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Research Archives - Genealogy Basics In 30 Minutes

Dealing with multiple spellings of a surname

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If you are descended from a someone whose surname could have multiple spellings, the best thing to do is create a document of possible variations. The further away from English surnames, the more ways there seem to be for people to botch the spelling.

Why is this? It really wasn’t until the 20th Century that the exact spelling of a person’s name became important. In earlier eras, spelling was more fluid. Sometimes it was phonetic, particularly if it was a census taker speaking to an immigrant family who could not write or speak perfect English. The census worker would oftentimes make a best guess at a family name. There are instances where you can get a hint of a person’s accent simply by looking at the way a clerk spelled his or her name on a document.

Let’s look at an example. For my Combs ancestors, I have seen the surname for my great-great-great-great-grandfather (or fourth great-grandfather) Charles spelled the following ways:

  • Coombs
  • Combes
  • Comes
  • Coombes
  • Comb

If you throw an immigrant into the mix, there can be even more options. For example, my German ancestor John Miller sometimes had his first name spelled Johann, Johannes, and Johnathan. His last name was spelled Mueller, Müller, or Mueler.

Heary uncle with horses - multiple spellings of last name

Was your ancestor’s surname spelled consistently?

So, as a family researcher, what should you do? My advice is to make a list of all the possible ways a person could spell a non-English sounding name (think phonetically) can be a real asset to your research.

By simply creating a list of every possible way a name could be spelled, and then updating it when you find one not on your list, you will have a cheat sheet of sorts to help in your searches. This is particularly important when you are using an index or database that does not take into account spelling variations and only lists the spelling as seen on a record.

There is one other thing to keep in mind as you conduct research. When you are identifying people in records, you need to look at all the alternatives and not dismiss a person simply because the name was not spelled the way you think it should be.

3 genealogy gadgets to organize and store records

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No matter how many people claim we are living in a digital age, genealogists still collect a lot of paper. But technology can help. This post contains a list of 3 genealogy gadgets to help tame the clutter.

  1. A good portable scanner is key (we talked about such items being a part of your research kit back in Chapter 2 of my book, Genealogy Basics In 30 Minutes.) You can easily scan papers and documents while on research trips, visiting family members, or at libraries.
  2. If you do not own a scanner, take a picture with a digital camera or smartphone. Voila, one less piece of paper for you to store or misplace! Smartphones have the added advantage of supporting video, genealogy apps, spreadsheet apps, and cloud-based backups (see Chapter 5 of Genealogy Basics In 30 Minutes.)
  3. A good label maker for your growing collection of stuff is also great to keep everything in order. Many people print off labels from their computer for larger items, but a small handheld one is great for the small items you come into contact with. In addition to a label maker, a paper shredder should be considered. (It may seem an odd addition but we can’t keep everything, and we do not want someone finding a copy of a vital record in the trash.)

What genealogy gadgets do you use when you go out on a genealogy road trip? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Genealogy gadgets

Gadgets like the iPhone 6 can help with document scanning, video interviews, and genealogy apps

3 tips to document genealogy research

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It’s critical to label and document genealogy research as you go. In my book Genealogy Basics In 30 Minutes, I covered why you should record what you do and do not find, and the importance of creating a source citation before you move on. After that, if you are dealing with paper, you will need to label the papers as well. There are several ways you can label your discoveries.

  1. If you have a photocopy of a document, write the source citation on the back of each and every page you print out. This way if you lose one page, you still know where the information came from and can (hopefully) get another copy of the missing item.
  2. Spreadsheets come in really handy when you take a digital image away from home. Log any relevant information on paper or a mobile device while you are researching. When you get home, add the information to the spreadsheet of images. If you are particularly computer-savvy, you can even put the citation in the metadata for a particular image you are saving.
  3. If you are at home downloading information from the Web, make sure to create a source citation in your research log before you move onto the next clue—and link it to the page you saved. If you can save the page as a PDF, attach a note to it containing the citation.

Using spreadsheets to document genealogy research

Spreadsheets may seem daunting at first, but they are powerful tools that you can use to manage data and document genealogy research. Check out Excel Basics In 30 Minutes and Google Drive & Docs In 30 Minutes to quickly learn how to use the two programs. Once you start, you will quickly find yourself making spreadsheets for everything.

Blank spreadsheet to document genealogy research

Sample: Blank spreadsheet (Excel 2016)

Separating fact from myth in family stories

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Have you ever heard someone say, “The proof is in the pudding?” This is especially true of genealogy research. It is simply not enough to “know” or have a “gut feeling” that your family tree is correct, or family stories are 100% accurate. You need to have the paper trail to back it up. You may have interviewed relatives, and perhaps gathered documents for a few people near the base of your tree. But that’s not all it takes to prove the identity of your ancestors going further back in time.

Don’t get me wrong — stories are amazing and wonderful. They connect generations and let us relive moments in time with our ancestors. Unfortunately, they can also lead family researchers down the wrong paths. The more an old tale is passed around, the more likely it will contain mistakes, misunderstandings, or exaggerations.

Family stories about a great-grandparent

Family stories are interesting, but are they 100% accurate?

For instance, if your mother tells you a story about her grandmother, ask her who told her the story. If it was her grandmother retelling a story about her own life, it is a good bet that the story is mostly accurate. On the other hand, if it was a retelling late one night of a story her grandfather told her about his parents, well, it might be 100% accurate … or it could be 10% accurate. People leave parts out of family stories, accidentally change small details, or in some instances, get the story completely wrong. This is why family stories should be used as clues in your family research, as opposed to factual accounts.

Until you can prove the story actually happened, it’s just a great story, and not proof of an event or relationship.

Family research in libraries, archives, and other institutions

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Making your first family research trip to a brick-and-mortar research facility can be fun and nerve-wracking all at the same time. In my case, it’s the anticipation of what I might find that is the problem.

In addition, unlike at home where it’s possible to conduct research in your PJs and bunny slippers, on-site research takes a bit more planning and foresight. Here are a few things you need to remember before you go to a library or archive:

Family research at the National Archives in NYC

Family research at the National Archives in NYC

  • Prepare notes on who or what you are trying to find.
  • Know all of the rules for the institution. Ask staff if you are unsure of a particular policy.
  • Have cash for copies, lockers, or a snack.
  • Bring extra paper and pencils.
  • Have extra batteries if you are using a camera.
  • Bring a light jacket or sweater even in the summer (archives can be cold!)

The Golden Rule for family research

Good behavior extends to strangers you come into contact with in the course of your research. If you know you will be regularly working with a particular repository, treat the staff nicely. When you talk with someone in person, online, or in an email, be gracious and treat him or her with respect. You would be surprised how a little politeness will help you go a long way.