The Best Family History Lessons I Never Had

Do you remember the defining moments when suddenly something clicked into place, or you learned something the hard way without reading about it or attending a class? I can count the following seven “aha” moments as some of my best learning experiences.

1. Don’t skip on collecting all relevant information. When I joined the Society of Genealogists and was given a birth brief to fill out, I still remember the sudden thought, ‘Oh, so I should be collecting all the births, marriages and deaths of all my ancestors!’ Such methodical collecting had simply not occurred to me. But give me a form to fill and I like to set to and fill it out. From then on I was doubly hooked and the tree really started to take solid shape, instead of being an odd collection of bits of information.

2. Names in later life are not always exactly the same as at birth (duh). Exactly how much time I wasted looking for Elizabeth Sutton only, I don’t want to confess. The name on the back of the photograph said Lizzie, surely she had to be Elizabeth? It was totally beside the point that my own mother only uses her middle name and never her first name. I was boxed in by my assumption. For a long time I thought this birth was unregistered, but it was there all the time under Susan Elizabeth Sutton.

3. Multiple marriage partners may have had the same first name. A man named John might marry a woman named Mary, then after Mary dies, he might marry another woman called Mary! This one causes a lot of confusion, but when you spot it, it makes you proud to be such a good detective. It is worthwhile collecting all the possible marriage details for your John, even after you think you have the one and only marriage for him. The clue is usually a gap in the children’s births, and maybe an anomalous age for Mary in the census. This lesson might also come under the heading buy all the civil registration certificates that you can afford.

4. Don’t rely on your parents or grandparents to have got the dates for their own parents and grandparents right. Invariably you need to widen the searches to include far further back than you have been given to believe. ‘She must have died in the 1950s’, means she died around 1932! I now understand more about how memory is a very inexact thing, and can lead to totally false bits of information. In fact, I no longer rely on any information given by relatives unless I can see the documents, or it involves their own birthday.

5. If you have a rare surname, collect everyone. This one occurred to me early on, when I first saw that it would be possible to collect all the known instances of a rare surname from various indexes and then analyse the results – AHA, now I might be able to put together all the missing bits in the tree. Of course, I started out by sticking to just one spelling, but I soon had that idea knocked out of me.

6. Helpful documents are sometimes available in printed collections and available from the library or on the bookshelves of the archives. It is not always necessary to call up an original document at the National Archives or the local record office, often there is a printed copy published by the local record society and they tend to be indexed. Not only that, but it prevents you having to struggle with difficult handwriting, so saves you time. I once spent a whole day on the original hearth tax returns for Wandsworth, without making a great deal of sense of them, before finding that in fact they were printed by the Surrey Record Society and all I had to do was look in the book, which just happened to be in a room quite close to where I ordered up the originals. It has been annoying me ever since.

7. Don’t set out for the record office without all your information and that includes double checking the parish, county and archdeaconry, and knowing the names, places and date ranges you are searching for. This one still happens to me, although I have got very much better than I used to be.

What are your best ‘aha’ moments? Do share them.

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13 Responses to The Best Family History Lessons I Never Had

  1. Helen Stanley says:

    Something so obvious…..When it suddenly sank in that the man and woman, whose details I had finally found, were my granddad and grandma. Not knowing your family, you forget that you might have had the chance to call someone by that title and it took me a long time to accept that I might also have been their little grand daughter. Oh for a time machine!

  2. Andrew Millard says:

    Just as a man may marry two women with the same forename, a married couple may have the same surname before marrying. When I found James Clark in the census as grandson of Elizabeth Clark, I presumed she was his paternal grandmother. It was some time later that I found the marriage of his parents — William Clark to Eliza Clark — and it transpired that Elizabeth was Eliza’s mother not William’s.

  3. Derek Atherton says:

    Andrew, similarly, I have 34 marriage instances between 1837 and 1911 of an Atherton marrying an Atherton – causes a few problems identifying their children when the marriage dates are similar!

    • helenosborn says:

      Derek, that is very interesting.
      I would love to know whether this is something peculiar to the Athertons, or whether other one-namers have similar data. Are they mainly 1st cousins, or 2nd cousins, or less related? Is it because the Atherton name is very common in one particular area?

  4. Jane Taubman says:

    When working with more more recent GRO indexes don’t assume that families can be built using the fact the two Surnames are the same. You would think you might be safe with a combination of “Taubman” and “Coughlan”, not when 2 Taubman brothers marry the Coughlan sisters.

  5. ros77uk says:

    ‘Do’ means ‘Ditto’ on census forms. For instance, there will be a household of John Smith, Mary Do, Susan Do, John Do. Means John Smith, Mary ditto, Susan ditto, John ditto. For a while there, I thought I had a whole new surname in my family tree!

    • helenosborn says:

      Ros
      That is a great one! How did you come to realize?

      • ros77uk says:

        When I saw the surname ‘Do’ all over the place in other families not connected to mine. I thought: “there can’t be a whole TOWN with the surname ‘Do’.” Then I found ‘my’ family in another census, matched the two, and realised “Doh! It’s not Do!”

  6. Barbara says:

    I was helping a friend trace his family he couldn’t find a connection to a tree he was sure was his. I said i will start at your parents and work back. Imagine my surprise when his family went back to the same town at the same time as my husband’s family. It didn’t seem possible that two families with the surname DICK could be in a small town in NSW in the 1860’s and not be related. John’s GGreat Grandfather was my husbands GGreat Grandfathers’s brother. I had connected him to our tree not the one he expected.

  7. jaygen2014 says:

    “Always expect the unexpected!”
    I couldn’t agree more. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s always keep an open mind and try not to make assumptions or you could build your own brick walls. I once researched someone’s ancestor who owned a cotton mill. Through my research, I found that he’d had more humble beginnings, however, the one I was helping just couldn’t accept that this was his family, even though everything fitted (including the same address). I’ve had this happen twice and it’s so sad when people reject their ancestors just because they don’t fit their ideal.

    One of my 2x great aunts married a solicitor and I was contacted from one of his descendants (from one of his mistresses). He wasn’t living at his home address with his first wife on the 1841 census, and I suggested that he was living 6 miles away with another mistress. She found that unbelievable and I had to produce more evidence to show that it was a real possibility. It was only after she accepted that this could indeed be her ancestor that we were able to move forward with the research and find out so much more about him! It also meant that after years of researching, his descendants in NZ finally found out who the real mother of their ancestor was! The brick walls just kept tumbling down.

    Now I always try to keep an open mind and look at what the evidence is saying to me. It’s pointless rejecting it just because it doesn’t fit in with preconceived ideas.

  8. Gail Roger says:

    My “aha” moments come from repeated goofs, I’m afraid! I can think of four, off-hand:

    1) Order that marriage certificate of your ancestor’s second (or third) marriage to that person from whom you’re not descended. More than once, I’ve belatedly realized that if my great-great-great-grandfather married again – and especially if he married again after civil registration was introduced – there will be valuable information, even if I’m not related to his wife! (Like, say, the name and occupation of his father? My great-great-great-great-grandfather? Duh!)

    2) While it’s true that a death certificate may have errors – the person in question not being alive to correct them – one can learn so much by checking and identifying who reported the death. For years, I resisted ordering death certificates, until the day I discovered that my great-great-grandmother’s death was reported by her sister. I didn’t know she had a sister. She had, in fact, six sisters.

    3) One of the best things about a Google Map is the “walking option”. I don’t know about you, but very few of my ancestors had horses or carriages in the days before rail travel. It’s a good idea to check how long it would have taken them to trudge from one village to another, particularly if you’re looking for the likelihood of a) a marriage, b) a child who appears to have been born in a different place than his elder and younger siblings.

    4) That said, it is important to remember Sherlock Holmes declaration: “. . . when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Now, this can be a perilous bit of advice for an inexperienced family historian, but I’m reasonably experienced and the number of times I have disregarded improbable evidence does me no credit. It postponed my discoveries that my husband’s great-great-great-grandfather died off the coast of South Africa while being transported for forgery, and that my own great-great-great-great-grandmother married four times, her first and third husbands being two of my great-great-great-great-grandfathers! (In fact, my great-great-great-grandparents were step-siblings. Perfectly legal, as it turns out — they even had a church wedding with banns.)

    It all comes down to assumptions again, doesn’t it?

    • pharostutors says:

      Gail

      I totally agree, so much comes downs to assumptions. Getting better at genealogy is a fight against ourselves in so many ways. I like your 4 lessons very much!

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