Interviews Are Often Circular and Incomplete

It’s great to ask a relative questions about your family history. Having a list of questions to ask can also make the interview process easier. But it is worth remembering that the details of an event may be remembered over a period of time and not necessarily during a one-hour interview. The interviewee may remember significant pieces of information long after the question and answer session is over.

And no matter how complete or comprehensive the list of questions seems to be, there can always be aspects of a specific family’s history that is not included. There will be questions the interviewee does not think to ask.

One way to ascertain this information is to maintain a relationship with the individual if at all possible–it can be via email, some form of instant messaging, actual telephone calls, handwritten letters, etc. A relative who is a Facebook friend may see your post about something tangentially related to your shared family history only to have it jog their mind about something they had seemingly forgotten forever and you had never even thought to ask about.

Keeping the communication going can help you to locate more information or at the very least allow the interviewee to provide additional details about an event they were only partially able to recollect initially.

DNA Will Not Solve Every Problem

We’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating:

DNA tests for genealogical research have been heavily marketed. There are times when they will solve problems–or at least help to solve a problem. But DNA needs to be used in concert with other forms of documentation that researchers have been using for years.

And DNA will not necessarily make your genealogical research easy. It will give you one more tool in your research toolbox.

But it is not the only tool.

Uncommon Names Are Relative

One of my wife’s ancestral surnames is Schollmeyer. Not the most common last name in Davenport, Iowa. In the village in Germany where they were from, the parish register of births contained numerous entries for that last name. In fact, in some years 1/3 of the entries had the father with the last name of Schollmeyer or the mother with that maiden name.

Review Those Negative Searches

Years ago, I used a series of records. I didn’t find my relatives in them and made some incorrect conclusions about how the records were organized and what time period they covered.

Twenty years later, on a whim I searched them again.

Knowing more about records and research, I found some of my relatives in the records.

Did you make assumptions about records early in your research…and would it be worth your while to revisit those records and assumptions?

That Somewhat Unique Migration Trail

There were several migration trails across the United States beginning with the earliest days of settlement. Those trails are important and researchers need to be aware of them. However some people don’t exactly follow the trails. And some people are part of group of migrants connected by ethnicity, religion, or other shared social bonds who move together over decades. These longer, smaller, and more personal migrations are often referred to as migration chains.

There are a variety of records that can provide clues as to such migration chains, including:

  • county histories,
  • academic studies of migration,
  • pension affidavits,
  • church histories,
  • and others

Such records have given me evidence of migration chains, including:

  • Dunkards who moved from Maryland to Kentucky to Indiana to Illinois and Iowa starting in the late 1790s and ending in the 1860s
  • Several families from Hunterdon County, New Jersey; to Pennsylvania; to Delaware County, Ohio.

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The Importance of Comparing

When a person has only seen one example, it can be difficult to know what may be unique about that item. There may be clues in how that one record or item is different from other records and those clues cannot be seen when there is nothing with which to compare it.

The “Pop-up-Pal” phone I had as a child is a perfect example. The “O” on my phone is painted red. I assumed that all phones had this one red button. The only toy phone of this type I had seen was the one that I had. Curious about the phone, I searched for it online. None of them had the red “O” button. Then I remembered.

I was the reason the “O” was red. Pushing that button made the operator pop up and I got mad at that girl every time she popped up. So Grandma put red fingernail polish on “O” so I would remember not to push it.

The story didn’t pop back into my memory banks until I realized the red button was something that was different about my phone.

It’s always advised to compare a record about an ancestor to other similar records. This can be a particularly helpful approach in analyzing records that are not written on pre-printed forms where noticing unusual comments or items may not be as straight forward.

It is difficult to know if something is off about one record if you’ve not seen other records. It’s difficult as well to know if an estate was settled in an usual fashion if you’ve only ever looked at one probate record. Expanding you search and using more records increases the chance you notice what is unusual.

Just like knowing the red button made the operator girl “pop up” made me less likely to push it.

Did A Single (or Married and Alone) Man Arrive First?

Sometimes before the entire family arrived in a new country, one or two family members (usually men and usually single, but not always) would immigrate first, get established, and then send back for the rest of the family.

If you’ve found the “family’s passenger list entry,” consider searching for a brother or other male relative who might have immigrated first. Peter Freund and Peter Hornung immigrated in 1853, followed by Freund’s siblings and extended family along with Hornung’s wife or sister a few years later. 

My “Now” Wife

Just because your ancestor uses the phrase “my now wife” in his will, it does not mean he had to have been married twice. A man might use the phrase to make it clear to whom a bequest was being made. If his will said “to my now wife I leave my farm for her life and at her demise it to go to my children” that meant his wife at the time he wrote his will. He might have been concerned that if he remarried and his “then wife” married again that his real property might fall out of his family’s hands.

Make A Chronology from that Biography or Statement

If you are fortunate enough to find a biography of an ancestor or a statement they made in court, consider creating a chronology from the events and dates it contains. This can be an excellent organizational tool as biographies do not always list events in chronological order and thinking about how every event in the biography fits into a larger timeline can be helpful.

Be certain to include all events–ones stated directly and ones stated indirectly. The same approach can be used with obituaries.

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