Monday, November 30, 2009

Things To Avoid In Genealogical Research

This is without a doubt, one of the most interesting hobbies someone can take up. It can be expensive unless you keep an eye on your expenses though. And there are pitfalls that can hinder your research if you are not careful and here are some of the things to try to avoid if you want to keep moving.

  1. Don't collect EVERYTHING about your surname. Unless you have a somewhat unique name, you will be wasting valuable time. I have Smiths, Joneses, Browns, Taylors from all over the North American continent and Europe and if I tried to track them all down, I wouldn't move back very far. That said, if you do have a rather unique surname, or one that is somewhat rare in the geographical area you are researching, by all means try to collect information on those people. Possibly they may collect to your main line through collateral relations. I love finding information about various cousins of great-great-grandparents, and by collecting such data, you can share with distant relatives who may be researching those lines. It's all about helping others. Don't you love getting in contact with someone and discovering common relations and comparing information?

  2. Don't do research trying to prove you are descended from someone who was famous in the past or royally connected. That's a fool's game. Just because someone famous had the same surname as you is NOT definative proof of any connection. Always do the proper research by moving from the known to the unknown, back into the past. Sure, maybe you will find some connection to a famous (or maybe infamous!) person back in the mist of time, but if you come from a long line of farmers or fisherman or whatever, who cares? I hold my solid, hardworking forebears in high esteem and so should you. Of course, it is kind of exciting to find you do have someone in your tree with a tinge of notoriety. I'm not related by blood to him, but I think it is cool that my grandfather's uncle married the great-granddaughter of Benedict Arnold, and I may have some relations in common with the infamous Captain Bligh of The Bounty. I'm not going to try to prove it, but if my research takes me there, I won't deny it lol.

  3. Don't give up! Like many a family genealogist, I have had my share of frustrations and brickwalls. I've been lucky with some lines and had limited success on others. I've been able to trace many lines to the early 1600-1700s, but I have some stubborn lines that refuse to reveal themselves past the late 1800s. If you find that you just cannot move forward in your research to find great-grandmother's family, put it aside and do some work on one of your other lines and come back to her file later with a fresh perspective. I've done this numerous times and sometimes, with a fresh eye, I spot a new avenue of research. Sure, they don't always pan out, but sometimes they do! I have worked on one line and suddenly realize that the tool or idea I am using can be applied to that other line I have been having so much trouble with. Keep at it, and eventually that problem will unravel for you.

  4. Don't forget about your living relatives. I was lucky because I started doing family tree research as a 13 year old. Back then, before the internet, I was lost. I plodded on gathering whatever information I could from books, magazines. I was also lucky in having a grandmother interested in family history who went back to the old country (Scotland) and came back with a partial family tree, pictures of gravestones etc. Most of my older relatives shuffled off this mortal coil long before I had the chance to ask them about the family, but I did get the chance to correspond with my grandfather's elder sister (born in the early 1890s!) before she passed, and she provided information on her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents which has proven invaluable to me. Now, thirty-plus years later, younger and more distant relatives are using my research as they work on their family trees.

  5. My last name was spelt THIS way. this is a common pitfall. I've heard many people saying that their family always used the "MAC-" rather than the "MC" spelling of their surname and won't even look at the alternatives. That is a major failure. Sure, YOUR family spelled it that way, but did the parish priest or census taker, or county clerk also use your spelling? Of course not. The majority of the population did not have the ability to spell back in the day and the examples of misspellings of surnames is massive. What if your family moved into an area where the other spelling of your surname was more common? What if the person recording the information couldn't hear the name properly because of a thick accent? And just think of all the multi-syllable names today that you have difficulty spelling.

  6. Where is my Family Coat of Arms? Here's a hint - you don't have one! Even if someone registered a coat of arms 400 years ago under your name, it is HIGHLY unlikely that you are legally entitled to use that design. Yes, it does play to my ego that there are a number of Bradshaw coats of arms that were registered, but I cannot use them as mine. I can buy a nifty coat of arms and display it on my wall, but likely I am not related to the Bradshaws who registered it originally. Maybe I am, but unless I am the eldest son of the eldest son of the dude who got it in the first place, it is not mine. Besides, who wants a coat of arms? If you were entitled to it, you would know it. These were given to individuals, not to families.

  7. This is just too hard to do. No, it isn't. Just because you don't know where to start does not mean you cannot begin. Family tree research is not only about gathering a bunch of dusty records and the dates when your ancestors were born, married and died. It is about learning about HOW they lived and died. How they interacted during the days they lived. I know who my great-great-grandparents lived and I've studied the arc of their lives. Some spent most of their lives on the business end of a plow, but they lived, breathed, had children, bought and sold land, voted, harvested, travelled, laughed and cried. I think I have a tremendous respect and understanding for them, and this all started because I picked up a piece of paper and tried to write down where I came from. Because that's the only way to know where you are going.

There are many things you should avoid (scams, missteps) and you will find that you make an error or two, but you will learn from that mistake and move on. Slowly, but surely you will take more steps forward than back in your research. Hopefully this short article will help.

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