Author Archives: michaeljohnneill

About michaeljohnneill

Genealogy author and speaker.

Sketch Relationships as You Go

The funeral home in my hometown recently had a death notice for someone whose last name suggested they might be a relative. They weren’t but two of their father’s siblings had married first cousins of my great-grandmother. I would have saved an inordinate amount of time if I had sketched out a chart to use while trying to determine the relationships.

Without a chart, I kept getting confused and went in circles–especially as several names were repeated through different generations of the family. Having the approximate years of birth along with an outline of the relationships would have helped immensely.

Failing to do so wasted more time than it saved.

Back to the Home Church for Baptism?

I was stuck on a certain relative who apparently left the area where she grew up sometime after she was enumerated in the 1910 census in Hancock County, Illinois. She seemed to evaporate and appears in no later records.

In 1915, in the church she attended as a child, she and her husband have two of their children baptized. The baptism records list the maiden name of the mother. While I’m not yet 100% certain it is her, it’s a very good lead. One child has her maiden name as it’s middle name and the other child has her mother’s maiden name as it’s middle name–another good clue.

Did you relatives bring the kids “back home” to be baptized?

ABC Order is Not Your Friend

When an index or manual searching takes you to an ancestral entry in a census, tax or other list entry take times to look at the neighboring names. Are the names in rough alphabetical order? If so neighborhood clues can’t be inferred from the proximity of names.

That is unless all the “B” surnames lived in the same part of the county.

There Are No Answers in the Back of the Genealogy Text Book

There are no answers in the back to check your genealogy work.

Your genealogy research is not a homework assignment where you can check the answers or someone can check your work for you. In some families you may be the first person ever attempting the homework.

And in other cases you may have other people in your “class” (ie, family) who aren’t as concerned about as being accurate as you are.

That’s why you constantly want to make certain that your conclusions make sense and are reasonable, you track where you find things (even if you citations aren’t “prefect”), track why you concluded what you did, and keep a list of sources that you’ve used.

And while there are no guarantees in genealogy, doing those things will increase the chance that you do get the right answer. Or at least as right of an answer as is possible.

Check out Michael’s list of webinars!

Change One Thing You Think Is True

When searching an online database or index for a specific person, chances are you have entered some of these key pieces of information about that person in order to search:

  • age
  • name
  • place of birth
  • residence
  • name of spouse
  • year of arrival
  • year of death

Those key elements about a person are also useful when trying to determine if you have the “right” person in a record. But what if one of those key elements was wrong? Either you have it wrong or it’s wrong in the record. Either way it will not match.

And…a good research approach in general is to ask yourself:

If one thing that I think is true about my ancestor was not true–how would that change how I look for her?


But That Tells Me What I Already Know

Sometimes researchers wonder why they should get something when “it’s only going to tell me what I already know.” That’s a valid concern, but there are times when that record that “repeats” what other records say can be helpful, such as:

  • the first record has a questionable informant
  • the first record really doesn’t make sense
  • the first record is difficult to read
  • the first record is one that may be inaccurate

And there is always the chance that the “record that tells what you already know” has information that you’ve not located elsewhere.

You don’t know until you look.

DNA is One Tool–Not the Only Tool

DNA should not be the only tool in your genealogical research toolbox. Family stories, records at home, published books, official records, etc. should be used together with DNA. The best way to answer research questions and get a complete picture of your ancestral family is to use as many resources as possible.  While DNA “doesn’t lie” it is often not as specific as we would like. While paper records can contain outright lies or partial truths,  they can provide details DNA does not. They can help you make sense of your DNA results–at least sometimes.

And even if you’ve researched paper records for years, don’t expect DNA to immediately solve all those problems you have. Sometimes it will specifically answer a question and other times it will simply tell you that “yea…those guys are related, but we’re not going to tell you exactly how.”

And when you don’t understand your DNA results, ask. There are a variety of online forums where questions can be posted.

Learn more about working with your AncestryDNA matches by downloading one of my webinars or sign up for my GedMatch presentation.


How Speedy Was the Mail?

Ever wonder how fast the mail was one hundred years ago? There was a slight clue in an old US Civil War pension file:

  • Letter dated 3 May 1907, Washington, DC–sent to West Point, Illinois.
  • Response to letter is dated 7 May 1907, West Point, Illinois.
  • Response received 9 May 1907, Washington DC.

The letter was a request for information in a pension file. There’s no guarantee of when anything was mailed and a date could easily be off, but the timeline was tighter than I thought it might be for 1907.

Just something to think about. Are there clues about the speed of mail in an old record you have?