Questions Not to Ask

Family historians sometimes ask relatives questions at holiday get togethers. Here are some you might want to think twice before asking.

  • Which cousin you cannot stand and why?
  • What was the most disasterous family get together?
  • Which in-law do you never want to see again?
  • What’s the real reason Uncle Bob and Aunt Norma are never in the same room?
  • Why did Aunt Gert spend a year in Topeka?
  • What food do you absolutely hate at Thanksgiving?
  • What saying of your parents can you absolutely cannot stand?
  • What is the one thing your spouse does that drives you nuts.
  • There has to be one more thing your spouse does that drives you nuts. Name it too.
  • How come we always have to eat dinner at Aunt Wandas?
  • Why does Uncle Leon’s nose not look like anyone elses?

A genealogy colleague sent me back these (she wishes to remain anonymous):

  • Why does Uncle Fred smell like bourbon, even before the party starts?
  • How long do you think it will be before Uncle Fred says something inappropriate? (since this will likely occur within the first hour, please state your answer in minutes)
  • How long will it take after dinner before Grandpa unbuttons his pants?
  • How long before Grandma smacks him and tells him to button his pants?

Feel free to post additional suggestions. If they are clean, we’ll add them. If they are not, well…

Never Assume They Aren’t in the Paper

It can be tempting to assume that “my people won’t be in the newspaper” as they never did anything worthy of note and they “weren’t in the right class of people” to be in the paper. That can be a mistake. This rural Virginia family lost their farm to the state because their father’s will was never recorded and he was never married to their mother. They eventually had to petition the state to get the title cleared up.

It’s always worth a look. Assuming they are not in the paper can be a mistake.

Pre-Plan That Trip

Ideally before you go on a genealogy research trip, you’ve made a list of the records you want to search, where they are located, etc. The reality is that many people don’t do that.

One thing you don’t want to neglect to do: check the hours of the facilities you will visit, determine their access policies, see what cameras and scanners are allowed, etc.

It can be a waste of time if the facility is not open when you “guessed” it would be, if records are off-site for one reason or another, or if you can only take a pencil and paper into the records area. These are things you need to know before you ever think about heading to perform on-site research a distance from your home.

Lessons from a German Map

I’ve been looking at a few sample images from the new book,
Family Tree Historical Atlas of Germany by James Beidler and I was reminded of a few things about maps–other than their general importance in genealogical research which goes without saying:

  • Space is limited on many printed maps and abbreviations not be standard–Helmershausen got abbreviated as Helmersh’n in this map.
  • Not every town is listed–a few very small hamlets near Helmershausen aren’t listed
  • Can you easily find locations “you already are aware of” on a map? It’s good to have a general idea of locations in your head to help avoid making mistakes.
  • Don’t guess where someplace is located–look it up if you can’t remember.
  • People always live near borders–at least mine do. Consider that some records may be in different jurisdictions or localities
  • The spelling you have for a location may be incorrect–sometimes extremely so.

Provenance of That Item?

Record the provenance of any family items in your possession? Do you know who the original owner was? Do you know anything about how or when the item was made? How did it come into your possession? Who else owned it?

Scratching the information into the back of the piece isn’t necessary–although if it’s already been done for you, it’s too late. And…it does add to the character of the piece and your connection to it.

Is There More?

Online indexes can lead you to an image of a record with a quick search–if you are lucky enough that names are spelled and indexed correctly. Make certain the “next image” isn’t part of the item you located. Census records may be split over two pages, draft cards are often images of the front and back of the card, death certificates sometimes contain “supplements” directly after the original document.

Always look at the next image or two in any online set of images to make certain you’ve got it all–and look forward too as well.

You’ll never know until you look.

Read the Whole Thing Before Thinking Too Much

It can be tempting to see one “juicy” clue in a document and want to run with it and begin researching it as soon as possible. It can be tempting to see a relative’s name in a document and conclude that the record has to be on him. It can be easy to misinterpret a word, get that incorrect meaning stuck in your head, and create a brick wall where none existed.

Read the entire document that you’ve located. Think about what it says. Think about what it does not say. What does that document really imply? What does it not imply? Is there something you are hoping to see in that document that is not there?

It may seem like needless advice, but you might be surprised how easy it can be to read part of a document or file and jump off on further research when that unread portion either conflicts what you have read or provides additional detail to make further research easier.

Adoptions Were Often Informal

Throughout much of American history (and in other countries as well), adoption was an informal process where court or legal action was not required. Your relative may have been adopted without any legal record of that adoption taking place. The child may have been apprenticed out to a neighbor to learn a trade (sometimes generating a legal record–but not always). If the child’s parents were deceased, but had some property, there may have been a guardian appointed to oversee the property while the child was underage. In many other cases the child was simply “taken in” or perhaps spent time with a variety of families–not all of whom may have been related.

As time moves forward, formal adoptions become more common, but those records are often sealed by court order and access to those records is dependent upon state statute.

But if your ancestor was adopted in the United States in 1880, the chance of finding a record is slim. Possible, but not too likely.

How Careful Were they With Place Names?

Accurate spelling of place names is one way I quickly determine if the compiler of genealogical information (online tree, book, etc.) pays attention to details. Of course, the occasional typo is one thing (which can easily be avoided in most programs by the way), but if the database I find has some of these spellings:

  • Hartford County, Maryland–it is Harford.
  • Amhurst County, Virginia–it is Amherst
  • Schuler County, Illinois–it is Schuyler

then I am a little worried about the rest of the data. Call me persnickity, but genealogy is about details. If place names that are established and standard (as these are) are not spelled correctly, how certain can I be that names, dates, and relationships are entered in the way they should be? We should always double check any compiled information–correct spellings don’t mean that the data is correct. It just means that the compiler checked the spelling. From a probability standpoint, trees with spelling errors are more prone to have other errors. It’s simply about the numbers and if I have many compilations on a family to use as a starting point, I’ll start with one that’s not full of spelling errors.

It’s possible that someone simply chose the wrong spelling once and never noticed it–that happens. I also don’t write people nasty notes to correct their spelling. I use the correct one in any communication and leave it at that.

I’m not talking about someone trying to read the name of a German town on a nearly illegible death certificate–that’s something different altogether.