Before My Time is about the ancestry and extended family of my four grandparents: John Samuel Krentz (Indiana/North Dakota), Margreta Tjode Hedwig (Gertie) Buss (North Dakota), Rosmer Pettis Kerr (Pennsylvania/Michigan), and Evelyn Elvina Hauer (Michigan), and other topics in genealogy and family history.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Whole-Community Genealogy

As genealogists, we learn early about the benefit of doing whole-family genealogy, the most obvious benefit being that when you can't find your own ancestor's record, you might be able to find his sibling's and thus work your way around an impasse in your research. You don't have to hunt dead relatives for very long before someone mentions whole-family genealogy to you. It's a thing.

I've never heard whole-community genealogy mentioned, though. In fact, I've just googled "whole community genealogy" and got exactly three hits. When is the last time you googled anything and got only three hits? So my plan for today is to tell you why I think whole-community genealogy is a thing, and should be a thing. In a nutshell, of course, it's because you just never know... until you know.

Some years ago, upon learning the name of the locality in Germany that had been home to one of my ancestors, I ordered the appropriate microfilm from the Family History Library. When it came and I sat down at the microfilm reader and began cranking that infernal handle, my intention was to look for anyone with the relevant surname, not just my great-grandmother. She would have had siblings, of course, and after all, the more you learn about your ancestral family, the more interesting they become. No great-grandparent is an island--I'm pretty sure that's how John Donne would  have put it if he were a genealogist.

As I scrolled through the records, cruising for my surname, I began to notice other familiar surnames. You see, I was familiar with many of the surnames in the Indiana town where my great-grandmother had settled. I'd not only looked at the churchbooks there, but also had spent the better part of a year going through three decades worth of the weekly newspapers, from 1903 to the 1930s (more microfilm!), collecting such newsy gems as "[one of your distant guy-cousins] broke the bone in his instep Wednesday when he slipped off a tractor," and "[the future wife of your half-first cousin once removed], who was operated on Tuesday morning at 11 o'clock at Indianapolis for the removal of her tonsils and adenoids, is recovering nicely. She has been in the hospital for two months."

I'd filled three legal pads with such colorful notes, and in so doing, learned a lot about everyone in town, not just those with the pertinent surname. The more familiar the various surnames became, the more I began to notice them in my family's records, as godparents, maybe, or marriage witnesses, or spouses of my ancestor's siblings. A community grew up around a great-grandmother I'd never met. My understanding, if not of my great-grandmother, then at least of her times and the life surrounding her, was greatly increased.

So, when looking at the records of her German birthplace, familiar surnames jumped out at me, and a picture emerged--a picture of relationships that began on a different continent and continued here in this country. My understanding grew even more, not only of my great-grandmother, but of the continuity of community. I began building a place-related family tree from that microfilm and by the time I was done, I had all three of that locality's microfilms on permanent loan and 747 of my closest relatives and all their merry in-laws from there in a database that I uploaded to RootsWeb. At that point in time, I hadn't had an Ancestry membership yet, and RootsWeb was a separate entity, free and therefore within my budget.

I found that experience so worth doing that I did it again when I found another great-grandparent's German home. (Pshew! Only 166 relatives in that second database!).

It's been at least ten years since I did those projects. This subject comes up now because I've discovered yet another ancestral German place. And with both Ancestry and FamilySearch at my fingertips, I see that the opportunity exists to create another extensive place-related database. Once again, I see not only my own ancestor's surname in that locality, but also others that are familiar and associated with mine on this side of the pond. Creating this database might enable me to connect some Detroit families that I've thus far been unable to link. Godparents and marriage witnesses in the old German records may be the key that will unlock that door.

There's much to consider before I decide whether to undertake a project of that size again, not the least of which are the many unfinished projects I'm already entangled in. I guess we'll see.

In a similar vein, today I happened upon the Society for One-Place Studies, a volunteer organization which was started last year. Family historians with an interest in a particular "street, village, hamlet or town" may want to consider joining this society. (And no, I'm not jumping into that right now either! But you go right ahead!)

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Some Thoughts on Ancestry Family Trees

There's a constant drumbeat in the genea-tribe, the one that sounds like prove it... prove it... prove it. We're told over and over again, "do your own research" and "don't accept what it says in a database--see the original documents." And of course, for those relatives nearest and dearest to us, it's what we do. We collect the documents, study their content, draw our conclusions, enter the data and, if we're really toeing the line, we create a detailed source citation that would pass muster with Elizabeth Shown Mills.

Most of us, I'm guessing, have family tree software installed on our home computers, and that's where we enter and keep track of our important data. In fact, I'll post a poll below and we'll see. In any case, my own computer is where I do my most important electronic stockpiling of genealogical information (never mind the ten thousand pieces of paper), because it's where I can always quickly access the data and keep control of it, print out exactly what I want, make adjustments easily when needed, keep research notes, etc. I've done it that way since the early 1990s when I got my first home computer, a Mac Classic, and the now-defunct Family Heritage File software. When I replaced the Mac with a PC, I switched to Family Tree Maker. Years later, when Legacy waved their innovative SourceWriter under my nose, I switched again.

For most of those years, I did not have an Ancestry membership, so I did not have a tree on Ancestry. A few years ago I finally found it expedient to put Ancestry into my budget, and when the shaky leaf later came along, I really had to post a tree there because I had to find out, does Ancestry know something I don't know? Is there an easily-fetched document I've missed? Thus, for me, Ancestry is not so much the home of my data as it is a research tool.

As such, I've found it very helpful in some cases to create a tree rather than just do a simple search for someone I'm researching. For example, I might want to build a tree for someone who was a godparent or marriage witness for someone in my tree. The person may or may not be a relative, but I can learn a lot in a short time by constructing his or her tree on Ancestry, and maybe a relationship will become evident. Creating a tree enables me to quickly locate and add documents (and therefore more data to enhance Ancestry's search for leaf-shaking finds), not only for the particular individual but also for his or her other family members.

I've also built a few trees for unconnected individuals whose surname is the same as someone in my own tree. My hope, when I do that, is to discover a possible relationship somewhere back in time. But until I do, there's no reason to add that individual to my own permanent tree, nor does it make sense for me to invest a lot of time or money to document everything for someone who may turn out to be unrelated. But I do investigate other trees the individual appears in. I don't use the Review button for this investigation--I click through to each of those trees to get a broader look at them (how many people are in those trees? how often are the tree owners logged in? how extensively have they researched the surname I'm interested in?). If I find a tree which appears to be reasonably well-constructed or, better yet, created by someone closely related to the person I'm researching, I might add people from that tree to my own, to see where it leads me over time. I may get lucky and find a cousin, or someone who's done enough research to assure me that I'm not a cousin and never will be.

Either way, I've rarely been contacted by anyone from whose tree I've clicked-and-claimed, and the same is true of people who have clicked-and-claimed from my trees. And I understand that. I rarely initiate contact myself, only doing so when I believe the contact will be of particular value to at least one of us. I learned from experience to be selective about contacting people. We are not all on the same page! I observe what I can from someone's tree(s) and profile before deciding whether to invest myself in making contact, and if it seems worthwhile, I send a message and hope for a reply that's at least courteous, even if it's not filled with things I want to hear. On the whole, I've found that genealogists are a friendly and helpful lot. I suspect the rude or selfish ones are new and haven't learned our ways yet! And the foolish ones? Maybe they came to the table after watching a little TV genealogy. Either they'll get it after awhile or they won't, but there's no point in letting it spoil my day.

Two of my Ancestry trees were created solely because I have photographs or other items that belong to families other than mine. In one case, my grandmother had photos of some friends we're not related to; in the other, I purchased some postcards and other correspondence from an estate sale dealer. These items would probably be treasured by someone, and maybe someday they'll be found by the right person via these Ancestry trees.

As with any other resource, all who use Ancestry do so with their own motivations and goals, their own skill sets, their own hopes and expectations. Theirs may not match mine. I can't control that, and I don't expect to. I only get to control one body and one mind--my own. If others' trees can help me or mine can help them, that's great. If not, we can move along and look elsewhere. But no matter what, the drumbeat goes on and the same old advice applies. Do your own research. Don't accept what it says in a database as gospel (even on Ancestry!). Seek out and scrutinize original documents to see if they support your claim. You know... prove it... prove it... prove it.


Blog Archive


Our Family in Books: A Bibliography

  • My Ancestors in Books (a library of resources and notes pertaining to Reverend Samuel Stone, Major General Robert Sedgwick, Elder John Crandall, and other early Americans in the forest where my family tree was grown)
  • The Zahnisers: A History of the Family in America by Kate M. Zahniser and Charles Reed Zahniser (Mercer, Pa. 1906)
  • History of St. James Lutheran Church [full title: A little of this and a little of that in the 141 year (1861-2002) History of St. James Lutheran Church, Reynolds Indiana] by Harold B. Dodge, published at Reynolds, Indiana, 2002; 170 pages.
  • Lisbon, North Dakota 1880-2005 Quasuicentennial, published at Lisbon, North Dakota in 2005; 391 pages.
  • The Paschen and Redd Families of Cass County, Indiana by Alfred Paschen, c. 2005 (Gateway Press, Inc., Baltimore, MD); 322 pages.
  • Sheldon Community History: Sheldon Centennial 1881-1981, published at Sheldon, North Dakota in 1981; 376 pages.
  • Sheldon, North Dakota 1881-2006 - 125th Anniversary: The Queen of the Prairie, published at Sheldon, North Dakota in 2006; 498 pages.
  • A Standard History of White County, Indiana, written under the supervision of W.H. Hamelle, c. 1915 (The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago and New York).
  • The Roots of Coventry, Connecticut by Betty Brook Messier and Janet Sutherland Aronson, c. 1987 (Coventry 275th Anniversary Committee, Coventry, CT); 206 pages.
  • "Elder John Crandall of Rhode Island and His Descendants" by John Cortland Crandall; New Woodstock, New York, 1949; 797 pages.
  • "The Descendants of Robert Burdick of Rhode Island." Nellie (Willard) Johnson, Pd.B.: H & L Creations, LLC.

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