When people first become interested in family history it is easy, especially in this day and age, to do a few online searches, start building a family tree and develop the confidence that they are an expert. When they hit their first brick wall, they often go looking for assistance in the way of tutorials or articles. Some will even attend a genealogy conference or buy a book or two. This is all a very natural progression of the learning curve with most new hobbies or skills.
Ancestry.com employees are genealogists – some of us by profession, the rest by avocation. Some of us have been doing this for decades. And, a few of us do genealogy research every single day. The more time we spend doing this the more we come to understand – we don’t know what we don’t know.
Last week six Ancestry.com employees and several of our colleagues from ProGenealogists attended the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. This week-long program is different from a traditional genealogy conference. Participants select one course of study and, together with 30 or 40 other students, spend all week long with the same two or three instructors learning about a very specialized topic. There are often homework assignments that allow us to spend the evening applying what we have spent the day learning. We begin the next day reviewing our results before diving into another full day of learning.
Michelle Ercanbrack, a member of our Corporate PR Research team attended Producing a Quality Family Narrative. The course coordinator, principal instructor and master storyteller, John Philip Coletta, used a passenger list and a picture of a pocket watch to weave a story about one of his ancestors. Michelle learned more about the importance of studying the social history of the times and places our ancestors lived. We can then use that information, in concert with the information we have gleaned from the records we’ve uncovered, to better tell the stories of our ancestors’ lives.
Juliana Szucs Smith, genealogist and researcher for our Social Media team, took Karen Mauer Green’s course, Researching New York: Resources and Strategies. Juliana was reminded of the importance of knowing the history of the places where your ancestor lived. An important thing to remember about early New York City was the fact that Dutch was the dominant culture. It influenced the way records were kept—and sometimes how names were spelled. Juliana was prompted to relook at some of the records for her Irish ancestors who came to New York and she found an Irish immigrant in the 1850 census who could be her ancestor William Dennis. He was enumerated with the Dutch spelling of Denyse, but lists his birthplace as Ireland. Other insights she gained was a better understanding of the New York court system, and a much better appreciation of the intricacies of land and other records in both upstate New York and New York City.
Sabrina Peterson (Digital Imaging Director), Anne Mitchell (Ancestry Library Edition Product Manager, aka Ancestry Anne) and Lisa Elzey (Corporate PR Research team) all attended Mark Lowe’s class, Research in the South. When I asked Lisa what she learned, she told me, “Farmers aren’t boring!” The terrain of the land they lived on can help you determine where they may have come from. So, get those maps out! Lisa also learned about family members who “make noise.” We all have them – those relatives who leave more records because they get in more trouble or do more good. Follow them and they will often lead you to the rest of the family.
I took Advanced Genealogical Methods with Dr. Thomas Jones. He used examples to show us how people don’t appear in records together at random. We need to determine how everyone named in that marriage record, deed, will or land transaction are related, because they usually are. I also learned to track every piece of land my ancestors ever owned. Who did it come from and where did it go? “Blood often follows land.” I was reminded that I need to use spreadsheets more often to compare and correlate the information I find BEFORE I put it into my family tree.
Several of the 350+ attendees at this event tweeted little gems throughout the week. Be sure to check them out for more tidbits of genealogical knowledge. And, if you are interested in attending the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG), check out the complete course offerings to see the excellent topics and instructors they have lined up for 2015.
Until next time – Have fun climbing your family tree!