While these hints and tips are not infallible, they provide at least some thoughts about discovering an elusive ancestor. Genealogy easily becomes a passion for many who wish to learn more of their roots; it also can be frustrating for those who want a quick answer.
- Never rely upon the spelling of a family name; both census takers and family members were often illiterate or nearly so;
- Do not assume genealogical records to be accurate. (Perform your own due diligence; i.e., does the cited evidence really exist; does it really say what has been reported?)
- Do not assume official records to be accurate, especially about dates. It is not unusual to find contradictions/differences in old records, so these must be resolved – which record is the more likely to be accurate?
- Family records often include "wishful thinking" about both relationships and actions of ancestors. (This includes entries in the family Bible, too.)
- The presence of a child in a household census does not signify that the child belonged to that household. It only means that the child was there when the census taker arrived.
- A family myth may contain a germ of truth, but it is still a myth.
- Conjecture may suggest lines of inquiry, but it is not proof. Neither is wishful thinking.
- While DNA testing may identify others to whom an individual is related, it cannot, however, establish the nature of the relationships.
- Never give up; as someone once remarked, "Genius helps and luck is capricious, but diligence and persistance eventually pay off."
History & Geography
Most of us tend to think that counties and states were created immutable, when in fact there has been a great deal of tinkering and altering of both county and state boundaries since the country was established. It's still going on, too. There are numerous instances where an ancestor was presumed to have moved, only for it to be learned that the ancestor stayed in or near one spot all his life -- the county boundaries were what moved over time.
There's a software package, AniMapTM ($79.95), which shows how newer counties were created from state (or colony) lands and older counties as time progressed. Some county names have died out; others have changed spellings, and some have even been re-absorbed into subsequently created counties. The package also has a feature that allows searching on names that are no longer extant; it's a godsend for determining where the modern equivalent of an obsolete term or name is located.
Also, there were a network of Indian trails, at least east of the Mississippi River. While these were established primarily as hunting trails, they were adopted by the colonists as migrations routes as the country began to expand. Of course, waterways were used, as well, but the rivers of the time were untamed, uncharted, and for the colonists, a risky mode of travel.
An overlay of these trails, the rivers and the changing network of counties make a useful tool for determining just where records of an elusive ancestor might be found, assuming that there was a record to be found in the first place. Local historical and genealogical societies are a treasure trove of information, as are county records offices. More and more of the latter have computerized records, either accessible at the courthouse or online.
More Computer Information
It's a sad fact of life, but cash-strapped federal, state and county governments (some cities, too) sell their data to for profit information providers. This includes census records and other vital statistical records, which means that access to these "public" records can be quite expenssive. Fortunately, many libraries — including those of local community colleges — subscribe to these services. They have knowledgeable staff, too, and sometimes a very good family history section. Pay them a visit.
Besides the AniMap software package cited above, there are other resources:
- Find A Grave, which offers a variety of ways to search for the burial place of ancestors;
- Google, which can find all sorts of useful (and useless) information, trivia and facts;
- Cyndi's List, which offers a variety of search options.
Of course, it makes sense to keep genealogical records in digital format, too. There are several quite good genealogical software packages, including Family Tree Maker, Legacy, RootsMagic, Family Tree Heritage, Ancestral Quest, Family Historian, Brother's Keeper, DoroTree, etc., and whose acquisition costs vary from $20.00 to over $80.00. Be warned that some also require an outlay of additional funds for the privilege of accessing online records through the software maker's online search site.
Whichever package is selected, insure that it recognizes (at least) files that are in GED, Family Tree and Legacy formats. The GED format is sort of a "universal" standard for genealogical records, and its use facilitates transfer of records from one software platform to another with minimum difficulty.