oh? Moved to where?

N: I dunno....... they used to live in .......

A: Okay, I have a Kenneth James who died '88 in that town. Maybe?

N: I dunno. You're the genealogist.

A: Good thing I love you.

Now I'll use this to illustrate my point (thank goodness, right?). I work backwards, so first I want to know when Ken died. My fiance couldn't remember exactly, but he was there. Okay, so I can either ask if he remembers how old grandpa was or if he remembers how old he was. Adding in the little tidbit about where he remembered visiting grandpa and where grandma moved to after his death helped me narrow down where he possibly died. Being a recent death, my access is limited to an index, so without a little bit of information, I would never be sure who was *my* Ken and who wasn't. For those of us who've gotten into that rut of research, we could give up. We could start aimlessly looking for his birth record instead. Or maybe I could hope to recognise his name in a census. But the last UK census released was the 1911 census......... would Ken even be old enough to be on it? He wasn't. Thankfully, Ken died where he lived so I was able to get his birthdate on the death index. Sadly, he wasn't born there. So how to know which birth record was his? The index available to me would show his name, his mother's maiden name, location of birth, and the quarter of the year he was born in. Was that enough? No! The index doesn't even narrow down male and female..... what if his name is misspelled? What if he's actually James Kenneth, not Kenneth James? It didn't specify month nor day of birth. No father's information! And I didn't have his mother's name, so how would I know which maiden name was hers?

After we get "good" at genealogy, it's actually very easy for us to fall into what is usually a "newbie" mistake: attaching records that are close enough without researching them. There was a birth close to his death location..... I could add that one and assume his family didn't move far. Or, I could make a map. I took each maiden name and searched for marriage records. I found the names of the husband/wife and where they were married. I then found them in the 1911 census (alone or married). I then tried to find their death index entry. I could now see who had moved and who had stayed put. Couple #1 never left Yorkshire, already had tons of kids by 1911, and didn't fit Ken's life (spent mostly around London). Couple #2 wasn't too far outside Kent, but never left their little town either. Couple #3, however, started south of London, and moved slowly North and West to where Ken ended up living most of his adult life. I was pretty sure I had the right folks. I also searched birth entries for other children with that mother's maiden name and was able to find possible siblings who were born either where Ken was born or where Ken lived later in life. I've tasked my fiance with original records gathering, but I feel that the initial work is good.

I'm also really excited by all this research. My family has mostly been in the US for hundreds of years. My last immigrant ancestor is from Scotland. Something like England, but not the same. I am feeling the thrill of being a new researcher again. I am not only having to learn about his family's life, but my fiance's country as well. I mean, I've learned the basics to be sure. But now I've got to really understand the county lines, the privacy rules, the records available, the records lost, wars fought, illnesses suffered......... I'm at the beginning of the beginning all over again. I can do US research in my sleep. I am fairly good at Scottish research. But England? And Wales? Please. Fish out of water time, my friend. Suddenly, I'm attacking history books. I'm searching out wiki pages. I'm rewatching old videos from Crista Cowan's learning series. I love Crista. I watch all her videos, even when I don't need that specific topic. At least I think I don't. But I usually get reminded about a little trick that will help me in my regular work. Or I later remember that I saw a video that will help me with my new work. Like this new venue of family research. Crista has videos dealing with how to use UK records and next steps. Some of the tricks are the same the world over, but other's aren't. My fiance did ask me why I wasn't done yet and I just laughed. When I told him it wasn't the same kind of research, he said, "sure it is." No, it isn't.

Every branch is a new journey with an old friend.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous23/4/14 07:43

    My name is Dennis Elton Stanley. Thanks for all this information. I guess I fall into the idiot category. I am 62 nearing retirement and decided one of the best things I could do for my children and grandchildren was to leave them a record of their family. I am now the oldest surviving Stanley and have the most information(thanks mostly to my wife who listens when old people talk). I signed up with myheritage.com. I got so excited at how fast I retraced my ancestors all the way back to England and the 13-1400's, key word here "fast". Anyway, now I am in the business of trying to correct all my errors. Example: My 3 times grandfather apparently died 20 years before my 2 times grandfather was born. Listening to someone who actually knows what they are doing helps. Thanks again I don't like posting as anonymous Dennis E. Stanley