TSGS Cruiser Blog

Friday, August 10, 2012

"Open letter to a Cousin"

Dear Cousin,

A few pointers about family history research.   As you might know I have been learning about my family for over 50 years with the more serious (trained) researching beginning in 1978, providing me nearly 35 years of trial & error work and many workshops & seminars to learn about pitfalls to our research. Here are a few I have found: 1.) Always be like a detective wondering why, where, when, etc.; 2.) look for evidence that proves the facts you find; 3.) family members are good sources for general info, but their memories may not always be completely correct... the facts that they were given or discovered may not be correct; 4.) documents are not always completely accurate - many rely on informants with typos & miss-spellings; 5.) the census is a good source and gives a nice picture of a person's life & family since it is taken every 10 years, but, again relies on an informant and the census taker (both capable of errors, plus the difficulty with some census being able to read the handwriting or faded ink!). With the census a person's ages are not always about 10 years apart from one census to the next which means you need to treat the ages as being approximate ages and sort of averages out over several census reports. Always try to get at least 3 documents or sources to establish facts. It is important to cite your sources and where you can find them again! It is always a possibility that records are intentionally falsified to protect the innocent and/or guilty! Names are changed to start a new life.  Remember that names were recorded by others in records and according to how the recorder thought it should be spelled and over time the name's spelling would evolve to a different spelling.  Names often vary in spelling from generation to generation, from location to location and many times from individual to individual... look for all possible variants of how the name might be spelled.  Many times the name was spelled as it sounded (just think how accents might play into that problem!)  Avoid assuming that someone has died because you can no longer find any records about them... from experience these people have a tendency to show up 20, 30 or 40 years later!!! You can suggest that such and such happened, but avoid assuming that it is fact!  One final point... not everything written in stone is correct!  Grave markers are ordered by someone to mark the grave of themselves (before they die) or by another person taking that responsibility (usually after someone was buried - sometimes many years later!!!).  The information on it is subject to the knowledge of the person ordering the marker.  Do not rule out that the engraver may have made a mistake, as well.

I suspect that you are far enough along in learning about your family to know about much that I have said, but I hope it helps you to avoid some of the common problems with researching your family history.  All of us that are learning about our family history should try to avoid these common problems.  That includes me for sure!  Often the longer we are learning about our family lines, the more we tend to forget basic problems.  Sincerely, your cousin John

Readers, do you have some other common "pitfalls" to avoid?  Please share them with all of us!

- Written by JGWest

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