It has been some time since I worked on a family tree book. I am now researching and writing what I believe to be my, third and last family history book. I started my first book with: “The Owen Family History” in 1996. I learn a lot since my first book, and the constant improving desk top software allows me to improve the quality of my books. It is hard to believe it has been 15 years ago since my first project. I finished my own family book, “I don’t know you from Adam” which concerned the Adam Smith family in 2002.
So you would think that as I start in writing about the “The Christopher Miller Family” that all the surprises and amazing events would have long since vanished from my endeavors. After only going through the first four generations, I have found many obituaries and other data posted online. Here they were, tucked away here and there in easily accessible databases. It never ceases to amaze me what I found. I do not believe researchers appreciate the locations chosen by ancestors as to where they decided to live and or die. But, for sure, the Genealogical and Historical societies which sprung up later in the same areas make all the difference in a researcher’s efforts. When I was working on the Smith tree, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Noble Co., Indiana had such a wonderful index on line. At the time in 2002, it was surely ahead of most societies to have created such internet access to courthouse records and data. Today, more and more counties from more and more states have followed suit, and to my pleasure, Moniteau County, MO. was no exception when gaining valuable data and insight into the lives of the Miller family who moved to that part of the United States in 1854. They had also cross referenced data, like listing cemetery and marriage index together. Boy does that save time. I am sure there are hundreds, if not thousands of county genealogical websites which afford as much or even more access to their own local data. To be sure, GenWeb and Rootsweb.com have helped Genealogical societies with a foothold on to the World Wide Web. It moderates the cost immensely for Historical and Genealogical societies, who would otherwise find themselves paying a Web designer and incurring the cost of hosting a site to establish a footprint on the internet.
You cannot make less of the various services offered by Genealogical and Historical societies. Some provide a minimum of local publication of cemetery listings, marriage indexes and other books for sale. Most have a “Look up” service run by volunteers who have access to certain records in certain geographical locations. I sent an e-mail out at 2 AM in the morning to a “look up” volunteer in Meigs County, Ohio and received 2 photo copies of death certificates and a cemetery listing for the family I was looking for in less than 9 hours! Wow, now that’s fast and free! To be sure, there are some counties with only descriptive text, lacking many links or just do not have an enthusiastic group scouring cemeteries and courthouses for data to be placed online.
It is amazing how far the hobby has come since the days when one had to physically travel to distant states and visit various county courthouses. Gone are the days when one dusted off dozens of big thick books stored in less than congenial basements. Now a click of a mouse and a few strokes of some keys and I am downloading marriage indexes, cemetery data and photographs and other valuable resources. I even came across a Google map showing where the property was in a 1930 census and an aerial view of a Miller cemetery in the middle of a currently plowed field. However, it is not without some pitfalls, and errors of transcribing abound, so one has to keep his eyes peeled for incongruent facts and conflicting pages. For example I ran into a transcription error at Ancestry.com where the database wrote down “Millerick” instead of “Miller”. I had to view the photo copy of the original census to resolve the conflict. But again, it was fortunate I could see the original document online. If you ever played the game of whispering to one person a phrase and then having that phrase be communicated down a line of people, only to be so unrecognizable when the message exited out the other side, you would get the concept of the mistakes that can be made. Did the original source speak good English? Does the census taker really hear what the man said? Did the census taker commit a typo error? Did the transcriber duplicate the writing on the original census? Or did the data entry personnel hit a wrong key and the proof reader missed it? When you come to think of it, we are probably pretty lucky that anything as a copy from an original is helpful or correct.
I never found soundex much of a help for me, although I have not been working on too many multi-spelled surnames. Even so, some variations of a surname are listed separately, defeating the purpose of finding variations. Ancestors who arrived from the motherland and continue to engage with foreign languages, such as German and Dutch and French etc. really raise havoc with census takers. This is often a compounded situation with transcription difficulties and typo errors and one can really pull his hair out. You know they were in a certain time and in a certain place, but darned if you can find them. When you do, it becomes obvious why your searchers were going so astray. I found the Bieri, a Switzerland surname, to be monstrously missed duplicated in Missouri’s census. I finally found it by what I commonly call the back door approach, whereby you use the least common first name you believe is in the group listed or some other datum that will lead you back to the same place. Forget researching for William, John or Adam, these will lead to a gazillion hits. Instead, search for Leo, or Otto or some first name of a sibling that is the least common among the family group. This is particularly important when you deal with such common surnames as I do, like Smith, Owen and Miller.
If you find a variation of the spelling, a nick name or sometimes the middle name in a document, keep a note of that, as it might be needed in general Google type searches. Of course the “Americanizing” of a name can be important, like, Smith rather than Schmidt or Miller instead of Mueller. First names can also be Americanized, like Pierre instead of Peter or Jacque instead of Jacob, if they had a French connection. There is also some ethnic adding like Johann which is like German for “Sir” and does not mean John. Even the location as to where ancestors came from, like Alsace, which was battered between Germany and France in a few wars. Some siblings wrote they were born in Germany while others from France, and yet, they were born in the same village. Researchers some time forget that later researchers are not as informed as they were about sources and locations. I had one note that said a family was in California. It took me a while to realize that it was California, Missouri. And, please, if you are going to photo copy a page out of a book, be sure to write down the name of the book and the year of publication on the margin of you copy!
Depending on how big the database is, sometimes you can be sneaky and drop out the use of the first and or last name all together and put in a location or date. This of course works best when the database is restricted to a courthouse or a county’s worth of data, not nationwide.
There are so many databases one can look through, that I resort to the creation of what I call as a Researcher’s Log sheet. It is kind of like a mini checklist that I copy and place in the folder of every individual ancestor to ensure I took a look in different places like, rootsweb, ancestry.com, LDS, SSDI, local Genealogical societies, government archives, directories, churches, war records and many more.
Of course, when all else fails, and you run dry of databases, that’s when you start e-mailing “look-up” volunteers and writing the nearest Genealogical or Historical society for help. It may cost you a nominal fee, but if you had to travel to the location and spend time searching for scraps of information at various places, it is well worth the fee of copy and mailing costs.
Thank goodness for today’s databases, they really are worth the time it takes to set one up. For me, they are deposits of wisdom, just waiting to be found.