Genealogy Do-Over: Week 1

A new year is the perfect time for a Genealogy Do-over! Many of us were genealogy addicts long before we had learned anything of the process, the resources, the citing of sources, etc. A do-over allows us the chance to go back, to start from scratch and implement some of those techniques and habits that (we think) would make our research more effective.  So let’s get to it. I invite you to join me (and countless other genealogists and bloggers) on this incredibly exciting and frightening 13-week journey. Be sure to follow Thomas MacEntee over at geneabloggers so you know what we are focusing on each week.

Week One Goals:

1) Setting Previous Research Aside

I’m pretty sure I can do this. One of my primary reasons for embarking on this adventure is my frustration with my previous research! After losing my digital copies of all the records I have (thank goodness for hard copies!), I thought this was an excellent time to start over. This do-over is quite timely for me. My folders and binders aren’t exactly inaccessible, but I don’t feel any particular draw to them at present.

2) Preparing to Research

As I think is true of many of us, my research habits have been sort of…seat of the pants. I research when I have time, when I have energy, when I have an inkling, or when someone asks me a question I cannot answer. This, sadly, does not work. It makes my research lack the uniformity I desire. One of my biggest problems is that I’m not organized about my research.

In other crafts/hobbies/pastimes/obsessions, I tend to gather the materials at the beginning of a project and keep them together until I’m finished. I confess, I have not been so diligent about this with genealogy research. My goal here is to gather the items I know I will need, and keep them together in a tote bag so I know exactly where they are at all times (and so I don’t have to hunt for them every time I want to work on research). Thomas encourages us to “make a list of items that you must have available when you are researching.” These are the items I will keep in my tote bag!

  • A new genealogy research notebook (because who doesn’t need a new notebook?);
  • My genealogy flash drive;
  • A folder with blank forms (pedigree, individual & family group record, research log, correspondence log, and source log);
  • A folder for forms-in-process;
  • My trusty BIC (because no other pen will do);
  • A copy of my research goals, as listed below.

3) Establishing Base Practices and Guidelines

Here, we are challenged to list five most important tenets by which we will research. This is difficult, because researching often becomes so exciting or frustrating that we forego all form. Perhaps all the more reason to commit to a process! Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • Begin an end with a “to do” list;
  • Cite and log all sources;
  • “Track all work, even dead ends, negative evidence and non-productive searches;” (thank you, Thomas!–what a great reminder!)
  • Stick to a twice-weekly schedule: Tuesdays for research, Fridays for processing and preparing;
  • Name and date all work.

There it is! There’s my Week 1 of the Genealogy Do-Over. I’m super excited about next week! Can I hold out until then? Sure…I suppose I can spend some time preparing my bag and locking away my old records… :)

Good luck! And let me know if you’re in!

Pax Christi,


The Joy & Fury of Genealogy Gifts

Family Historians live for those five precious words: I have something for you.

Let’s all just take a moment to remember that the amount of “stuff” I have (and believe me, I’m trying to eliminate a lot of it) in no way diminishes my deep longing (and yes, need) for mementos of familial significance. I may have no idea where I’ll put it or how I’ll document it or how to share it. Yet, I absolutely need it. Make no mistake.

Sometimes you expect it. Sometimes you almost plan it. You know that if you ask enough questions about a person or a situation, you’ll be offered a photograph or a letter or some striking piece of history that ties him into the fabric of your story.

And then, sometimes, it catches you totally off your guard. You are driving someone home after a Thanksgiving visit, and someone you haven’t seen in months greets you at the door with a brown envelope and says, “I have something for you.” Your heart races. Your pupils dilate. You feel the blood rush to your face. You couldn’t be more enthralled if it had four wheels, a hood ornament, and a bright red Christmas bow. This is the moment for which you didn’t even realize you were longing. For a moment, you even forget that your name is misspelled on the envelope. It doesn’t seem to matter at that moment.

What’s inside? Is it a letter? A death certificate? An ancestor’s attempt at a pedigree? Naturalization papers? Civil War records? Photographs? A lock of hair?

What’s inside?

What’s inside?

What’s inside?

And then you remember: It doesn’t matter.

The contents of a small brown envelope or the contents of a trunk that’s been rotting in the attic. It doesn’t matter what’s inside. What matters is this: It’s been entrusted to your care. Someone, with some appreciation of the family history, feels that the best place for this treasure is in your keeping.

That’s a humbling realization.

I’ve had two moments like this in the past year. Both situations left me silent, soaking up the incredible information that was being gifted to me. Both situations left me stunned, overjoyed, silenced. The first came about at the Schmitzer Family Reunion in August. A woman I’d never met (who, ironically, had emailed me prior to the Reunion but I didn’t read the email until afterwards) handed me a brown paper bag full of Reunion logs, letters, and other information that I will be sifting through for a long time yet. I can’t wait to share it with my family.

But yesterday, when my dad handed me this small brown envelope of papers, I could hardly stand the 6 hour drive home so I could rip it open and sort through it!

I confess that I was frustrated at first. Several of the pages have apparent coffee stains, which is certainly not worth complaining. Except the two pages of handwritten notes (my secret genealogy obsession) where the coffee stains are more like blobs, making much of the document illegible. I need someone who can pull an Abbie Sciuto on the pages and separate the coffee from the ink, or something. I was also frustrated, initially, because the pages didn’t seem to make sense in context of one another. It seemed like random information, but I’ve been doing family history long enough that I should’ve known not to jump to conclusions! The pages actually belong together.

The first two pages document the marriage and children of Joseph and Jane Moore, my Scottish (according to this person’s research; Irish, according to some others) 3xG grandparents. The pages that follow document the descendants of his children, my 2xG grandfather, Thomas, and his brothers.

The Edward clan (on of my 2xG grandfather’s brothers) has been problematic for me for some time now. I’ve connected online with one or two of his descendants, but I have better questions than I have answers. Ironically, it is the text on his family that has the Coffee Blobbing.
Coffee Blob
The experience is further complicated by the lack of authorship. It is an excellent reminder to myself (and any genealogist, regardless of experience level) to byline and date my work. As it stands, most of the information corroborates what I already know, so it’s not problematic; the information regarding Edward, however, is obviously a photocopy of a handwritten account without apparent author at present.

What is a Family Historian to do?

Simple, folks.

She rolls up her sleeves, makes a fresh pot of coffee, and begins transcribing the documents before her while she waits for her father to call and answer some of her questions about where the information came from and whether it can be replicated or attributed to anyone.

Is there a better way to spend a Friday evening? Nah. There isn’t. There really isn’t. The truth is–frustration or not, we get sucked into genealogy because we love the puzzle. And we love new pieces, even if it’s a sky blue piece and you’ve already filled in the sky.


Collaborative Genealogy

The question at GeneaBloggers today is this:

Do you collaborate with others in terms of your own family history research, and if so, what methods do you use?

I’m a great fan of collaboration where genealogy is concerned. Asking questions, telling stories, sharing photos and memories–that, after all, is what genealogy is about. I am so blessed to have several family members who’ve helped me and talked with me when others (I’m sure!) grew weary of my ponderings.

So far, I’ve been mostly on the receiving end of the field. I haven’t had any information, documents, photos, etc, that others in the family didn’t already have (or have access to).  My hope, however, is to compile some of my work into book form for my siblings and their families. That’s what it’s all about, anyway–preserving information, not hoarding it.

Family history isn’t worth much if we can’t share it.

Blue’s Clues

I wish that searching for family history was like an episode of Blue’s Clues. Every clue would have a blue paw print, screaming, “A clue!” It doesn’t really work that way. There’s no song and dance, no paw prints. I’m finding that more often than not, I don’t even recognize clues as they come at me. It is more often that I look at something and wonder what it means, then forget about it for some time.

Maybe it’s best to let ideas turn over in our minds for awhile before we try to make sense of them.

Still–it would be nice if, once in awhile, clues came with a song. :)


When You’re Not Looking

In the search for our roots, our ancestors and the stories of their lives, it’s easy to think we know what we’re looking for. We have a name and a birth date, after all. I’m learning, however, that sometimes the most valuable pieces of an ancestors’ life are unearthed in day-to-day conversation–not in family history interviews.

For example, I’ve been asking my mother about her dad (who died several years before my birth). She has told me some wonderful things about his life, his ministry, his talents. But during our time away for Steven’s wedding, my brother, mother, and I were discussing strange foods and types of foods we didn’t particularly like. And out of this random, entertain-the-long-moments-of-our-drive time together, mom remembered that her father always wanted Oyster Soup on Christmas Eve.

It was tradition, she said–though why, or how it came to be, she hadn’t a clue. Every Christmas Eve, Grandpa S. would direct the children’s program at the church, and then the family would come home for Oyster Soup and Christmas cookies. He was the only one who ate the Oyster Soup.

It is not a story I was looking for. It does, however, add some color to my Grandfather’s life.

But as the family history search goes, one piece of incredible information, one enlightening story, one tiny tidbit that surfaces when we least expect it–not only excites and illuminates the search, but also births a dozen infant questions.

Perhaps they, too, will be answered…when I’m not looking.


It is who we are.

It is more than lines and genes, more than long-aged traditions and fading photographs, more than mothers, fathers, siblings, and more than a name. It is so much more.

It is amazing to me how families grow. We marry, we have children, our siblings marry, we adopt, we reunite with an adopted member and her adoptive family. We grow, grow, grow. They say that blood is thicker than water, but how can that be, when we choose our own spouses? When we choose to bind ourselves to another family line?

It is made clear to me again that love is not simply an emotion. It is not merely that affability, that ease of being comfortable around people we know. It is a choice. We choose who we will love–whether we are related biologically or not.

It must be that the greatest love is freely chosen, freely given, and freely received.

And so we gathered–two families, coming together through the bond of marriage–and we simply knew. There was no question we would become family. There was no question we would love. We just did. And somehow, God–in His infinite wisdom–brought together personalities, interests, skills, and histories that were so diverse, yet they shone awkward beauty, like a young orchestra playing together for the first time.

It is the miracle of another person, without intent or effort, bringing out pieces of our own character and being that we maybe had forgotten–or had never known. It is that subtle dissonance–the tension (and resolution) of harmony whereby each instrument’s strength is exalted, and its weakness is supported by another’s strength. It is by others that we come to know ourselves; and it is by us that others come to know themselves.

It is who we are, and who we are becoming.


Book Review: Finding Your Roots

One of the blessings of my journal-making habit is that it forces me into St. Vincent de Paul’s to look for books I can recycle. I am often amazed at the books others throw away, and how such treasures can resell for the lesser half of a quarter.

I picked up Jeane Eddy Westin’s Finding Your Roots on one such adventure. With a 1977 copyright, I honestly did not expect much from this book. I thought the Internet Age had rendered many of the old paths obsolete. What used to require physical digging through piles of paper now needed only a few clicks on some genealogy site. Right? When I found this book, however, I was struggling in particular with the stubborn green root of my Irish family.

I can’t say that I was entirely mistaken about the book being obsolete. Truth be told, the book is full of resources that I’ll never have occasion to use (however, a quick check on the internet would verify whether a particular resource was still current). But it is full of resources, tips, examples and incredible information that I will–and do–use. Each chapter deals with some general topic of ancestry, and is then broken down into nationality, with specific examples of how that topic looks in that culture.

In chapter two, for instance, Westin writes about the importance and heritage of names and the vast clues to be found in a given name or surname. Then in a list of nationalities, under “Scottish,” she writes of an old tradition of the men taking their wives’ surnames when they marry.  If your roots are Scottish, don’t you think this might be an important thing to know?

I was pleasantly surprised with this dusty handbook. What began as a long-shot crack at finding an Irish clue quickly became a fascination not only with my family roots but with genealogy itself. I would encourage anyone interested in her family tree to get her hands on this gem. I am thrilled to add this to my personal library.

I do, however, feel bad that I paid only $0.12 for it. It’s worth at least the $3.50 printed on the cover.