Sunday, July 17, 2011

Going Backward to Move Ahead: 6 steps toward a well-documented family history

For my birthday this year, one of the gifts I received was a T-shirt with the logo Family History Detective on the front. That says it all.

Among my favorite detectives are Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, and Hercule Poirot. Each has a unique style for getting to the truth of a mystery; but they always  pursue the clues, and in the end expose the truth.

Being a genealogist is a bit like being a detective. We search for clues...make inquiries...check sources...and follow the trail back to the place where it all began.

If you're like me and you've been researching your family for some time, you've accumulated files and binders and notebooks galore! You may have worked on a particular aspect of your research in the early years, and now find that you must access and re-examine some of that information for a lead in your current explorations. Such was the case last night.

Back in 2005 I received four reels of microfilm from the Library of Virginia on Inter-Library Loan. The condition of the Virginia documents was much worse when they were microfilmed than those of Massachusetts. Parts of the pages had been torn or blotted out, and ink had faded in places. Parts of the document were very difficult to read. I recall completing the transcription, and I thought I had printed the document. . .
. . . but last night when I pulled the file box and notebooks 
containing my Virginia sources and notes, 
I could not find the Will, nor could I find the transcription!

It's been  six years since reading the Will of Ann Southey Littleton, and nearly four-and-a-half years since we relocated to Western North Carolina. It could be anywhere. At any rate, it seems that I will have to re-order the microfilm.

There are several things you can do to use 
all your existing clues to work back to the original sources, 
and avoid having to retrace your steps later.

  • When you find a clue that sets you on the path to solving your mystery, check the author's sources. On our first visit to Craven County, NC I had photocopied  the Carter, George and Cannady sections of Paul Heinegg's book, Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina and made notes on the sources he used. In this case, it appeared that he relied mainly on county records: apprentice indentures, county court minutes, and deeds.
  • Always look for a means to contact the author. The online version of this book included a note: "Send questions and comments to . . . ." Sometimes authors have their own website to promote their books, or their publisher or agent may have a page devoted to their client where they are willing to act as an intermediary for them. I have contacted authors by all these means, and for the most part they usually write back. On September 9, 2005, Paul Heinegg wrote, 
"I did that research when I was first starting about 20 years ago. At that time I used  Joseph Douglas Deal's PhD thesis,  Race and Class in Colonial Virginia: Indians, Englishmen and Africans on the Eastern Shore during the Seventeenth Century. Years later I went back and ordered the microfilms from the Library of Virginia. . . . "

  • If you're as lucky as I was to discover a source not mentioned previously, go directly to that source, and check it's sources. While I had learned of Deal's dissertation  in 2005, it wasn't until this year (2011) that I was able to locate a copy of the book for my own collection. While Paul was gracious enough to email me scans of the chapters on the Carter and George families, having the original source right in front of me provided critical analysis of the original texts found in Virginia county records. 

  • If you have access to's public member trees . . . look for a well-sourced tree containing your ancestors and contact the owner of the tree. Sometimes, not only will you find new leads, you may learn of a rootsweb surname list that will widen your opportunity for clues. Make sure to print out or save to disk all emails pertaining to your research. Years later, if you need to retrace your steps, these are very valuable. From one member of the LITTLETON-L, I was informed that:
"CARTAR or Carter was a family name somewhere . . . ."
And another reports: 
"My family who are descendants of Littleton's carry a Carter middle name as a family name so lost in the past. My father carried the name as David Carter Wood." 

  • Keep following the trail until you come upon a primary source . . . one that was written by an eye-witness. In this case, it would be wills, deeds, and court minutes; but the greatest find would be a slave ledger, a ship's manifest, or a diary. 

  • At every step of the search, document--document--document. While researching my New England ancestors on microfilm, I had the foresight to keep each print in an archival sleeve, tagged with a label: 

While I am usually very careful in my documentation, I can at times neglect this important step. I hope this helps you to prevent the pit-fall which I have stumbled into. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Debra. This is a great post.

    A) it's a good example of a list post and the formatting makes it very easy to read (you are great at that - I've noticed it before).

    B) Such good tips! I love this one: "Keep following the trail until you come upon a primary source . . . one that was written by an eye-witness." That's something we all need to keep in mind. In fact, I may write it out on a sticky note and stick it to my monitor.