A Garden Philosophy for Family History, by Juliana Smith

Juliana's garden--purple irisWorking in my yard is one of my favorite things to do–next to chasing ancestors of course. This past Saturday was beautiful and I got the opportunity to go out and do some weeding and planting and just generally have fun in the yard. As I worked relocating plants, filling planters and weeding, my mind wandered and I found myself drawing parallels between my two favorite pastimes. Today I thought I’d share a few that I came up with while I was out playing in the dirt.

Get to Know Your Location
It took me a while after moving into this house to figure out what plants work best, and where. I had to study the amount of sunlight each area of the yard gets, and when I buy new plants to go in a particular section, I check the tags to make sure they’ll do well in the space where I’m planting them.

Just as we have to get familiar with our garden features, we need to be familiar with our ancestors’ surroundings. We need to know what churches, cemeteries, and municipal offices were in the vicinity. What repositories are currently holding the records created in that area for the time span we are researching? What events might have impacted them during the time in which they lived there?

Create a locality file that you can use for reference. Include the holdings of local repositories, vital record availability, maps, church and cemetery information (including dates of establishment), a history folder with interesting historical tidbits, and possibly a timeline of the area in question. Not only will putting this file together better acquaint you with the history that impacted your ancestors, but you’ll find that it’s a reference tool that you’ll be able to use time and time again.

Be Careful What You Put In
I think carefully about landscaping. The people before us had a great fondness for pea gravel and put it in every garden. Their garden had a few plants and a couple evergreens that weren’t doing so well. I had to wonder if the pea gravel was affecting the soil pH and hurting the evergreens. It took me two seasons of back-breaking work to remove the pea gravel from all the gardens (along with the landscape cloth beneath it that made planting a bigger pain than pulling weeds). I replaced it with a layer of organic mulch that still does a decent job of repelling weeds, and that breaks down, gradually feeding the soil. The evergreens are thriving now and I’m free to plant what I want, where I want. Because of that experience when I’m planning to make a change, I now ask myself, “If this doesn’t work out, how hard will it be to remove?”

We need to ask ourselves that with our family history too. While it can be easy to graft entire branches onto our family tree with the click of the mouse from online tree collections, how hard will it be to remove that branch if you find out that the link or part of the branch is based on faulty information? For that reason, if you are going to use information from online tree collections, it’s best to take it one person at a time. Verify the sources provided (and if there are no sources warning bells should be going off in your head). Once you’ve established that the individual is indeed related, add them to your file. While online trees are great for providing clues, the time saved by adding unverified information will pale in comparison to the time you’ll have to spend trying to weed them out should you find out the information is bad.

Maintain a Routine
Just as I know I have to water and weed regularly to maintain my garden, I also need to schedule time to keep up with my family history. When I come home from my morning walks, I water all my potted plants. When my husband is watching his favorite TV show that is a bit too much for me (I’m a big wimp!), I escape to my office to catch up on reading my favorite family history blogs, do some filing, or search a new database. Thursday night, when my husband and daughter head off to their scheduled activities, is another time that I set aside for family history. Maintaining that routine keeps me engaged in my research, and I don’t have those long dry spells that are so hard to break.

“Companion” Records
I’ve started doing some “companion planting” in the garden. For example, I plant marigolds around my tomato plants because I read that they will keep some pests at bay. As a bonus it dresses up the veggie garden and makes it look nice. (For those of you who are interested, there is more information on companion planting at CompanionPlanting.net).

We should employ similar practices with our family tree. Using a wide variety of records, not only adds interest, but also creates a healthier tree. Look especially at the sources of information. Was the informant for a death certificate the same cousin who gave the newspaper information for the obituary? Was it perhaps the same cousin who thought great-grandma was born in Ohio where she was raised, although in truth she was born across the river in West Virginia? If so, despite the consistency of multiple records, you may be searching for her birth certificate in the wrong state. Go for as many different records and sources as you can, and you’ll find that like companion plants, they nurture and protect your family tree from erroneous information.

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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 Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

4 thoughts on “A Garden Philosophy for Family History, by Juliana Smith

  1. That suuuure is a glorious iris, Juliana ! I hope all your family research may be as fruitful. Enjoy your columns very much….

  2. I truly enjoyed this article and it is a keeper and sharer with others.
    Thank you

  3. Companion records…YESSSSSS! Vary your searches…branch out into areas you might not normally look!

    Just this past weekend, I finally found the obituary of a woman I’ve been searching for since I began my Smith book project.

    Two Baldwin sisters married my Smith brothers. Then, two first cousins of theirs married two other Smith siblings!

    Nellie was living in Green County, Wisconsin when her Civil War vet husband died. I had always wanted to figure out what happened to her, but never could. No cemetery record for her in the cemetery where she was probably buried, the state did not have a record for her death, and neither did the county!

    I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before. I finally got smart and looked up the obituary for ANOTHER sister of hers (not a relation, and not anyone I’d previously needed to search for). Sure enough, there was HER NEW MARRIED NAME. From there, it wasn’t hard to proceed. I found her 2nd husband in the cemetery listing, checked his obituary, and sure enough, it told me when she died (in addition to the area of Connecticut to search for her birth, which differed from that of her brothers and sisters). 🙂

  4. When we moved into “the home place” in 1993, everything was dead or overgrown. So we started from scratch on a triple lot! What started as a joke, ended up being my favorite spot. Where a couple old fruit trees were dug out, the ground was sunken in a large oval (8’X16′). It wasn’t in a “showy” spot in the yard, so it wasn’t a priority. I put some old native bricks around it as a border and dumped some new dirt in. Friends and family were so glad to see us restoring “Gustie’s” gardens, they kept dropping off plants. Temporarily, I’d stick in that oval. Plus my extras and transplants trying to save. It became the “orphan Bed”. After about 5 years it was full and gorgeous, but no “ORDER”. Every yard needs one!

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