I have bad news for all you genealogists, but I think you already knew:
You have to keep all your research notes forever. (A couple of caveats:
You have to file them logically and
you can't copy everything you find just because it is only five cents
a page.) You also need to go back over those old notes periodically. You
would be surprised what you might discover!
When you are researching, it is really important to take notes on what
you examined and what you found even if, and especially if, it
wasn't productive. Reviewing old notes can refresh your memory, but it
can also bring up many new possibilities. Genealogy is mostly a self-taught
subject. There is always a lot to learn upfront and a lot of details slide
by the first time around.
Beginning genealogists are usually vitally interested in finding ancestors
and extending back in time as far and as fast as possible. For many people,
the leap to the "old country" is the primary goal. In this quest
they tend to overlook important clues that are vital to a complete family
history. Once they have reached the end of the line in the ancestor quest,
it is possible to take some time to review and perhaps come up with new
clues. It is also a very relaxing, pleasurable exercise to retrace your
steps and realize how much you have learned and where the knowledge came
The census was probably one of the first documents where you found family
information or maybe you didn't find your family. If you did find
an entry, I hope that you took a photocopy of the page. Go back and study
it again. First, look at neighbors on the same page. Now that you have
found more information on the family, you might see that parents or siblings
are living nearby. If you are still looking for the wife's family, take
a closer look at older couples nearby. It might be worthwhile getting
the film again and looking at people on nearby pages. Did you overlook
a "Pa" in the citizenship column indicating he had made his
declaration of intent to become a citizen or "Na" meaning he
was already naturalized? These papers should be on file and often have
valuable information. Look at all the other columns. Whether or not he
owned property could be important, as there are land records that should
If you were unsuccessful in finding someone in the census, perhaps it
is time to take another look. The census can be pretty frustrating when
you first start, but after you become familiar with its format it isn't
so bad. Even city returns that are not indexed are not as daunting as
they first seem. With death certificates, city directories and other sources,
you might now have an idea of where they lived. Many cities are broken
down by wards and the census returns also list wards. You can find descriptions
of the areas each ward covered or sometimes a death certificate might
show a ward number. You can quickly go through a city census by looking
just at the ward number. Several states have state censuses that have
valuable information but are not indexed. You might want to consider taking
a look at these now.
New indexes are coming out all the time, so perhaps the census you need
wasn't indexed when you first looked at it but is now. If your state was
indexed but you didn't find your family, see if any new indexes have been
done. Even those that have been reissued on CD-ROM from the same database
that produced the original books have had corrections. A new index might
include all names rather than just head of household. If you could look
up two year old Balthazar Smith, it would be a lot quicker than trying
to look at every Smith family in northeast Ohio. If you can search a CD
by first name, that could also provide the key for finding the maiden
name for a woman with an unusual first name. Many censuses have been transcribed
and are available online. Hopefully, you kept a list of the soundex codes you
searched. Maybe you didn't code the name correctly. (Family
Tree Maker can do that for you.)
Go back and reexamine those birth, marriage and death certificates. That
woman you didn't know who provided the information on the death certificate
might now be recognizable as the daughter whose married name you hadn't
yet discovered. Perhaps you overlooked the social security number on the
certificate. You can use that to request the original social security
application which has valuable information. If you study the cause of
death you might begin to see a medical pattern in your family that needs
further investigation. The social security index also provides a way to
keep up with recent family deaths. The index is updated frequently so
you can check on distant cousins to see if they are still alive.
Look at the negative reports you received when you requested a birth,
marriage or death certificate (you did keep them, didn't you?) along with
the original application you sent (copy also kept). In the light of later
research, you may now see that you were looking for the event in the wrong
county or had the wrong date. You might want to send in a new request
or check online for vital records. California now has the index for births
(1905-95) and deaths (1940-97) online so you don't need to send in your
money until you know the certificate is there.
The index to the British births,
deaths and marriages is being indexed by volunteers and being placed
online. Instead of having to search by quarters you can search the entire
database. You can also search for marriages using both spouses' names.
Records that contain addresses, such as censuses, death certificates
and city directories, were not always that meaningful if you couldn't
get a map of the city. You didn't know if people lived a block apart or
miles. With interactive online maps, you can see exactly, right down to
the block, where they lived. If you have a baptismal record from a city
church, you can look up the church address and have a pretty good idea
of where the family lived. This can help cut down on the area to search
in an unindexed census.
It is always fun to go back and read old letters and you may pick up
new information. Perhaps someone wrote to you about a family that you
thought was unrelated but now you can fit them into your expanded family
tree. Or maybe cousin Louis said he was going to go down and visit the
cemetery in the spring. Get in touch with him and see if he has anything
new. You might have exchanged a lot of letters with a fellow researcher
10 years ago and haven't heard anything since then. It might be time to
follow-up. (It wouldn't hurt to check the social security index before
Genealogy has become a profitable industry, for good or ill. One benefit
is that new information is being created on a regular basis. Some of it
is free, some is for sale and some has a free teaser with the rest having
a price. It pays to go back periodically and see what has transpired.
The probate or land records you found unfathomable may now be abstracted
or indexed. Many new indexes are in progress. The 1880 census is being
indexed on an individual name basis, not just for families with children
under the age of 10. A few years ago there was no index for any English
census, but these are appearing on a regular basis. You only need to be
patient. If you only knew a county in England a few years ago, it was
hopeless to find the people in the census. Now, for the1881 census, there
is a complete index by name. It opens up many new possibilities.
I found I had "new information" in my own files. I had been
looking, unsuccessfully, for naturalization records for Wojciech Szul.
Wojciech is Polish for Albert. His death certificate is under Albert and
his grandson, Albert, was named for him so I never pursued it further.
I did find one census where he was listed as George but disregarded this
as one of the many errors in the census. On a list someone mentioned that
Wojciech translated as George. A list of Polish names indicated Wojciech
could be translated as Albert or George. When questioned, his daughter
remembered that when he was working he did use George. I am now going
to make another request for naturalization papers, this time for George!
Ships' Passengers Lists
Ships' passengers lists are a valuable source of information but many
years are not indexed. Without an index it is almost impossible to locate
people if you only have a vague idea of the year of immigration. Now many
groups are working on indexing different records. For example, the Ellis
Island records are being indexed by volunteers. And, while the original
Hamburg passenger list index is difficult to work with since it is in
German script, now some
years are available online in a format that's easier to use. I don't
advocate using only the database and not checking the original record
because each step away from the original record means more chance for
errors. However, you need to check all possibilities and someone with
more experience may have read a name more accurately than you did. The
Emigrant Ships Transcribers Guild
is working on lists and every year new volumes of Filby's and the Germans
to America series appear.
Pay Attention to Details
Quite a few years ago I received several baptism certificates from a
parish in Poland. I thought it was curious that one child out of a family
of four sons was baptized Greek Catholic while the others were Roman Catholic.
However, I was in a hurry to write back and ask for more certificates
and didn't think any more about it. Recently, however, I looked over these
records, again noted the anomaly plus the fact that the family was supposed
to have six children, not four, and I had no record of the mother's death
or birth. Out of idle curiosity I posted a query on the Poland Border
Surnames list asking why one child would be Greek Catholic. Several people
replied that the custom was when a Roman Catholic man married a Greek
Catholic woman, the boys would be raised as Roman and the girls as Greek.
When I looked in my records at the name of the Greek Catholic, I found
it was Franciszka, a girl. This provided a lot of insight: the mother
was probably Greek Catholic; the mother's death and birth records would
be with the Greek church; the other two children were probably girls and
baptized in the Greek church. This is a great new lead for me.
Check the Internet
Browse the Internet periodically. More and more reliable information
is appearing regularly. It takes time to dig through all the links but
it can pay off in the long run.
Mailing lists are a great way of learning about new developments. Sign
on to the surname or geographical area of your interest. This is not a
lifelong commitment. You can subscribe today and unsubscribe tomorrow.
If you are going to be away for a few days, unsubscribe. These messages
can come fast and furious and if you get behind you probably aren't ever
going to read the old ones. Lists are good places to learn the "stories."
People who subscribe to lists have the most amazing font of information
that they are willing to share. Perhaps deep in a Polish genealogy book
I could have found out about the Roman-Greek tradition but many people
on the list were aware of it and could provide personal experience. Someone
usually knows the traditions or folklore and is willing to share. It is
a great resource for filling in some of those blanks.
Do you have a copy of a foreign document from some relative, something
you just never got around to having translated? You don't think it has
vital information but it would be fun to know what it says. As long as
it isn't too long, many lists encourage people to post the information
from these documents as several people on ethnic lists usually know the
These are just a few ideas of what you might look for in your old notes.
If you take the time to go through them, you will probably come up with
several new avenues to explore.