Moreover, my ancestors' souls are sustained by the atmosphere of the house, since I answer for them the questions that their lives once left behind. I carve out rough answers as best I can. I have even drawn them on the walls. It is as if a silent, greater family, stretching down the centuries, were peopling the house.

Carl Jung (1875 - 1961)

Friday, 24 October 2014

Tips for record searching and creating your family tree

Genealogy Blogs have many tips for your research….mine is no exception! (I have featured some random family images in this blog post - collect and preserve yours to add interest to your published family history)

  • Do a Google (or other meta search) search, and keep up to date by searching every 3 months or so online, and on pay and free sites, because new records are being added all the time.  There are little gems of information tucked away everywhere, and not just in sites or text concerned with family history research. Try tips and tricks for online searching too, to cut out the irrelevant stuff and save time.

  • Remember to search for older family histories, published privately or as articles in family history magazines. 30 years ago, someone may have done wonderful research which current family may know nothing about. Make inquiries of the librarian of the local family history society, the local historical society or council archives for booklets or articles on family or local industry where your relative may have worked.
  • Use online forums – I recommend RootsChat, but there are other mailing lists and forums out there, some very specialised – I got some great assistance from a Coastguard Forum, tracking down more information on George Jarvis, a young sailor in the 1860’s. Knowledgeable and helpful people are out there, some going well beyond what could be expected to assist. Currently a fabulous family historian in South Africa is working to get me some information and I am grateful for her time and efforts. One of the good things about RootsChat and Ancestry forums (and some other public forums)  is that they are archived, and searchable online, as long as the parent site keeps the information in that form. So you can use a Google search to pick up other queries about your area of interest, and the results may go back 10 years or so. With this in mind, phrase your own query in a professional way. Your words are there for all to see in years to come (a sobering thought!)

  • There is no substitute for an in-person search in Archives or libraries. When researching a 2 X great grandmother, I found a possibility she was the defendant in a court case. The National Archives assured me that original court documents were not usually available; only in exceptional cases had transcripts survived. It looked like a dead end, but a kind member of the local Genealogical Society told me she knew there were un-indexed court files, and she would look for me – and she found gold! I can’t wait to write the incident up as an article, the outcome and details were so intriguing. Just as soon as I can get a photo of the lady in question, I will do it (see next point).

  • Network and reach out to others researching your family, even if their area of interest is removed from yours. Families inherit photos, letters and other memorabilia in random ways. A second cousin twice removed may have received something vital about another branch of the family and won’t know they could share unless you get in touch. However research buddies can take time to find and your relationships will grow with time, so don’t lose heart. I reconnected with a second cousin when he did a Google search for his father’s name (just one of those random things people do when browsing on the net) and he found an old query of mine on RootsChat. We had not met for 40 years, so it was wonderful to be in touch again. Recently, four of us family historians with Clarkson family in common got together by e mail to share photos and speculations, and this netted me a charming photo I didn’t know existed, of a great great Aunt riding in an early motor-car. Knowing her husband was in the cycle business in Christchurch, New Zealand has given me whole new possibilities to research.

  • Question your older relatives, but also don’t forget to ask for family memories from your siblings and cousins, because they may have an entirely different take on your family.  When asking for information, remember that none of us have linear memories that click into place as soon as some earnest researcher says ‘When did you….’ Think lateral with the photograph album at hand and ask what counsellors call ‘open ended questions’ which are questions designed to elicit information, not close the subject down. What did you wear to school? Who was your favourite (or not) teacher? What chores did you do at home?. Be very sensitive about difficult times your relative may have experienced and be prepared to leave the subject if necessary. WRITE NOTES or take a recording of your interviews, date and file them. Too late, I realise I have scribbled notes on the back of handy bits of paper which are now filed amongst other topics…too late I realise I didn’t ask questions of my elderly relatives – ASK QUESTIONS NOW.

  • E books of old publications are wonderful resources. Try searching for specifics e.g.  ‘ 1820 Birmingham ebook’ or go straight to the source. Try the Gutenberg Project. You will find street names, business names and local gossip about personalities and topics of the day such as planning issues, health matters and politics this way, often reminiscences of earlier times, written in the 1880’s and 1890s. Try using ‘antiquarian’ or ‘gazetteer’ in your search terms – histories of towns and places and new scientific interests can have these terms in the title.

  • Newspapers. Can’t live without them. If you are immersed in your research and the budget can stretch a bit, go for a subscription to a pay site for historical newspapers (you won’t be sorry). Often this sort of research takes a lot of time, and you may not be able to spend hours in a library or other search facility away from your home: that’s when the easy access to a Newspaper Archive comes in handy for searching all night when you are on a roll! Otherwise, be a very canny researcher and look at what a Family History Society membership can give you. By careful research, you may find a society which includes access to an otherwise expensive pay site of newspapers and a relatively small membership fee may also include wonderful resources such as one-of-a-kind databases. More options are to buy credits for quick searches or use your public library computers for free (they often have access to databases on them these days) and some are accessible remotely online with a library membership. Don’t forget the free newspaper and journal databases such as Trove (Australia) and Papers Past (New Zealand) plus numerous others including religious newspapers, trade union periodicals and small local newspapers. Sale notices are fabulous. I found a ‘whole of house goods sale’ when my Great great grandmother moved after her daughters sad, early death. Everything in the house listed – including the mangle and her grandchild’s trike - what an insight into how she lived (and incidentally an insight into what goods were considered desirable and fashionable).

  • Your best friend is the death or in memoriam  notice for more contemporary research. ‘WHITBY, Arthur - Inserted by his loving wife Honoria (nee Smith), son Thomas and stepchildren Gladys Clarke, Pte Gerald Clarke, Mrs Fred Wilkins and Sandy MacDougal’ – bingo! He married again! Honoria Smith was married to Mr Clarke previously and Gladys her daughter is probably unmarried (be careful, she could be divorced), Gerald is a serving officer, and another step-daughter married Fred …

  • Expect the unexpected. Mrs Fred Wilkins could be a neighbour, Arthur's’ biological daughter, or Honoria’s married daughter by Mr Toliver, her first husband before Mr Clarke, and who knows who Sandy is - I’m not making this unnecessarily complicated, it happens!  After puzzling over my Lodge family, I finally unpicked their relationships – both parties had been married before and had children of their first marriage who retained their surnames, but called their stepmother ‘Mother’ in correspondence. This couple went on to have children from their new marriage together and the resulting three blended families were apparently close, administering each others Wills, fostering children, and visiting each other frequently. Remember that some families, for convenience or privacy reasons, gave the children of their blended family their current surname at census time. I have found successive censuses where children can be named three different surnames, but others who gave their children their birth name on all documents. TIP – search under all possible surnames, as the enumerator may have named everyone the head of household’s surname because it was easier. Daisy Smith may have been Daisy Jones at school, as a communicant in Church, or at work. She may have married as Smith or Jones, and if she was unmarried, whoever registered her death may have had the final say on her surname.

  • Will Calendars and Wills or Administrations – a brilliant resource. These can tell you relationships and connect various branches of family as well as who ended up with all of the money or was trusted to carry out the instructions. Also useful for checking spellings and alternate names, as well as listing the actual dates of death and even last residence addresses. Sadly, many of the Irish Will Calendars are all that exists, and the Wills themselves were destroyed. You may never know what that Codicil said!

  • Cemetery records. Councils and churches differ with the amount of information they offer. Some have comprehensive searchable indexes which will list all persons interred in the same plot; others can give you who paid for the internment (if it looks like the deceased paid, it was probably their estate unless the plot was bought in advance). Some burial records may be simple listings by volunteers, but they are well worth searching for, and don’t forget memorial plaques in the church either. Look for infant internments – birth registrations may not have included some babies, and here, sadly, you will find proof of the significant infant mortality of the time. I have found apparently unregistered babies buried with more distant relatives, so watch out for information of this kind. More funeral directors’ records are online these days too; some death certificates or funeral notices may have the name of the funeral director, then you can search if there are historic records available.

  • Further on death records – use a Google search to look for epidemics and tie in some background information. Newspapers will often have Coroner’s Court reports or the results of investigations to give you more information about the circumstances of the death. In the case of some deaths involving a Coronial inquiry you may find the informant noted on the Death Registration is the coroner. This can be irritating, because you may not be able to link a family relationship to the person, unlike others that may state if the informant was a daughter or spouse. On others, you may find a nurse, attendant or neighbour who was present at the death. This may tell you a lot about how the person died, and who was close to them. If you notice a servant, housekeeper or employee named as the informant, consider a little searching – they may be a distant relative you didn’t know about.

  • Land records. I have not used these – they are a little harder to access inter-country but I can see how valuable they would be to track relatives over successive generations and their property. Griffiths Valuation remains an outstanding resource for Ireland, merging property ownership and tenancy in one document.

  • The London Gazette. Another free site which lists bankrupts as well as Army and Church appointments. Addresses here too, which can verify the right census listings and fill in the gaps.

  • School class lists, Sunday school outings, club information, badges, certificates. Do you have the name of their piano teacher?
    I found mine through TROVE and was able to confirm her address which I had forgotten, although I can tell you exactly where I had to walk to get to her house with the brass plaque giving her qualifications (she was a lovely lady!). Autograph albums, books with inscriptions, hand-written recipe books, formal invitations to weddings, birthday cards, inscriptions in books – these will all add valuable information to your family research.

  • Professional and political sources: Political affiliations can be useful. Lodges or associations may have historical sites online where documents or meeting minutes are available. You may find signatures you can compare with other documents to sort out which Thomas Smith was a member of the organisation and if he is ‘yours’. Suffragette lists are available. Professional journals for nurses started early and have names and intriguing information about the working life and education of nurses. However, you may find information limited to registered nurses, and no reference to nursing assistants, nurse aids or nurses working in the psychiatric field.

  • If you are searching for Parish information in England or Wales, then consider the handy ‘online parish clerks’. Free index information on Church of England, but can have non-conformist information as well. FreeReg and FreeBDM are a good place to start too. But to really get to the nitty-gritty, you will need to view some actual registrations or certificates. You may be able to share these with other researchers by asking fellow members of Family History Societies, or be lucky to find them in lists of unwanted certificates or on exchange sites. Some may be online attached to Ancestry trees or available on personal sites but ask first if you want to copy documents. The other option is to buy them yourself – you may have to budget carefully here. I have been astounded that BDM’s for New South Wales in Australia cost $34!

  • While they are great for initial information, don’t rely on indexes solely for your ancestors of interest. Witnesses, places, sponsors and informants on the original documents give you much, much more. Scribbles on the margin can link just about everything. I am still rejoicing about the correction a family member made to a baptismal entry 30 years later. This listed her maiden name (which I needed confirmation of) and subsequent married names and firmly cemented several family relationships. What a find! Even better, it was endorsed by the Parish priest as correct. Now all I have to do is find out why she travelled to another city 30 years later and had occasion to check this entry….

  • Lastly, a word on accuracy. I have made errors by running with speculations when I was very new to research. Like everyone else, I am also prone to typos and when building online trees, leaving by error, random people who are not connected, but remain ‘fragments’ because I deleted something at the ‘top’. Now I am going to confess that I am not entirely sure how to locate these ‘floating’ people, and it will be a test of whether anyone reads my Blog if I get some useful advice. Feel free to comment on this very common problem! Every now and then I message other Ancestry users, giving them a little ‘heads up’ that something is incorrect in their tree – but rarely do I get an acknowledgement. I have responded gratefully to those who have pointed me in the right direction, so I can take my own advice here. My advice to family historians would be to try to be as accurate as you can, and if something is unproven or a speculation, identify it as such, or keep a ‘working speculations’ tree private online or only on your computer or in records, adding online information when you are sure it is correct (as possible).  It may be ‘your tree’ but if it’s online, it’s able to be duplicated and do you want your great great grandchildren believing false information about their family because someone else made errors?  If we uncover the past, we owe it to our forebears to strive for accuracy – by looking at their lives, we honour them.  

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