Filtering the Story

I’m not overly knowledgeable about cars and passed the mechanic’s detailed discussion of my vehicle issues to a friend with more smarts about vehicles than me. Did my friend get a complete and accurate description of the problem from me?

Probably not.

I wasn’t the best conduit for the information.

The same applies to family stories that have been passed down. There could have been details that did not make complete sense to the hearer/reteller of the story and their retelling of that story may have been impacted by that lack of knowledge.

Incorrect details can be unintentional on the part of the teller and may not change the essence of the story. But they can cause our research to go astray if we are unwilling to admit that a relative may have given us some incorrect details.

Genealogy Absolutes

Normally an ancestor has to be dead to have an estate settlement, has to be born to have a birth certificate, etc.

Think about what really HAS to be when you research your ancestor. He didn’t have to get married to reproduce. He didn’t have to name his oldest son after his father. He didn’t have to get married near where his first child was born. He didn’t have to have a relative witness every document wrote. There are few “have tos” in genealogy. Make certain you aren’t using “have tos” to make brick walls for yourself.

What Is Being Communicated?

The text of a document, tombstone, etc. communicates information about a person or an event. Sometimes that information is explicitly stated, sometimes it is implied–if we interpret the document in addition to reading it. But there may be more than just words on a record. Are there other “images” on the source you are looking at that also communicate information? A funeral card, memorial card, or tombstone may have images that are symbolic and not just decorative filler.

A document may also have numbers written on it that have meaning as well. Twentieth-century death certificates in the United States have numbers that indicate information about the cause of death. There may be numbers on a court paper or record that indicate a file number, docket number, etc. Or the number may be a calculation made by a clerk that has nothing to do with the case.

Other numbers may be written on land patents, pension records, or bounty land applications that have meaning as well.

Everything on a document has the potential to be a clue. Look at more than just the words with obvious meanings. Sometimes it is the not-so-obvious meanings that provide the biggest clues.

Avoid Grandmas and Abbreviations

Identification is important. Clarity is important. Avoiding ambiguity is important.

With those things in mind, when identifying individuals on pictures, on family ephemera, in writings, etc. avoid using only the word “Grandma,” “Grandpa,” “Aunt,” etc.

After all, to which Grandma Neill are you referring? Your Grandma? Your Dad’s Grandma? Your children’s Grandma? If you want to use Grandma at least use the individual’s complete name after the use of the term, Grandma Ida (Trautvetter) Neill, Grandma Connie (Ufkes) Neill, etc.

Also avoid using abbreviations if at all possible, particularly ones that you’ve created yourself. Will someone else know what you meant?

Who Hitched Every Sibling?

It stands to reason that your direct-line relative will be married a justice of the peace or another warm body able to certify marriages in close proximity to the bridal couple at the time of the event.

In these cases the genealogical clues that can be ascertained from the officiant are minimal.

Determine who married all the ancestral siblings. If the family was remotely religious (and potentially listed in church records), there’s a good chance at least one of the family members took the time to have a religious ceremony. In terms of it being a clue it doesn’t matter much if it your ancestor of interest or their sibling.

Unless the church member was the in-law. But then you’ll have to research to know that.

Which is the point.

Evidence of What?

Melinda Newman’s 1860-era estate inventory in Linn County, Iowa, indicated that she owned a galvanic battery at the time of her death. These batteries were used as a “cure” for various medical ailments. It wasn’t an old battery that she used to run her buckboard wagon when the horse wasn’t feeling up to it.

And, just based on her owning the battery, it’s difficult to say exactly what ailment she suffered from–particularly because various advertisements indicated that these batteries could be used to cure a variety of ailments.

I can’t use her ownership of the battery to state she had any particular illness.

It’s always worth taking care to not reach conclusions that are not supported by the evidence. What I know is that she owned a galvanic battery at the time of her death. I can learn about what these batteries are used for and include that information in my compilation of information on Melinda and in writing up what I have on her.

I just can’t say exactly what illness she used the battery for.


This is not a tip about Oklahoma or phrases that rhyme.

Do you track favorite sayings of your relatives–particularly those who were a part of your immediate family? Some of them might not be quite as short as “okie-dokie” which my Mother often used. There might have been ones like:

  • Wait til you start paying the bills.
  • Life ain’t a bed of roses.
  • I’m still the boss around here…I’m not dead yet.
  • and so on.

These phrases can provide some insight into the person for those who never knew them. And for those of us who did know them, occasionally seeing the phrases or being reminded of them can bring back fond memories. It’s not always about preserving memories for those who will come after us. Sometimes it’s good to preserve memories for ourselves.


DNA Augments Other Sources–Does Not Replace Them

One wants to encourage relatives who have taken a new interest in their family history. One way that many people come to genealogical research now is through DNA testing. The companies that market autosomal tests lead many to conclude that the test is all you need and that the rest is automatic.

Because after all those trees tied to DNA tests are correct. Autosomal DNA tests confirm relationships, but the more distant those relationships are beyond parent/child and sibling relationships, the more potential that the relationship isn’t exactly what the site predicts. Most sites indicate that the predictions are predictions, but that doesn’t stop people from believing that they are 100% correct. The “match” confirms that two test submitters are related, but other, traditional sources, will have to be used to hopefully determine the exact relationship.

And of course those other sources will tell you all sorts of other interesting things about your relatives and their lives.

DNA only helps you figure out who reproduced with whom. There’s more to your ancestor than who they reproduced with.

While It is Fresh In Your Mind

Write it down while it’s fresh in your head. Doesn’t matter what it is, you will forget. And preserve that writing:

  • Take a picture of it and file it.
  • Email it to yourself.
  • Put it in your genealogy software.
  • Type up a word processing document.
  • Don’t just leave it in your head…for some of us that’s asking for it to get lost–permanently.