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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Education - The True Key
by Rhonda R. McClure

September 28, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

I had an opportunity recently to work on my own family lines. Those who know me realize that this doesn't happen as often as I would like it to, so I was truly relishing the chance to rekindle that flame for genealogy. As I was working on a particular line, I found myself having to turn to some general history books.

Genealogists, by the nature of the type of research they are trying to undertake, are constantly having to turn to a variety of different reference books. I confess to owning both Black's Law Dictionary and Taber's Medical Dictionary. When I purchased them, together I might add, the clerk asked me if I was going into medical law. If it were only that easy.

Genealogists must turn to a variety of general reference books to aid their research.

History - That's the Key

The ancestors that we are searching for lived before us. That seems like an obvious statement, but there are many researchers who haven't yet come to the realization that it is necessary to read up on the history of the time period and locality where our ancestors were living. They lived through the times we have only read about. For some of the younger researchers, even events in the Twentieth century are history.

And yet, it is sad to say, few of us take the time to read up on the history. Few of us can recite the dates of crucial events that dramatically altered the lives of our ancestors. Do you know when the American Revolution was begun? Do you know what caused World War I? Can you say when the Irish Potato Famine began?

So many events have taken place. I love to read about them. No longer is history boring. History, to me, is the life my ancestors clung to. Without their perseverance and tenacity, I might not be here. More than that though, I have begun to realize that what used to be boring dates and details did, in fact, involve the lives of real people. I don't think I will ever stop being amazed by this revelation.

Definitions - That's the Key

Do you know what draper is? Until this week I didn't. Until this week, I had no need to know. For the truly curious, a draper is one that deals in clothing and cloth. Until this week I had not researched anyone that was a draper. Now I know and will be prepared for the next time I find that term in a census or other record.

As we dig in land records, wills, probate records, and other court records, we soon discover a world unlike any we have ever seen before. Unless you are a lawyer or a surveyor, there are many terms that will be foreign to you. When this happens, it can cause you problems in fulfilling the research your are attempting.

If you do not know what a chain or a link is in the land records you may have trouble determining if you have indeed traced all the land that was originally purchased, and then sold or bequeathed. If you do not know what a heir is, you may make erroneous assumptions when it comes to working in a probate record.

Fortunately for us, there are a number of useful dictionaries. I mentioned two already, and then there are ones geared toward genealogists, such as A to Zax. If you are working in foreign research, you may find that you need to add a translation dictionary to your many standard reference works. I keep these close at hand so that the next time a word pops up that I am unfamiliar with, I can easily grab the appropriate volume and educate myself.

Technology - That's the Key

We do truly live in a marvelous time. The things we can do with the electronic gadgets at our disposal are so easy, that we sometimes take them for granted, or completely forget that everyone hasn't always had such tools. This last week as I was at a library doing some genealogy, I realized I needed something off the Internet. Instead of having to wait until I got home, as this library did not have Internet access, I pulled out a particular connector, and hooked my laptop up to my cell phone. Within minutes I had what I needed and I was back at work.

In the last few weeks we have seen the release of a tool that genealogists rely on heavily - the census. For years we were happy to have it on microfilm and available through our local library or Family History Center. Soon we will have the entire set up through 1920 available in digitized images online. What a great time we live in to do our genealogy.

In Conclusion

There are many tools at our disposal. There are reference books. There are history books. There are dictionaries and other guides. There are tools at our fingertips through our computers. When you put them altogether you have all that you need to find answers to your questions and continue your genealogical research.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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