Thoughts from a Night Searching, by Juliana Smith

Brooklyn Bridge (from Library of Congress Photo Collection at Ancestry.comYesterday I spent the day in search of a topic for my column, and as I often do, I turned to my family for inspiration. I plucked my Dooner notebook from the cabinet and began reviewing my past research. In that folder was an article from a couple years ago, titled Random Thoughts from a Family History Journey that focused on the very family I was intent on researching. I thought I’d do a follow up this week with some thoughts from yesterday’s search.

#1 — Write Your Own Articles
One of the perks of having this job is that sometimes my columns are helpful when it comes to reviewing what I’ve researched. They outline where I’ve searched, conclusions I’ve drawn, and things I’ve already tried that didn’t quite pan out. Because of this, when I write a case study using my own family, I typically file a copy in the binder with that family’s research.

Another benefit is that as I write, I get ideas for new avenues to pursue, and sometimes find holes in my research. When you have to explain the process you’ve gone through and the conclusions you’ve reached to someone unfamiliar with your family story, you have to be thorough. That’s where that light bulb often goes on.

Even if you don’t want to share your article with an audience, write a summary of a day’s (or night’s) research, and file it with your research. Re-read it next time you pull out that file. When you have to set a family aside for a while to focus on other lines, or for those times when life interrupts research, you’ll be glad you took the time to write that summary.

#2 — Be a Name Collector
I am an avid name collector. By that I mean that I print off records of everyone with the same or similar name of my ancestors–which adds greatly to my organizational woes. However, as with yesterday’s trek through the late 1800s with my Dooner family in Brooklyn, New York, it can pay off.

Scattered about on notes here and there, the pieces seem disparate and don’t seem to come together, but with closer examination I found a lot of similarities to be explored further. With the resources that are readily available online at and other websites, it’s much easier to follow up on families that you’re not sure of in order to prove or disprove relationships.

To help manage all these “extras,” I have separate sections in the back of each family binder (or in some cases an entire binder) where I file the extras or “maybes” as I like to call them. They’re filed by given name and then chronologically. There is also a section for things like directory listings and indexes that I can reference easily and these are arranged chronologically.

#3 — Look for “Coincidences”
As I worked last night, I pulled references to two other Dooner families. One was a Patrick Dooner who lived on the same street as my Dooner family. (I discussed him in the previous article. The other was a James Dooner, for whom I have an 1870 census enumeration. What drew me to this entry were the names of his children: Hugh, James, John, and Ann. My third great-grandfather, John Dooner and his wife named their children Margaret, Hugh, John, and James. The boys’ names being identical was quite the “coincidence.”

I pursued James Dooner and his family through the years in the census. The James Dooners were a bit of a challenge to find in some years, but I was eventually able to trace the family through 1900.

One of the more interesting coincidences I ran across, is that the Hugh from my family line and the James Dooner from the other line both died in the Brooklyn Theater fire in 1876. It was Hugh’s thirtieth birthday and I can’t help but wonder whether, if they were cousins as it appears they might be, they perhaps went to the theater together that fateful night.

#4 — Check Sponsors, Witnesses, and Other Associates
Research the background of sponsors, witnesses, neighbors, and other associates of your ancestors. As I looked around at past research collected on some of my ancestors, I found an entry in “St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, Baptism and Marriage Registers, 1839-1857” for a James Kenny, baptized, 17 June 1849, parents Thomas Kenny and Ann Dooner.

Since my second great-grandmother, Margaret Dooner (John’s daughter) had an Annie Kenny as a witness to her wedding, this Kenny-Dooner family has just been added to my research to-do list as well.

Another entry in that book, links the James Dooner family I mentioned above with a Patk Dooner who is listed as a sponsor for Hugh–perhaps the Patrick Dooner who lived a few doors down from my family?

#5 — What to Do with All the Clues?
With all these Dooner families and a growing collection of census and other records I had found on Ancestry, it was getting a little confusing. To sort out the records, I created trees at Ancestry. Since they’re not directly tied with my family lines, I put an “xx” before the tree title to differentiate them from my direct lines. This allows me to see the family structure more clearly and attach the records I had found at Ancestry, transcriptions of records found in my own files, and information from other websites.

If I can prove that they are indeed related to my family, I can then export the online tree for that family into a GEDCOM. (The export function is available through the Tools section in the lower right corner of the page. Select “Manage my tree.”) I can then import it into my larger family history file in Family Tree Maker, using the Append/Merge tool found in the File menu.

An additional benefit, is that by making that file public, I have a chance of connecting with someone related to that family that could help me to prove or disprove the relationship with my family.

#6 — Plot Families on a Map
As I mentioned earlier, one of the other Dooners lived down the block from my family. Obituaries for various family members in other Dooner/Doner households also gave me addresses, and it appears that these families didn’t move very far over the years. As I plotted the family addresses on an 1863 map of Brooklyn, it’s interesting to see that they lived within a mile of one another for much of the late 1800s. Since families tended to stay close in those days, this is another happy “coincidence.”

#7 — Try to Stay on Task
It can be confusing when you’re working with a lot of people who share both the same given and last names. And with new clues and similarities constantly popping up, it was hard for me to stay focused as I searched. Too often I found myself tempted to stray from the path and run off to follow up another lead. This would have left me with a lot of loose ends to tie up later — many of which this forgetful brain may have forgotten. To keep myself on task, I kept a notepad handy where I jotted down follow-up ideas that struck in the midst of searching (like the Kenny-Dooner connection, for example). That way I could focus on what I was doing and not veer off leaving unfinished business.

Well, I hope some of these thoughts help you with your research. In the meantime, I still have a couple hours left before bedtime, and a hefty to-do list with follow-ups.

St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, Baptism and Marriage Registers, 1839-1857 (compiled by James R. Reilly, C.G.R.S., Redmond Press, Salt Lake City)

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Juliana Smith has been the editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than eight years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and wrote the “Computers and Technology” chapter in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts from a Night Searching, by Juliana Smith

  1. Oh yes, some great ideas. Especially # 1 what I call writing a report and #5 making a family tree on Ancestry to help sort out the clues, making a visual display. Once again thank you.

  2. Recently when I rejoined a local Genealogical Society, I was asked to submit a “report” on a trip I had made to do research in Ohio … and it was published in their monthly newsletter. Another of your suggestions, #6, to make a location map, is an excellent one. Since trying that, I’ve enhanced mine with signal dots (colored according to family line; some lines intersect) and provide an ID number for each dot that coincides with my list of family individuals. You had so many good ideas, I hardly know where to start.

  3. This article was very interesting and I found a lot of parallels to my own Irish families that were clustered in the west side of Manahattan during the same time frames. I will definitely use the tips that Juliana provided!

  4. I agree about watching the names. I was searching for a missing daughter in a family, with absolutely no clue to her given name or married name. I only knew for sure she existed from letters. I spotted a nearby family with most of the same given names of her siblings and parents. I kept a group sheet on this family in the front of my book saying IS SHE ISAAC’S DAUGHTER??? as a reminder to keep searching and after four years I found their marriage in a state the family had come from. Her children led me to her. Never be afraid to branch out and search for something new – serendipty can happen.

  5. RE Watching the names. Be aware that in the census people may be listed one year by their first name and another by their meddle name. In one of my families the children were first listed by first name & middle initial and in the next by first initial & middle name.

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