Path To The Past


screen shot of Ancestry family tree with 37,507 people and only 3 records and 3 sources

If your family tree resembles this screenshot, we need to talk. Step into my office...

Home office showing desk with laptop and two computer monitors, desk chair, rug, dog bed, and corner of comfy chair
Comfy chair available for good listeners

If I could pinpoint just one reason why your family tree might have taken a left turn instead of a right one, this is it. Now there is always a possibility that this particular tree owner has documentation outside of their Ancestry.com tree. I strongly doubt it.


More likely, this person has copied other family trees from others who copied from others, etc. How else can we explain that 37,504 people have no source documents to support their existence?

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Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start

When you endeavor to capture your family history, tree, or story, always start with what you know. As a professional genealogist, I ask my clients to provide me with as much information about the generation they are interested in. Names, dates of birth, places they lived, occupations, family, dates of death are all important in identifying the correct ancestral line.


Common surnames like Ahmed, Wang, Nguyen, Smith, Garcia, Papadopoulos, Muller, Anderson, Hernandez, and Gonzalez can make finding your ancestors downright tricky. But not impossible.


Have you ever heard "You are more than your name" spoken about self-development or personal growth? Well, I agree. You have to be more than your name; otherwise, every James Smith (all 38,313+ in the U.S.) would be completely indistinguishable.


While it would be improbable to share a birthdate with someone with your same name, it is possible. The likelihood they shared the same place of birth, or even parent's names, at least today is certainly doubtful. But according to the Social Security Administration, the most common first names in the 1880s were John, William, Mary, and Anna. Same in the 1890s, and the only change in the 1900s was Helen bumped Anna out of the number two spot for women.


So you see, when you are searching for your ancestors, it can be foolhardy and a waste of valuable time to pick a person and try to make your way forward. Genealogy is akin to science. There is a proven methodology, and it includes documenting your sources of information.


What is the source I speak of? According to Elizabeth Shown Mills, genealogist extraordinaire and author of Evidence Explained Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, "sources are documents, registers, publications, artifacts, people, websites, etc." Without identifying our sources, other genealogists cannot begin to check our accuracy, let alone validate our conclusions.


We learned about primary and secondary sources in school, but there are three main sources in genealogy: Original records, Derivative records, or Authored narratives. Not all sources are equal, nor is the information they provide necessarily true. I like to treat sources like stepping stones in my research. Some of them can be quite wobbly, while others are sturdy and trustworthy. Either way, they are leading me on the path to the past.


A path that forks among the trees

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;


Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that, the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.


I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.


Robert Frost (1874-1963)