What I Have Learned About Family HistoryAunt Bea

I have been working on family history since about 1972 when I caught the bug from my late great-aunt Bea. She was infected when she decided to qualify herself for membership in the DAR and thereby qualify her son for a scholarship. In my experience, the genealogy bug is like malaria. It strikes, rages for a while, then goes dormant for months or years before it flares back up. The following are some things I have learned over the last 45+ years.

Capture Memories

Do This Now! The first thing I tell people who have caught the bug or who even think they might eventually catch it is to talk to their oldest family members about their family. Get the names of everyone they can remember. They may not remember dates, but they will remember how old they were, or what was going on in the world or in their lives at the time. If you can, record it. At least, write it down. Also, if you can get two or more family members together, their memories and stories will feed each other. And you will be glad you did this if you never do anything else.

My dad once told me that his grandmother had remarried a few years before her death in 1959. He told me what he remembered the name was, but I did not write it down! Finding someone's death information when all you know is that their first name was probably Edith and that they died in Manhattan, NYC, NY in July or early August of 1959 while married to a Canadian is not an easy task!

Capture DNA

This is new, but while I have only been working with it for a few years, it has already broken down walls that I have been beating on for decades. If you can afford it, get a DNA test for the oldest members of your family. Autosomal DNA tests can only go back so far, and the farther back you start, the farther back you can reach.

I was able to trace my great-grandfather, John W. Greenley of Wilkes-Barrie, Pennsylvania, to his mother Appolonia, the widow of William Greenley. I found an “Ebolona” Greenley, married to William Greenley, living next door to John and Margaret Greenley in 1880. The earlier 1860 Census showed a William listed as the son of that same John and Margaret Greenley. The ages matched. Unfortunately, a William living next door to a family that had a son 20 years before with the same name does not mean the William married to Appolonia was their son. But the DNA test shows that I am definitely related to Margaret (Alden) Greenley's parents. Neither the DNA nor the documents separately prove linage, but together, I think they do. (I also have a DNA match to the descendants of Appolonia's siblings!)

Find Allies

Most families have someone that has caught the genealogy bug. It may be a great-aunt, it may be a young, distant cousin. Most of the time, they are happy to share. Find them. And share what you find with them. Serendipity is alive and well in the land of family history.

I have met some really delightful people through my family research. I was even invited by some previously unknown cousins to my maternal grandfather's family reunion. A room full of people I had never met, that all looked like my mother!

Document Everything

I regret that I did not learn this sooner. When you find a source that contradicts what you documented 10 years ago, it is really good to have a pointer to the source of the original information as you try to determine which is more reliable.

It also provides credibility to your work. I have some distant cousins that only share their work with people that they feel are as serious about accuracy and documentation as they are. They do share with me.

Trust. But Verify!

Take everything with a grain of salt. Documents contain mistakes and people lie and make mistakes. The people don't necessarily mean to lie, but at best they can only tell you what they believe to be true. Never trust any bit of information that you can't verify somehow. Birth records are pretty reliable for the individual's date of birth and the mother's name, but everything else depends on the mother's veracity. You can pretty much depend on death records to reliably report that someone died, but everything else depends on the person that provided the information. And the deceased is never that provider.

A family knew great-granddad was from Alabama. He was proud to be from Alabama. Born in Alabama, lived his whole life in Alabama, died in Alabama. But no one could find any records, until someone stumbled over the truth. Born in Georgia, moved to Alabama when he was only a couple of months old, lived the rest of his life in Alabama, died in Alabama. Great-granddad himself may not have ever known he was actually born in Georgia.

Family Legends Can Be True

You will read that family stories are not usually true. Maybe my ancestors were just less creative, but each one of the legends in my family that I have been able to test turned out to be reasonably accurate. Test them before you toss them.

The story was that my grandfather was in the U.S. Navy, did something heroic in the aftermath of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, and as a reward was given duty on the presidential yacht where, when introduced to the president, he was unable to lie about his age and was subsequently discharged. In the National Archives, I found the entries for the ships' logs for both the U.S.S. Goldsborough and the U.S.S. Mayflower. My grandfather was involved in an incident when a wave from a hurricane washed over the bow. He was subsequently assigned to the presidential yacht, and he was shortly afterwards “discharged by special order of the Secretary of the Navy”. Sounds like the story was true.

Don't Lose Stuff!

I keep my family history on two web sites, on my computer, in the cloud and on paper. And my sister has copies in the state where she lives.

Before home computers and the internet, I kept all my genealogy in a black loose-leaf binder. I lost the binder! It did not reappear until we moved about 5 years later. It had been in the back of the shelf at the top of the hall coat closet! Never again!

The only mistake in life is the lesson not learned - Albert Einstein

Contact: Message me via FamilySearch (Member JWGreenley) or Ancestry.com (Member JWGreenleyJr).

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