Tips from the Pros: Transcribe It, Write It, or Say It

from Michael John Neill

Obtaining more sources is not necessarily the answer to every brick wall problem. There are times where the sledgehammer to break them down comes in two pieces: one in our head and the other in our files of data we have already obtained. When I’m stuck on a problem, I find it helpful to completely transcribe all the documents I have already obtained, paying close attention to every word and making certain to learn the definition of any words with which I am not familiar.

Writing up my problem as if I were explaining it to a fellow researcher is an excellent way to determine if there are gaps in our own research that we have inadvertently continued to overlook.
If we put our information together so that someone unfamiliar with the family could understand it, we find gaps in our research (either in our sources or in our methods) that are the real root of our brick wall.

Finally, talking about our problem may be just the ticket to getting past those obstacles. At a recent conference I was using my Irish family as an example of how to document a migration chain, tracking the family from Ireland to Canada to Illinois to Kansas over a thirty-year period. As I was giving the lecture it dawned on me that the family member who went to Kansas died without any children and without any nieces or nephews (his siblings all had no children of their own). The census indicates he owned real estate. His estate (which I never bothered to locate) might mention the descendants of his grandparents’ siblings which could potentially break my Irish brick wall. In this case, talking about my problem caused an idea to pop into my head.

When we transcribe documents, write up our problems, or talk about our brick walls, we increase the chance that something “clicks” that was not evident when we silently read our materials.

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6 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Transcribe It, Write It, or Say It

  1. For years, I’ve had my mother with whom to discuss matters. Whenever I found a new bit of information or just in talking about a particular person or event, she often put a new slant on the matter — as well as having more information to add from her personal knowledge. Many times, browsing through antique/collectible shops with her, various items brought forth interesting comments about people, places and events. This past year has been tough without her but I’m now beginning to pick up on our past ways. Talking to her in my mind is bringing back some of her comments and I’m now trying to get those down on paper (rather, in my word processing files). Perhaps I haven’t lost all of her stories yet!

  2. Your article of 12 Nov 2006 is simular to my situation. I was at a dead end of finding my gg grandfather’s children other than my g grandfather. I knew of the existance of some probate files for several years but didn’t follow up on it. About six months ago I made contact with the library where they were stored. The copying was quite expensive but what the heck-it’s only money. I ordered the file and found that my g grandfather’s brother had died minus heirs and this document named his living and deceased siblings plus the children and spouse of the deceased. I found a connection to a friend with the same last name that I had dismissed as I could not connect our families. She has since deceased and so sadly I can not share this with her. My brick wall came tumbling down!!!
    I enjoy your articles and the newsletter in general.
    Norma L. Baxter
    Midwest City, OK

  3. Dear Michael, Is the family you were writing about related to the LOWEY’s? James Robert Lowey was born in Blarney, Cork , Ireland in 1835. He emigrated to Canada in the early 1850′s and wed Mary Elizabeth Stephenson who was born in Scotland or Canada in 1839. They moved to Chicago where their 1st child, Martha Cetella Lowey was born on February 20, 1858. Soon after, they moved to Jacksonville, IL where they had 5 more children. I don’t know how long they lived there, but by 1878 they were living in Humboldt, Allen, Kansas. Martha Cetella wed Lemuel A. Ming, a RR agent who was born in Ohio in 1851. Their 1st child was Leon A. Ming, born in KS in 1878, he wed Viola —- and died in Los Angeles, CA on January 31st, 1945.

  4. You are so right about talking or writing out the info…it allowed me to better understand my research.

    I am currently working on my mother-in-law’s family which has one very convoluted side. I couldn’t quite get things straight in my mind (marriages, divorces, children out of wedlock, parents) and as I was explaining this dilemma to my genealogy buddy (on a trip to Ft. Wayne Indiana’s wonderful library) it all made sense. It didn’t matter she couldn’t really follow it but when I said “wait a minute, I just realized how it works” she commented “you just needed to talk it out.”

    So now when stuck, I take time to talk it out (even to myself) and write/doodle on a large dry erase board.

  5. I hope you respond to these comments. I need help with my brick wall. I’ve written this out so many times and gone over it and sent it to others and so far no one can find the hole in my research you indicated.

    According to his tombstone and the 1880 Breckinridge County, Ky census, my gr grandfather, John J Newman, was born 11 Jan 1845 somewhere in Ireland, but I can’t find where. He told his children that he was first brought by his parents, along with an unknown number of siblings, to the United States when he was 9 years old (1854). He never said which port they entered through. He said he and a brother, Willie, ran away and went back to Ireland. Their father went after them and brought them back when he was 15 (1860). Again, no port given.

    After returning to the States, the father apprenticed him to a blacksmith (he didn’t say where) and the rest of the family “went west” never to be heard from again.

    I have found several John Newmans on passenger lists, but the age, point of origin or something else keeps me from being able to tell which one is the right one. In the 1870 census, there is a John Newman in IL, born in Ireland, of the right age. This man is a railroad worker living in a boarding house without any family. That’s all I’ve been able to find out about that one.

    In 1880, my John is living in Germantown, Breckinridge County, KY with his wife, 2 children and a boarder named Pat McGonff, born in Ireland, who is also a blacksmith. This is the only legal document I have ever found. He was dead before the 1900 census. He died 5 Jan 1893 at Pellville, Hancock County, KY. Between 1880 and 1893, I have traced him from Germantown, through Aetnaville, Ohio County, Ky and Patesville, Hancock County to Pellville.

    He married Nancy Turpin about 1875. She lived in Breckinridge County very near the Grayson County line. The marriage records in Breckinridge County and all surrounding counties do not yeild their license. The exception is Grayson County where all records have been destroyed by fire. My conclusion is that they were married in Grayson.

    There are no KY death records in Hancock County as early as 1893. Dates are taken from his tombstone.

    He and Nancy had 5 children.
    1. Mary Katherine – was she named for his mother?
    2. Willie Pierce – Willie for the brother and maybe the father, could Pierce have been the mother’s maiden name?
    3. Jimmy Turpin – paternal grandfather was James Turpin
    4. John Vince – named for self and for wife’s brother
    5. Sue Elizabeth – both mother and maternal grandmother were Nancy Susan

    John Newman never owned property until he got to Pellville; he leased blacksmith shops. I have what tax and land records available. He left no will.

    He voted, so was naturalized, but those records have never been located.

    Any suggestions?

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