Four years ago, the journey started out casually enough. While running errands with my father in a city two hours from the small Minnesota town where I grew up, I asked, “Do you think we have time to swing by the Historical Society and see if they have records about where your grandfather might be buried?” “Sure,” he replied. So, we did, and, as it turns out, so did they.
My whole life I had wondered about my great grandfather, this mysterious man about who we knew so little. Where did he die; why was he not buried with the rest of my ancestors in a rural Minnesota Lutheran church plot; why didn’t anyone really talk about him? With just a few keystrokes on her computer, a helpful Historical Society employee confirmed that my great grandfather was buried in an unmarked grave on the grounds of what had been a State tuberculosis sanitarium. Had this information really been so easy to access all this time? Probably not. We had not spent years wondering about him without reason. The advent of computerized research and document scanning has made finding otherwise hidden information infinitely easier to find. Twenty minutes later, after a short stop at the County Courthouse, I had a copy of his death certificate in-hand, confirming that, indeed, he died of tuberculosis. It also disclosed the name of his parents – new data that convinced me there was more information to be found.
The next day, I started researching in various state databases for birth and death certificate information on other family members from the comfort of my sofa. It was addicting. A day or so later, I moved on to a free database, www.familysearch.org, where I learned of potential distant cousins in another state. I was hooked. I spent hours staring at the screen, willing dinnertime not to come so that I wouldn’t have to quit reading, checking, and verifying, just to cook a meal for my kids and husband. A week later, I found myself sitting in my pajamas at 2:00 p.m., laying down money for the real deal: a full Ancestry.com subscription. I vacillated. Was this really a good use of money each month? Didn’t this family history research feel an awful like an addiction with housework left undone, playtime with my kids reduced, and serious absent-mindedness overtaking my brain as I wondered, pondered, and planned my next search query. My curiosity and tenacity got the best of me. Before long, I was linking census records, military identification cards, and photographs to people on my family tree. While my tree still isn’t “done,” the process taught me some valuable lessons, useful for anyone starting a family history research project.
Start with what you already have.
Interview your family members, read the inscriptions in family Bibles, visit the cemeteries where your ancestors are buried, and pull out those boxes of old photographs and letters. There is a dearth of information in these “unofficial” records that can often point you in the right direction to find official government or religious records. An inscription in my great grandfather’s Bible is the only reason I was able to determine where he was born in Finland. Moreover, your ancestors’ handwriting, personal thoughts laid out on paper, and not-so-smiling faces in those faded photographs brings an intimacy to the process that no freshly copied birth certificate can replicate.
Use your local and free resources first.
Yes, Ancestry.com is a fabulous resource and yes, I still maintain my monthly subscription even though I don’t log on for months at a time now. However, there are numerous resources right here in Daviess County to help you start your research. For example, the Daviess County Library has library editions of Ancestry.com, as well as Heritage Quest, another online research database. These can be accessed inside the Kentucky Room, which is also home to some very helpful staff members that can assist in navigating the resources. The Daviess County Library also subscribes to Eastman’s Genealogy Newsletter and maintains obituary records dating back to 1890, marriage records, deeds and Kentucky Civil War military records. Some historical societies maintain written and oral family histories that have been submitted by citizens. In addition to The Kentucky Historical Society publishes “Kentucky Ancestors Online,” a free publication that features articles and subjects appealing to a wide variety of researchers. Finally, there are free internet-based search engines, such as www.familysearch.org, as well as state birth and death certificate databases, available online that can wield useful data.
Know your geography.
Knowing exactly where your ancestors settled can make a huge difference in determining whether John Patterson from western Georgia or John Patterson from northern Alabama is your long-lost relative. The more common your surname, the more important geography markers will be in helping you sort out the thousands of “hits” that may result from searching a person’s name alone.
Be a critical thinker.
Just because your uncle wrote a birth date in the family Bible does not mean it is the correct date. And, just because someone else created a publicly viewable family tree in a database does not mean they correctly spelled all of the names or accurately identified all of the important dates. I made a few mistakes in creating my family tree because I relied on inaccurate data, including information in government census records. Remember: the information in the census records is only as good as (a) the English-speaking ability of the person relaying it to the census taker, and (b) the handwriting of the census scribe. This is also true for immigration records. All of my great grandparents emigrated from Finland to the United States between 1850 and 1895. Yet, I cannot find a single immigration record for any of them. Why? Most likely because their complicated multi- vowel Finnish last names were not clearly conveyed or accurately transcribed by immigration officials. I know the records are out there and I’ll keep looking.
Trust, but verify.
Because data can be inaccurate or misleading, try to make a two-way verification of information before adding it to your records. For example, before linking a census record to any person in my family, I verify (a) the location where they are said to be living (i.e., does it correspond to where they “should” be living?), (b) the other individuals identified in their family (i.e., are the listed parents’ names familiar?), and (c) as silly as it sounds, the actual person’s name. All too often when asked to identify minor children living in the household, parents told census workers the children’s “nicknames” (which sometimes was a middle name and, other times, something completely unrelated). At one point, I had fourteen children identified in a family that truly, only had eight children. However, the parents inconsistently identified their children’s names to census workers, sometimes using their given name and other times using their nickname. Only by correlating their names with their known birth dates was I able to winnow down the list to the appropriate number of family members.
Expect dead ends.
Sometimes, the trail on an individual simply runs cold. It was much easier to go “off the grid” one hundred years ago. If that happens, don’t give up. Simply move on to another person in your family and follow-up on the cold case in a few months. Family history databases are constantly being updated. Ancestry.com uses shaking leaves (and yes, my heart skips a beat whenever I see one) to indicate they have hints for you to verify – information that their constantly churning database thinks might be a match for your family tree. Those shaking leaves can lead to a whole new path to follow.
Enjoy the surprises.
While trying to locate a small cemetery where relatives might have been buried, I walked into a local “cultural center.” The woman working in the center, Betsy, did not know the answer to my question, but she kindly telephoned a related agency to see if they could help. As I spoke to a representative of that agency, Betsy politely eavesdropped on my half of the telephone conversation and eventually, developed a profound expression of surprise and happiness. When I ended the call, Betsy exclaimed: “You won’t believe this, but my great grandmother Elizabeth was a sister to your great grandmother Ida.” Betsy is the same age as me, grew up less than thirty miles from me, and yet, we had never met each other. And, even though we are only distant cousins, we look remarkably like one another. How cool is that? Every time I’m near that cultural center, I now stop by to visit Betsy.
It’s okay to take a break.
The adrenaline rush and fascination will wear off. Frustration may set in. That’s okay. For some people, they start the process and don’t find that it really is all that interesting to them. That’s okay too. Do what feels right and when you get tired, take a break.
Download, print, or otherwise save your research sources.
While you think you might be able to remember where you found information, the deeper you get into the process, the more important it is to keep your data organized. Some people keep a paper file for each branch or member of their family tree. Other people download and link documents to each individual. Whatever your process, organization is the key to creating a clear record of your research.
Share your results.
While my mother has traipsed through cemeteries with me and my father has accompanied me to various agencies, no one in my family quite shares my passion for actually doing family history research. Nevertheless, they love hearing stories about where their ancestors lived, who they married, and when they served in the military. My parents and sister accompanied me to Ellis Island a couple of years ago. Although none of our immediate family members are featured in the photographs and memorabilia on display, the day brought us closer together as a family, as we shared the emotion and patriotism associated with the immigrant experience.
As for me and my journey, it didn’t end on the computer. In the summer of 2013, my husband and children traveled to Finland with me. We visited Helsinki and the Arctic Circle, but most importantly, we spent a lot of time in the central region where my ancestors lived. We stayed with my mother’s cousins, who gave us an amazing inside view of Finnish culture and family life. Additionally, we met with a knowledgeable and helpful pastor of the church where my great grandfather was baptized over 150 years ago, who took the time to locate and drive us to the homestead property where my great grandfather was born. While there is nothing there today but a rye field and a grove of trees, I couldn’t help but feeling a profound sense of connection.
Our experiences in Finland also provided context to many things about my personality that I may not have understood or fully appreciated until I saw it reflected in my fellow Finns: my craving for and absolute comfort with extended periods of silence, my inability to suffer fools gladly, my desire for cleanliness in all things, and my willingness to work harder and longer than anyone around me simply because there is no other acceptable way (a/k/a “sisu”). Most of all, however, I am thankful for the journey, and the amazing people and places I encountered along the way, which started casually enough with a single question, “Do you think we have time …. ”