Everything in Context

Never just google a word or abbreviation you don’t know and assume the first definition applies to the document or record that you are trying to understand. Words, abbreviations, and phrases are used in context. What was the time period? What type of record are you looking at? Why was the record created? There’s always the possibility that a records clerk created their own abbreviations as well and sometimes google searches just do not work on those words at all.

There are many words and abbreviations that one can encounter–we’re not going to even try and list them all in this post. We’ll mention my favorite as a reminder:


When used in common conversation, it means someone small enough to wear diapers. When used in a legal sense it usually means someone under the age of majority. There’s a huge difference. So when you encounter a word you don’t know, remember that your search for that word is in its infancy 😉


Lyon Mountain Labor Squabbles

A newspaper account indicated that a relative may have been involved in a 1880-era labor squabble at the Lyon Mountain mine in upstate New York. I’ve got some work to do in order to determine if the person named in the incident is actually the relative of interest. The name is not super common, but he lived about thirty miles from the mine at the time.

I can’t assume it’s the same guy.

Part of my learning process is to find out more about the mine, the miners, and the labor issues that arose. I found two books on the mine from the North Country Store in Utica, New York. Even if they don’t answer my specific questions, the background will no doubt be helpful. It never hurts to learn more about the history of the area where you relatives lived and the occupations in which they were involved.

And every book is not for sale on Amazon.com.


Nancy (Newman) Rampley and Her First Cousin Nancy (Newman) Rampley

Some will bemoan the fact that people don’t cite their sources, research too quickly, and give nary a thought as to accurate and sound methodology. I understand that, but I also understand that many people just don’t want to read lengthy diatribes of that nature.

I am a firm believer in all that I and I don’t want to read those diatribes either.

Examples make it easier to see why one has to be careful when researching.

  • Hancock County, Illinois brothers Riley Rampley (1835-1893) and James Rampley (1844-1913) married first cousins who were both named Nancy Newman. 
  • Scott County, Iowa, first cousins George A. Freund (1858-1928) and George K. Freund (1854-1941) married women named Katharine Cawiezell and Catherine Schilling, respectively. Can you imagine how easy it is to get those two couples confused? After all, they were both George and “Catherine” Freund….and we know that first names can be spelled incorrectly.
I have more, but this makes the point.
And the confusion is even worse in frontier families where there are fewer records. The two examples shown above, while confusing, are relatively easy to sort out–if one takes the time to be concerned about that. 
And doesn’t their information deserve to be recorded accurately? From what I know, Nancy (Newman) Rampley and Nancy (Newman) Rampley were confused with each other enough when they were alive–enough so that one spelled her name Nancie. Now that they’re dead, we owe it to them to record them correctly. 
Nancy, with the “y” at the end, is my great-great-grandmother. 

Starting From Scratch–Kind Of

It can be difficult to truly “start over” in a genealogical search. It’s often impractical to re-obtain copies of records one has already taken time and money to acquire.

What can be a better approach to is to make certain that one has adequate citations for all the records and sources one has used on an ancestor or ancestral family.

Then one can “start over” the way many math students are told to start over on math problems. They are not told to relearn and re-discover every mathematical fact they’ve encountered. Putting away the old analysis, the old “work,” and the old attempts and starting that over is a good approach–students who can’t find their mistake by reviewing their work often are stuck because they can’t see the error they’ve made in the work they’ve already done. Doing it again can be a way to find their mistake.

Put away conclusions you’ve already made. Put away the conclusions you’ve gotten from others and start again with the information you have.


Get Outside Your Comfort Zone

An earlier tip was about determining how your relative fit into a larger path of migration and how the group they were a part of could have moved repeatedly over time. It’s important to determine that group as there may be other clues discovered during that process.

James Beidler, author of Family Tree Historical Atlas of Germany,made a light-hearted comment that his family all migrated from Germany in the 1700s and stayed put in one Pennsylvania County–so he didn’t need to worry about such things. He was kidding, but his comment reminded me that we often need to get outside our research comfort zone and learn skills and become aware of behaviors that we think might not help our research.

Working on a totally different family or helping someone else with their research are good ways to do that. Ideally you pick up a new skill, approach, or knowledge about a new source. Worse case scenario is that you’ve spent some time away from your search and come back with a new perspective.

When was the last time you got outside your research comfort zone?


One Site Doesn’t Have it All

It can be tempting to rely on one website for all our genealogical information. That is a mistake. While it’s not financially expedient to subscribe to all the various fee-based sites, there are a variety of free sites that can be used for genealogical information. Don’t focus on just one site. There are others.

And don’t believe any fee-based site that tells you the information it has isn’t available elsewhere. It usually is. You may need to ask around and get advice from others in order to find where the information is located, but your research will benefit from you having made the effort.


Did Your Ancestor Get a Patent?

Chances are that I’m not going to patent what I jokingly referred to as a “grass height detector” on my Facebook page. But there is a chance that your relative developed an actual invention and received a patent for it. If the product didn’t make your relative’s life, there may have been no mention of it to later family members.

US patent applications can be searched on Google Patents. Older applications may give your ancestor’s state and county of residence and indicate whether or not the applicant was a United States citizen. There may be grass height detectors listed, but none of them are mine.

My lawn height detector. The stick moves the can and a sensor inside sends a message to my cellphone indicating the yard needs to be mowed. Patent not pending.

Research the Cohorts?

A relative deserted his Union infantry unit in the US Civil War. He petitioned his desertion charge approximately fifteen years later and his petition was denied. In reviewing adjutant general records, I discovered that there were three other men who were listed as deserting on the same day as my relative.

So I requested the compiled military service records of these fellow deserters of my relative in addition to any information that may have been in their record regarding an appeal of the desertion charge–just in case there was a mention of the group as a whole.

Another relative was involved in a crime on the Mississippi River in the 1780s. Several of his compatriots were named as well. Further research on them indicated one was his brother-in-law and that they were all from the same county in the Carolinas.

Any associate of an ancestor is an associate who should be researched whether their group activities were legal or not.


What Micro-Events Have You Missed?

Genealogists need to have a working knowledge of major historical events in the geographic and political areas in which their relatives lived and should not be afraid to look up dates if they can’t remember them. It’s fine if your memory of dates falters–just use a reference to keep yourself straight.

Regional or local events are just as important to your research and may have actually had more immediate impact on your ancestor. There was a mine in upstate New York State that had labor unrest in the 1880s and 1890s. That matters if my relative worked in the mine.

Another county where relatives lived built a new courthouse around the turn of the 20th century. An uncle was strongly opposed based upon newspaper accounts. It took some newspaper reading to determine the probable reasons for his displeasure (the price and the failure of the county board to move the county seat to a town near where he lived). Those micro-events matter.

But I should not state that I know what the reasons were that my relative was opposed to the courthouse–because I don’t.

At least I don’t know for certain, but the background is helpful.


How Many Different Churches?

Even if your relative did not change denominations, consider the possibility that they attended several different churches. A relative’s second wife attended three different Lutheran churches in the city of Chicago over a fifteen year period. The records of each church were helpful in locating more information on her as the membership rosters provided different details each time. The churches may have been different branches of Lutheranism at the time but that is no longer the case.

It could be the family moved for a short time and one church was closer. It could be that a relative attended one of the other churches for a time. It could also be that she had a falling out with the members of the Ladies’ Aid or the pastor as well.

You never know. The key is to look. Sometimes membership records will indicate former church affiliations or where someone transferred to. Other times they do not.