Treasures in Your Own Files, by Juliana Smith

Treasure.bmpAs I gazed out at my yard a few weeks ago, the tasks at hand seemed insurmountable. Through windows in need of spring cleaning, I saw gardens that needed to be cleared, prepared for planting, and mulched. The lawn was a mess and the mower needed a spring tune-up. The garage? Well, let’s not go there!

“But I have no time,” I rationalized. Finally, my conscience got the best of me. Instead of looking at the big picture, I looked at the front garden and decided that was where I would start. I dragged my poor recovering husband on a jaunt through the local home improvement store as I gathered bags and bags of manure and mulch. He wasn’t too thrilled, but that simple act had me inspired. From that step, I went on to clear, not only the front, but much of the back and am proud to be able to display some of my gardens in the photos you see in the blog each week.

Too often I feel the same way with my family history. After being away from it for a quite a while recently, it too seemed insurmountable. Although I’m still struggling a bit with the new schedule and tasks, today I made time for it. Like my efforts in the garden, the momentum is carrying me through more than I thought I could accomplish in one day. Here’s how I got the ball rolling.

The first thing I did was settle on a small section to get started. I pulled one binder from the shelf and took it out of my office. I wanted to be away from the computer. Too often I will see one little piece of information and that’s it, I’m off on a wild goose chase. This time I wanted to take some time and really review what I had, so I settled in my “comfy chair” and spread the binder out on the oversized footstool. I read through many pages that had been in that binder for years and found many details that I had forgotten. I keep a stash of notepads in my office. (Don’t tell my daughter though, she has inherited my office supply fetish and pilfers from me regularly.) Anyway, I began jotting down notes as I read and what I found was surprising!

With just the notebook review, I had compiled a full page of notes. They weren’t really neat or orderly, and after I bit, I found myself drawing a lot of arrows pointing to previous notes. Things were coming together.

I didn’t stop at the binder, but went on to many of the “miscellaneous” papers I had accumulated for that family. Several more pages of notes ensued, and I began to number the pages with arrows pointing to other page numbers. As I sorted and rearranged, I grabbed another notebook to begin making a to-do list. Resisting temptation to run to the available online databases, I assembled the information and as ideas formed, they were jotted down in the to-do notebook.

In some cases, particularly those where I had found records online and had printouts from the databases, I began making notes directly on the page. For example, I had an obituary for an Agnes Kelly, which listed her as being the youngest daughter of a James Kelly. I am still investigating a James Kelly, a sibling of my 3rd great-grandmother and trying to fill out his family structure and this entry fell into the time frame of interest. It said that the funeral was to “take place from her father’s residence, No. 21 Irving place” with the death date being in April 1865. From there, I found several prints outs of James Kelly listings I had gathered at the Family History Library for 1863—66. I was easily able to pick out the James Kelly with that address and noted that I now need to locate that address on a map and follow up on that James in previous and subsequent censuses. Although I’ve determined that he is not the sibling I am looking for, I consider it progress to be able to sort his family from our immediate family. It’s even possible that he is a cousin that I’ll be able to link later. (Although I won’t stake too much money on it. Apparently at that time it was required by law that all Kelly families have at least one James in them and use only the most common of given names.)
As I reviewed, I found my notes were getting too mixed up, so while my review is still fresh in my mind, I am going over the notes, rewriting them in a more orderly fashion and pulling ideas from them. Lists I’ve started are:

–To-do list (obviously an important one since I am limiting my research to reviewing for the time being).
–Charts of family structure and estimated ages for census years.
–Chronologies with addresses listed to help locate the family in other records. By using addresses found in records for various events, I can track them through the years and narrow down searches.
–Inventories of records found for each person, with any missing records noted going on the to-do list.
Typically, we go along collecting data and building on each piece of new information, but periodically it’s important to go back and do this kind of comprehensive review of what you have accumulated. When you look at the big picture, you’re going to spot a lot more opportunities for further research and you may find that the key you’ve been searching for has been there in your files all along.
P.S. On a related note, if you’re like me and also have some filing to catch up on, check out George’s article that appeared on the 24/7 Family History Circle blog last Tuesday at:


Juliana Smith has been the editor of newsletters for more than seven years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and “Genealogical Computing.” Juliana can be reached by e-mail at:, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

3 thoughts on “Treasures in Your Own Files, by Juliana Smith

  1. “I have no time” paragraph is repeated in the email rendition of this writing. No problem just thought you’d like to know!

  2. Although I risk appearing to have no sense of humor or hyperbole I must ask about the paragraph just before the heading “List Mania”, where you mention the abundance of James Kellys and other most common of given names. I assume this was a bit of humor, right? I once researched the given name of Lafayette in the mid-south (MO.,KS,etc) born about 1868-72 thinking this was quite an unusual first name. There were hundreds and hundreds of them. Apparently it was very fashionable at this time. I noticed also in the last half of the nineteenth century,again in the south, (USA) the habit of calling a male by his middle name rather than his first, such as John Edgar being called Ed. This has been a useful hint to me but I also wonder why and how that social custom began. Any particular clues to this custom?

  3. Juliana-
    Just wanted to drop a note and tell you how much I have enjoyed your column over the years. Your sense of humor of your research situations is always fun to read. I have learned alot from your suggestions and comments in researching! Thanks P.S. This new set-up is taking some getting used to. I always print out the articles from the Daily Newsletter for further reading and as guides to my research. Thanks again.

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