• Dave Miller

When working on your Family History, Expect the Unexpected!


Occasionally another family historian will approach me after making a discovery and say “Wow I didn’t expect that!” I’ve run across those moments myself. That always leads me to the phrase that "when it comes to family research, never expect your research to come up with obvious results." In other words, “expect the unexpected.”

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in family research is to constantly think outside of the box. Just when you have drawn the conclusion that an ancestor might have arrived in New York, you're shocked to learn that the ancestor instead arrived through Canada and entered the U.S. through Port Huron, Michigan.

One thing that I have learned, it's important to listen to family members especially the older generation regarding family information but keep an open mind with what you hear. The information that the family member provides you with might not be totally correct for various reasons. Perhaps the relative didn't hear the information correctly or maybe the information wasn't accurate when that family member heard the details years ago. So, take notes and mark down the name of the relative and the date of the conversation. So even if the story is slightly off, the information you receive from that relative could lead you to the correct details about the family.

Always remember that not all of our ancestors lived squeaky clean lives. I know we all want to think that our family members were stellar citizens of society, personally steered the immigrant ship across the ocean and then later became founding leaders in the new community that is appropriately named after them. Sometimes, that really was the case! But there were other times where that wasn't always the case for one reason or the other. Whatever you find, the good, and bad or the in between, that's the history of the family and there is no changing it. You might not appreciate everything you find in your family history but that's partly what genealogy is all about. There will be times you don't always find good things about an ancestor. Attempting to change that information in your family records is not only a disservice to you but to other family members. That is just one of the things in your family history you just have to accept.

One other item that is important to remember and this is something I mention to groups that I speak to on the topic of genealogy, SOURCE EVERYTHING! I realize that it takes additional time to do that but it is a very important process as a family historian. Always mark down the name of the book or document including the page and the date the book was written, or online site you found the information or in the case of a written document or record, where you found it. Also mark down the date you found the materials especially if this came from a website. Web sites do change and this will help any family member to verify your documents. This leads me to the next point. Don't be upset if another family member challenges your information with another set up documents. Keep in mind that the information you have might not be correct. Many genealogy programs have places where you can easily place the source information.

And be prepared just in case the information you always believed to be correct turns out not to be correct. So, if challenged, recheck the information and have the sources verified. I generally like three separate sources to be considered 100% accurate. In some cases, that's not always possible. It's not the first time, I have looked over another document and had to rethink my theory on an ancestor. When I generate a theory on an ancestor, I believe my job as a family historian is to prove or disprove that theory. Sometimes, I am right on target and there are other times where the theory gets disproved and it's back to the drawing board.

Finally, I had someone approach me recently and asked the question, "When do you stop searching your family history?" My response was, "when do you want to stop?" Family history is an ongoing process. New records and documents are showing up all the time online and there are always new adventures here and overseas that will give you leads to other family information. I always believe you are constantly searching family information until you are no longer able to in life. That's when another family member, perhaps from the next generation, will take over hopefully where you left off.

Here's a few things I've run across in my research.

  • My dad's cousin told me that all the family members arrived at Ellis Island. That ended up being false. Some did arrive in New York through Castle Garden. Others, including my grandfather, arrived in Canada. From the research I have done thus far, no one on that side of the family ever arrived at Ellis Island.

  • My great aunt told me one time when I was growing up that I had a great great uncle who was a conductor on the short line railroad in Idaho who was killed by saloon robbers in 1911. Unfortunately, that was true.

  • My great grandfather was apparently a bank president in the small community they lived in during the 1920s and had U.S. dollar bills with his signature on them. That was also true. I have one of the bills to prove it!

  • My great great grandfather's sister also died in 1911 but I could never find her death certificate. I was told she died in the community she was living at in Wisconsin for years. It turns out she did die there but after doing some research and getting help with the Register of Deeds in the County she was living in at the time, there was actually no name on the death certificate.

  • I was told by a cousin that one side of my family originated in southern Germany. That wasn't necessarily true. It was actually in the southwest part of Germany near the French border. What helped me greatly in that particular research was when I read my great grandfather's autobiography that was given to me by another family member. In that document, my great grandfather stated what part of Germany he was born.

Genealogy can be fun but it also can be challenging, with a number of twists and turns in your research. Be ready for anything in your research. In short, be open minded when doing your family history. You never know what you're going to find!



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