Recap of the Family History Seminar, “Investigating Your Family History”
This past Saturday, August 28, the DRT Library held its tenth Family History Seminar. This year’s speaker was Kelvin L. Meyers, a contract forensic genealogist, researcher, author, and lecturer.
The seminar included four presentations by Mr. Meyers. His first lecture focused on overcoming challenges associated with identifying female ancestors; such obstacles arise from the status and limited legal and economic rights of American women in the past. Reflecting these circumstances, women traditionally changed their surname when they married, are largely absent from records such as property tax rolls and court and legal documents, and were frequently overlooked in many published genealogies. Mr. Meyers recommended gathering evidence about female ancestors from a variety of sources and tracking the men with whom she was associated, namely her father, brother(s), and husband as well as their wider circle of relatives, associates, friends, and neighbors.
Mr. Meyers’s second lecture focused on using church records, which he described as “vast” and potentially invaluable but also “underutilized” and challenging. In order to tap into these materials, a genealogist must first use a variety of evidence to determine his or her ancestors’ religious denomination. Next, s/he must then determine where that denomination’s records are currently located.
In his third presentation, Mr. Meyers reminded the seminar participants that our ancestors “did not live solitary lives”; rather, they “lived, loved, hated, sued, were sued, and died all within” particular groups of people. In other words, neighbors weren’t merely people who lived next door; rather, they were significant in the lives of our ancestors. Neighbors include more than just those people who lived geographically near our ancestors; additionally, they could also have been members of the same extended family, ethnic group, military unit, migration group, profession, fraternal organization, socioeconomic group, or church. Neighbors can also appear in ancestors’ records as, for example, an executor of an estate, guardians, witnesses, plaintiffs or defendants, debtors or creditors, and buyers or sellers of property. Mr. Meyers recommended collecting, analyzing, and correlating information about neighbors as thoroughly as if it was about your ancestors.
Mr. Meyers’s final talk focused on researching “those ancestors we don’t talk about.” Records that document such lives and circumstances can provide a wealth of information, but they are largely unexplored. Mr. Myers encouraged participants to make use of records such as those of civil and criminal courts and institutions such as hospitals, prisons, orphanages, and veterans’ homes.
While each of Mr. Meyers’s lectures focused on a particular topic, throughout each one he also provided general advice that is worthwhile for beginning and experienced genealogists. Some of his advice included:
- Slow down! Don’t just photocopy or transcribe the information you need and move on; instead, examine and explore records more closely when working with them.
- Let your ancestors be who they were as individuals and within their own time and place. Read social histories to learn about historical contexts that shaped your ancestors and their lives.
- Genealogists need to understand the records of the state in which they are researching, i.e. the system that determined how records were created and maintained. Guides to conducting research in particular states are available through the National Genealogical Society and other organizations.
- Always work from the known to the unknown. This usually means, for example, starting with the present and working your way backwards through the past and increasingly distant generations.
- Make use of available resources such as digitized records and published sources and abstracts. However, when possible, also examine the original materials, too; you may discover additional or different information.
- Consider taking a class in old handwriting.
- Remember that most of the time the person who created the record wrote down what he heard. As a result, be sure to check for alternative, phonetically similar name spellings.
- Once you find the specific record you were searching for, examine other records from that same time period and area.
- Remember that genealogy is never finished.
- When evaluating records, ask yourself these questions: Who created it and why? What was their motive? What was their bias? What other clues does this document provide? Is there a preponderance of evidence that something is true?
- If you’re having trouble locating information about your ancestors, expand your circle to include their neighbors. Also, look beyond convenient records to documents that may be more obscure or more difficult to find and access.
- Remember the distinction between primary and secondary sources. Moreover, keep in mind that a primary source can contain primary and secondary information. For example, a death certificate includes information about the deceased’s date, place, and cause of death; this information is reported by a physician and/or others who witnessed the event and is thus primary information. However, a death certificate may also contain additional biographical information about the deceased, including his or her date and place of birth and the names of his or her parents and spouse. Generally, this information is documented by someone who was not an eyewitness to its occurrence. As a result, it would be considered secondary information contained within a primary source.
Many thanks to Mr. Meyers for providing such thought-provoking information and to the participants who attended this year’s Family History Seminar.