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Research Tip: Dig Your Resources Out for a Second Look

Recently I was reshelving some books in my home library and I came across my copies of some QuickSheets (not to be confused with the Legacy QuickGuides) written by professional genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL*. I’ve read these years ago but decided to sit down and take a second look.


I’m a firm believer that learning comes out of repetition. Not necessarily repetition that we all experienced in our school days where we memorized text and then were tested on it. Instead, revisiting materials (whether ancestral records or reference materials) and re-reading and studying them for new clues. What you glance over today might have more meaning for you in six months when you have more experience with a record, or you have a new research question. Genealogists should have some reference materials in their home libraries that they can come back to as new problems are studied and researched.

I was reading Elizabeth Shown Mills’ The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (THE FAN Principle) and came across this sentence about the census in the section on Applying the Principle to Common Resources:

Censuses also help identify a community’s unofficial record keepers—the doctors, lawyers, merchants, ministers, and school teachers whose personal records may survive today in a library or an archive.

Now, do I know that a way to better understand a community is to look at who is living near the ancestor in the census? Of course! But I like how Mills writes about it referring to certain people as … “a community’s unofficial record keepers…” I hadn’t thought of it that way before. These are the people who may have kept a diary, correspondence, a ledger, sales receipts, reports, and other records that may have been donated to a local repository such as an archive or museum. Our ancestors make an appearance in the records of the people who lived in their community and with whom they had contact with. Even when we think our ancestors left little in terms of a paper trail, they may have been mentioned in the records someone in their community kept.

Our research shouldn’t just concentrate on a single person or family but it should consider the community. It’s the community that left behind archival materials that need to be explored. Sometimes thinking about a familiar record in a new way can lead us to new discoveries.

*Watch Elizabeth Shown Mills webinars on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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Re-reading a multi-paged family lore story by my grandaunt revealed, in one short sentence, something about her father, my great-grandfather, that I was totally unaware of. The sentence: "George married at about 20, but his wife and baby daughter died in childbirth." After hours of research the only independent documentation I have so far found to the existence of this first wife is a local newspaper obituary of a lady with the same surname, living on the same street, and of the correct age, etc., had died of typhoid fever. This event was two years prior to his marriage to my great-grandmother. The obit also mentioned George and "Mrs." had earlier lost a young child. Everything fit except for the typhoid fever as the cause of death and the timing of the child's death. I have not yet found a given name of this first wife, or the child, but I'll keep looking. Somewhat startling to think about is the fact that, had this first wife lived, I likely would not be here...

I'm in the process of going back and looking at old Census to try and find last names of people that I have a dead end.
This is all on Ancestry where I can save stuff in a shoe box to look at later or might have the same last names but I don't know where they fit in to my tree.
Some web sites for the areas help also like Lost roads of Texas or some of the Polish community web sites

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