Iâ€™ve determined I have deep-seated hunter-gatherer genetic roots. This isnâ€™t something I found out through DNA testing. Itâ€™s more common sense. It must be why I have compulsion to save everything. But this year as I tackle my spring cleaning Iâ€™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 theyâ€™re obsolete by now anyway. The manuals for software I no longer use are history as well. Iâ€™m even going through my bookshelves and thinning out the books that I really donâ€™t need–although this can be a painful process for a bibliophile like me! Iâ€™ll take comfort in the fact that theyâ€™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 donâ€™t mean that â€œshe with the most people in her GEDCOM wins.â€ Iâ€™m not one to grab a branch off someoneâ€™s tree and graft it on to mine. I want to make sure theyâ€™re really my relatives. If Iâ€™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 Iâ€™m working with common surnames and families with incredibly unimaginative given names.
Three generations of James Kelly–Hello! Not that James isnâ€™t a fine name but you couldnâ€™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 genealogistâ€™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 Iâ€™m gathering the records of total strangers, itâ€™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-grandmotherâ€™s maiden name may not be listed on your ancestorâ€™s death record, but it may be found on that of a sibling. Or maybe your ancestor didnâ€™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, youâ€™re thinking, â€œSheâ€™s got me researching extended family, and even total strangers who happen to share the same name. What next?â€ 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 â€œEmpor, County Westmeath, Irelandâ€–the very same parish my ancestors emigrated from in Ireland. In addition, searching Griffithâ€™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 youâ€™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 isnâ€™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 weâ€™ve gathered. Those wonderful â€œa-haâ€ moments are a lot more likely to come along when can put everything into context and see the big picture–right side up!
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 Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.