The ABCs of Genealogy

Who, at some point, has hit a brick-wall in their research?  I know I have, many a time!  It’s in these situations that I have to remind myself to go back to basics.

We all have our own methods of research, some log all their findings in electronic spreadsheets, some prefer good ol’ fashioned pen and paper.  Some take the disciplined approach of a step-by-step research plan, some (like myself) are easily distracted and lose time down rabbit holes.  But any good family historian will follow the fundamental groundwork, that I like to call my ABCs.

A is for ASCERTAIN – Listen to stories.  Speak with relatives, ask questions, get an idea of the people in your family tree and WRITE THINGS DOWN! (or record conversations – with permission of course).  Determine who you are going to concentrate on, including their immediate family.  Draw a chart to make it easier to view relationships.  Make sure you include every little detail, no matter how vague; there are often threads of truth in even the most inaccurate family tales.

B is for BACK-UP – Do some research.  Get evidence to confirm (or even disprove) what you’ve been told.  Record your findings, and catalogue all records/sources you examine.  We’ve all made the mistake of not recording negative searches, and then wasted time repeating work when we go over the same source at a later date.

C is for CORROBORATE – Locate more documents to confirm what you’ve discovered, to prove you have the correct individual.  There are many people with the same name, maybe with a spouse/child/parent of the same name, and sometimes even in the same place!!  Naming patterns throughout history meant that offspring were often named after parents/aunts/uncles/grandparents, so it is quite common for cousins to be born around the same time, with the same name, in the same parish.  So make sure you are using documents that are relevant to the specific individual you are focusing on.  Don’t forget to cite all the records you use.

This strategy is something we use in our everyday research; but by going over these steps again from scratch, we might spot something we missed or even come across new information that wasn’t there before.  Perhaps talking with relatives and asking questions jogs a memory, or maybe a record has been catalogued and/or digitised since we first searched.  There might not have been a corroborating document to confirm our initial findings, but now we might discover something that reveals our first record was for the wrong person. 

On the rare occasion this method is not effective in solving a mystery, I pause my examination of that certain individual, and focus on somebody else in the family (and yes – you’ve got it – perform ABCs on this person too).  Sometimes, the new study sheds light on the first individual, and I’m able to smash a brick wall.

So next time you’re faced with a challenge in your research, take a moment to consider the ABCs.

New Tricks

Over the last few years, I’d been pondering the place of DNA within the genealogy world.  I can appreciate why many people are fascinated with examining their ethnicity, but it’s never really interested me much.  However, I kept hearing more and more about DNA being used to assist family history research. 

It can be quite daunting learning something new, but I was determined to increase my knowledge of this unknown world.

Two years ago I thought I’d dip my toe in – have a look at what all the fuss was about – then I wished I hadn’t!  Terminology such as centimorgans, clustering, triangulation and chromosome browsers terrified me, so I shied away from it.

During the first UK lockdown, when curiosity in ancestry boomed, I had several people contact me asking for help in deciphering their results.  I did the ethical thing and recommended experts in the field of genetic genealogy, who were experienced in this type of work.  Then, a couple of my closest friends asked if I would take a look at their DNA.  I explained that I really didn’t know what I was doing, but they were happy for me to play with their cousin matches to familiarise myself.

After a while, the DNA jargon seemed less scary, but I still felt like I was going round in circles.  So, a couple of months ago, I decided to do something about it.  I signed up for a DNA Bootcamp, hosted by Family Tree Magazine, and taught by one of the best in the field – Michelle Leonard.  I needed to get a grip, and understand the differences between such things as Mitochondrial and Autosomal. It can be quite daunting learning something new, but I was determined to increase my knowledge of this unknown world.

After the first week I already felt more confident, and armed with this new sense of comprehension I suggested that my friends upload their test data to other sites (obviously after they had read and agreed to each site’s terms).  By week 2, I was clustering matches, and then the obsession was in full-force.

Recently, DNA helped me break a brick wall in a case where someone had used an alias.  Traditional methods had repeatedly led to dead-ends because the name we had, simply didn’t exist.  There’s no way documents such as birth/death certificates could ever have been found (and used to connect other facts), if it was not for DNA.

I now strongly believe that DNA is an asset to any genealogist.  Just like we combine different traditional sources to corroborate details in our research, DNA can be used to confirm relationships and highlight potential paths of investigation.

So if you haven’t delved into DNA yet, I urge you to try it. You’re never too old to learn new tricks – If I can do it, anyone can!

Chance Encounters of the Past Generations

Growing up, I was surrounded with tales of yesteryear. I have a large extended family: my paternal grandfather was the eldest of 10, my father was his eldest, and I am the eldest of my siblings too.  There are many cousins, lots more 1st cousins once removed (several of which are around my age), and we are all very close.

There were frequent family gatherings, where I would listen, enthralled, to elders reminiscing; enchanted by anecdotes probably remembered through rose-coloured spectacles.  I loved hearing how they’d lived, such a different world from the one I knew, but most of all – I loved learning how couples met.

I frequently marvel

at the fact of my being. 

How my existence was all

a matter of chance.

Take my grandparents for example.  Jennie Perkins and George Gray had both been to the pictures, separately, with a friend.  Afterwards, they popped in to a café for refreshments.  Jennie’s friend Whinnie Boyton knew George’s friend, and it wasn’t long before the four started chatting.  My grandfather, being the gentleman that he was, offered to walk my nan home.  She doesn’t remember who asked who, but they planned to meet again.

However, their first date almost didn’t happen.  George Gray was employed at Toleman’s in Dagenham, Essex, and had to work late unexpectedly.  Rather than stand Jennie up, he sent a message home to his mum, asking her to meet Jennie in his place.  George’s mother Alice (my great Nanny Gray) agreed, and greeted Jennie outside the Mayfair Cinema. She explained that George had to stay late at work, and asked if they could possibly reschedule their date.  Impressed by his consideration, and the effort he had gone to not to leave her stranded, Jennie agreed.

My maternal grandparents had a serendipitous start too.  They both worked at the Trebor factory in Forest Gate.  Harry Perry pulled toffee, and Betty Bush cooled the slabs.

Harry was a shy young man, and Betty was rather stern looking (although has the kindest heart).  Harry’s friend and colleague dared him to ask Betty out on a date; he even bet Harry wouldn’t have the nerve.  But feeling emboldened, Harry picked up the gauntlet and asked Betty if she’d accompany him to the pictures. Betty wasn’t sure.  Harry was rather quiet, and of slight build – she wondered at the time how he even managed to walk in the heavy work boots he wore, as they probably weighed more than him! But she decided to take a chance as he seemed kind, and was ever so polite.

The rest, they say, is history.  But what if George hadn’t been so considerate?  What if Jennie didn’t agree to reschedule their date?  What if Harry hadn’t had the nerve, or Betty didn’t take a chance on the shy boy? I frequently marvel at the fact of my being. How my existence was all a matter of chance.

We are all the result of ‘sliding doors’ moments, of our ancestors’ choices, and we could wonder infinitely about ‘what if’s’. But I’m fascinated more with the stories connected to these chance encounters – the real lives of my ancestors; and whilst I may never know the emotions felt by some during their courtship, I am lucky enough to be able to question those who are still with me.  I will record their romantic sentiments so that my descendants may one day understand, and perhaps catch a glimpse of their ancestors’ personalities.

Incidentally, at their Golden Wedding anniversary celebrations in 2001, Harry Perry announced in his speech that after being married to Betty for 50 years, he still hadn’t received the money from his friend for winning the bet!

Why Genealogy is a Basic Human Need

Many of us have become obsessed with family history over the years; whether that be due to catching the bug after watching one of the numerous genealogy tv shows, or having a burning question about a mysterious grandparent you never met.  Maybe, like myself, you were raised on stories of bygone days from family elders, and have always been fascinated with the past.  Whatever the reason, we each share that love of all things ancestral, and are hooked on discovering more about our forebears.

But why do we find it so addictive?  Why do we get so much pleasure from dusty old documents? Well this is my theory – Genealogy is one of our basic human needs.  Let me explain.  So you may have come across ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Basic Human Needs’ pyramid.  Here is my version of his vision.  (You might have seen other designs which have labelled the categories slightly differently, but this is my interpretation.)

I believe genealogy satisfies the needs in several of these classifications.

Grow

Ok, so maybe we don’t need to know about our ancestors to actually survive.  The urge to examine just one more census return may feel more important at times, than preparing dinner or going to bed, but we could survive without it; unlike food/water/air/warmth/ shelter/good health.  However, the next three groups are what we all need in order to grow and flourish.  Subsistence is not enough for our well-being, we need to feed our souls.

This is the need that genealogy sates in abundance.  Our deep-rooted desire to feel part of something bigger is greatly accomplished when we learn where we come from.  Knowing that we are a product of generations of love, trust and respect, gives us something tangible beyond our own existence.  Ok, we may have the odd skeleton in our history, but there must have been affection somewhere along the lines or we wouldn’t be here!  That affiliation to a group of people allows us to feel included.

Triumph

Discovering that sense of belonging when we find out a great-aunt shared the same love of art, or a second cousin twice removed was also a keen pianist, is something that strengthens our confidence.  When documents reveal a long line of strong women, or sea-faring men, we might identify with those traits.  It can make us re-examine and consider what qualities we have ourselves.  We might have a talent or skill that gets overlooked in day-to-day life.  Remembering our competencies can make us feel good. Similarly, the thrill we have when we finally find that missing piece of the puzzle in a family mystery, sometimes leaves us literally jumping and shouting for joy!  (Well I certainly have done a little victory dance or two in my time).  The problem-solving and achievement that comes with genealogy, satisfies the need to feel triumphant.

Maslow (and the various interpretations of his work), gets rather deep here, but I’m going to try to keep it light.  Our cognitive needs like curiosity, exploration, the quest for knowledge and understanding, are all addressed when researching our family history.  Considering our ancestors’ experience of historical periods and events, learning about their place in society and how that would have affected their opportunities and choices, opens our minds to empathy, allowing us to be less judgmental. Whilst genealogy may not lead us to accomplish all our life goals, it does help us gain a deeper comprehension of identity and perhaps, awareness of our own potential.

Welcome to QUISSUM!

So, this is the start of my first ever blog – eek! I’ve been considering writing one for some time, but it’s taken a global pandemic and national lockdown for me to really take the leap. I hope you enjoy my ramblings. The topics will be varied, but all centred around my love of genealogy. In case you hadn’t already spotted it, the name of my blog – QUISSUM – is Latin (Quis Sum) for Who Am I. Watch this space for my first article coming very soon!