It’s Good to Be a Gatherer, by Juliana Smith

I’ve determined I have deep-seated hunter-gatherer genetic roots. This isn’t something I found out through DNA testing. It’s more common sense. It must be why I have compulsion to save everything. But this year as I tackle my spring cleaning I’m going to break with my gatherer ways and get rid of some of the clutter. Technology magazines more than a year old are going in the recycle bin since they’re obsolete by now anyway. The manuals for software I no longer use are history as well. I’m even going through my bookshelves and thinning out the books that I really don’t need–although this can be a painful process for a bibliophile like me! I’ll take comfort in the fact that they’ll be donated to my library or to charity and it will clear space for the ones I use regularly (and make space for new ones).

Despite my new resolve, when it comes to my family history research, I am determined cling to those old gatherer ways. I don’t mean that “she with the most people in her GEDCOM wins.” I’m not one to grab a branch off someone’s tree and graft it on to mine. I want to make sure they’re really my relatives. If I’m only looking at a name, date, and location, they could be imposters trying to weasel their way in.

I like to get to know people before they get added to my tree. For me, adding names and dates only is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle upside down, with the brown cardboard side up. It lacks interest. As I gather the pieces of my family history, I want to see the picture that is forming. So in this manner, I will remain a gatherer and in many ways this is a good thing.

Getting to Know Strangers
I like to think of myself as an equal-opportunity family historian. I not only research my own family lines, I often find myself gathering the records of strangers. This is particularly true of lines where I’m working with common surnames and families with incredibly unimaginative given names.

Three generations of James Kelly–Hello! Not that James isn’t a fine name but you couldn’t sneak in a Seamus or something to shake things up a bit? Then they plop themselves smack-dab in the most populous city in the U.S.–a city that would soon be full of other James Kellys who were fleeing Ireland during the potato famine. This has the makings of a genealogist’s nightmare.

To separate mine from the rest, I had to get to know a lot of James Kellys. There was James the Alderman, James the baker, James the distiller/liquor dealer, James the grate manufacturer, etc. I spent several trips to the Family History Library pulling James Kellys in Manhattan city directories, year after year, tracking them by occupation and by address and eventually compiled a spreadsheet of them with more than 250 listings for James Kellys. With the spreadsheet I was able to sort by addresses and/or occupation and I was able to follow up with census records on Ancestry at home. When I could match a directory entry to a census entry, I was able to see the whole family and add spouses and children to their profile. Sorting through this was enabled me to see patterns and it helped greatly with picking my James Kellys from the rest of the pack.

Gather Other Family Members
Since I’m gathering the records of total strangers, it’s logical that I would gather records for all of my family members, going beyond my direct line to extended family. I go after every record I can get my hands on. Since some of my direct-line ancestors were rather stingy when it came to leaving records, the only way I was able to get past brick walls was by researching their siblings.

Your great-grandmother’s maiden name may not be listed on your ancestor’s death record, but it may be found on that of a sibling. Or maybe your ancestor didn’t make it into the local history, but his brother who was a government official might be listed along with his town or county of origin in the old country.

Gathering Friends and Associates
OK, you’re thinking, “She’s got me researching extended family, and even total strangers who happen to share the same name. What next?” On to the neighbors, friends, sponsors, business partners, and any other associates you can find. Why?

Well, we often think of our brave ancestors setting off alone on a ship to a new world where they knew no one. Certainly this may have been the case, but many of our immigrant ancestors came to the U.S. as part of a chain migration. Family, friends, and neighbors from may have come over with them or prior to their immigration, sending word back that they had found work and a place to live. Because of this, you may find that your ancestor either traveled with friends and neighbors, or sought others from their hometown in the old country and settled near them in the United States.

In a past article, I mentioned how I investigated the sponsors from the baptism records of our Huggins family, and found that there seemed to be some repeat sponsoring among the Huggins family and the families of the sponsors.

In investigating one sponsor with the name Muldarry, I happened to find a woman with that same surname buried in nearby Queens. Her cemetery inscription gave her place of origin as “Empor, County Westmeath, Ireland”–the very same parish my ancestors emigrated from in Ireland. In addition, searching Griffith’s Valuation of Ireland, 1848-64, I found that twelve of the fifteen Mulderry/Muldarry families listed are from County Westmeath.

Gathering More Evidence
So you’ve already found the birth date for your great-grandfather on his death certificate. Why pay for a birth certificate too? With every record, the possibility for error exists. And the further removed that event the record was created, the greater the chance for error. Secondly, you may find information on the birth record that isn’t available on the death certificate. Similarly, you would never want to stop after finding information in an index. Unless that was the only surviving portion of the record, you would definitely want to check the original for accuracy and more information. With every piece of evidence you collect, your family tree grows stronger.

Gather It All Together
For many of us, time spent working on our family history is limited by the obligations of everyday life. If you are like me, when you find a few minutes of free time, you gather as much new information as fast as you can. Too rarely do we make time to step back and study what we’ve gathered. Those wonderful “a-ha” moments are a lot more likely to come along when can put everything into context and see the big picture–right side up!

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Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than nine 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.

8 thoughts on “It’s Good to Be a Gatherer, by Juliana Smith

  1. Juliana, I just had to put pen to paper, your article was just like reading MY thoughts and all MY doings and storing all things apertaing to MY family, it was spooky, my family think I am a mad saving everthing UK OAP, saving my years organisers so THEY can read (and enjoy I hope) what I did in the years in the 20th & 21st Centurys. I had goose pimples when reading your article. All the very best. Rachel.070408.

  2. Think of it this way, Juliana. We like a challenge!

    People chortle when I tell them I’m researching Smiths. That’s why I had to laugh at your researching James Kellys in NY.

    My next challenge is taking my Smith lines back to their earliest source so far, as Schmidts in Pennsylvania in the 1700s. Needle in a haystack, anyone? If anyone can do it, we can! But no one gets into my tree until I know they’re related. I add bits and pieces, but never import full trees. You can never tell where those folks have been!

  3. Yep. I totally understand. My FTM files include genealogies of people who are not my ancestors, but whose names popped up in my research, requiring that they be sorted out from the “true” ancestors. I love the stories that emerge and, as you mention, the facts that you can glean from these unrelated histories. (Recently I “found” a minor artist whose official biography says that nothing is known about his early life.) My mother was an avid, meticulous researcher, and she’s the one that told me to always look at neighbors, witnesses, etc., for clues to migration information and possible marriage connections. That has turned out to be excellent advice.

  4. I often read other peoples stories, but I must say that this was one of the best, I quite understand the problems with family research, one of my Ancestors is named Jones, and I am still looking for her after three years. But I am persistent if nothing else, keeps me active in my retirement years.

    Like a good many Family History Researchers I keep everything I find, you never know when it might be one of yours somewhere down the line. My ‘Strays’ folder is almost full now, shall have to invest in folder number two.

    Lovely and very informative article. Keep them coming.

    With best wishes.


  5. Reading everything is such good advice. I inherited family geneology from my father who did his research in the 1980’s. He worked hard at the library and without the online access we have now. He was unable to take the Henry’s past 3 generations and I have been looking for a year. In the wrong places, as ity turned out. I decided to relook at everything he had entered, to verify that it was entered correctly. Well, there it was! The most recent Census showed Elizabth’s place of birth as Ohio, but the first one showed it as Pennsylvania. Bingo! As soon as I entered that I found her, her parents and was able to trace 2 additional generations.
    I love a good mystery!
    Keep reading.

  6. This is the first time I heard the term chain migration but it certainly fits for the countless ancestors/relatives/friends who ventured off from one location to another to find a better life. Sending word back to others both family and friend was the way we spread out across the United States. Opening our homes up to one another as an initial starting point has been the beginning for many a success story in a new state. I recently did an article in my family newsletter of such a transistion point in Detroit called Division Street.Many can trace their early Northern beginnings to the same two square blocks!

  7. I, too, am a hunter & gatherer. I just saw a play with that title. And I’m trying to thin out the stacks of papers and books, but I keep much more than I disperse. One of the best finds for me were two letters by my grandfather had printed in the NY Times…in 1902 and 1904. One was way ahead of its time, decrying that a black woman received a heavier sentence than a white woman who had committed a worse offense. He described the black woman being booed by a crowd as she entered the courthouse. The other described a Jewish funeral procession in Brooklyn on which factory workers rained down pieces of iron on the heads of the marchers. The marchers threw them back through the windows and were arrested. My grandfather, both a lawyer and a man with a wry sense of humor, wrote that it was a Jewish tradition to celebrate weddings by breaking a glass. I never knew him. But I felt we were very much related.

    The second event was early in my search. On e-mail I discovered my father’s Knopfelmacher family and last year I recieved over100 pages of their history, going back to the 16th century from some amazing unmet relatives. And now my husband, my son and I are at the far end of that history.

  8. I know what you mean. I’m researching the Hunsaker branch of my family tree. I’ve found all of the “wrong” members, and am still having trouble trying to prove what happen to the “right” members. No one seems to know what happened to them (I’ve even tried searching the “forum” for hints and have asked for help from the many contributers there–to no avail.) I’m missing 1 generation and where that individual lived. I can only guess as I try to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

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