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Beginning Genealogy, Featured

Winning Gold When Starting Genealogy

Nicka Smith
by Nicka Smith
1 June 2017

Enjoy success by avoiding common pitfalls when beginning your genealogy research.

The allure of discovering our origins is all around us. Whether we’re watching television and see commercials for DNA tests or reading the latest, greatest historically based novel, history is certainly en vogue.

Millions begin their online genealogy searches hoping to strike family history gold quickly and easily. The online genealogy environment has almost ensured this. On the other hand, one quickly learns that they definitely can’t guarantee lasting results without avoiding common pitfalls.

Tilling the Soil is Essential

A common mistake beginners make is not tilling the soil around them before they take a deep dive into online genealogy research. Tilling the soil, in the genealogical sense, means searching and utilizing what we and our relatives have in our possession before going online. The home repository can be one of the most valuable assets to a genealogist because it contains documents and ephemera available nowhere else. It’s usually passed down from one generation to the next and can answer a multitude of questions and solve many mysteries.

This checklist produced by Brigham Young University is an excellent tool for a home search for genealogically relevant materials. It’s broken down into categories and has checkboxes that allows anyone who utilizes it to easily keep track of what they’ve searched for and what they’ve obtained.

Additionally, interviewing family members is another part of tilling the soil. The Ultimate Family History Interview Primer is a great guide with 190 questions that remove the guesswork and get right to the information you need for your genealogy project.

Analyzing Documents For More Than Just Face Value

We can’t deny the emotions experienced after seeing an ancestor’s name on a document for the first time. It’s a rush that almost can’t be replicated. Unfortunately, many don’t move beyond seeing the name of an ancestor to analyzing all the information that is within the document uncovered. True genealogical analysis means reading and taking into account every word and line within each piece of evidence gathered.

Each time you obtain a document, ask the following questions:

  • What was the intent behind the document’s creation?
  • How was your ancestor’s information captured?
  • What can you add to your ancestor’s life timeline based on the information?
  • What is captured that adds to the life timeline of other family members?
  • What are other documents can you look for based on the information presented?

Asking these questions of each find gives you an opportunity to move beyond facts to unearth the full story of your ancestors lives.

We’ve Always Had Social Networks

Social media is definitely a way of life, but what we do online is a really a replication of what has been done throughout history. Our family history story is personal yet it’s also public through the connections our ancestors have made with those in their communities. We can add flesh to the bones of our genealogy by researching the interactions our ancestors had with other people who weren’t relations.

Establish the social network of decades past by asking the following questions:

  • What social organizations were your family members involved in? Who was also in these organizations?
  • Who lived around your family? How did they interact with your family?
  • Who served as witnesses on documents? Do the names repeat several times?
  • What religious affiliations did your family have? Is the institution still around?
  • Did your ancestors share names with unrelated individuals? If so, what may have been the reason for that?

Taking the time to answer these questions can lead to many more clues and finds when it comes to your ancestral communities.

DNA Tests Are a Tool But Not The End All Be All

Beyond the percentages and maps lies huge potential when it comes to DNA testing for genealogy. The issue is that most don’t consider that their results are limited without additional leg work and assume that all the answers for decades of questions will be answered once the results come in. Here are some things to keep in mind when doing DNA testing for genealogy:

Missing Groups in Percentages: Is the oral history not aligning with results? There are a number of reasons why this happens. This video that explains the top three reasons why this happens. 

Additional Family Members Need to be Tested: If you’re trying to find more info for lines that are unknown, it’s a must to test other family members. A rule of thumb is to test parents and grandparents (or their siblings) first. Also, consider testing known second cousins who represent your 8 great grandparents. Anyone who matches you and those second cousins is likely related through the line of the family you all share.

Learn the Technology: Be clear on the terms used, how each company’s database affects the results displayed, and what additional learning you need to do to make strong hypotheses and conclusions.

DNA is a great tool, when used correctly. It’s continuing to break down many brick walls that would not have been broken down without it.

Tilling existing soil, analyzing documents, replicating the social networks of yore, and using DNA as a tool can ensure that beginners avoid genealogical pitfalls. Years of significant advances await!

About the Author

Nicka Smith is a professional photographer, speaker, host, and documentarian with more than 18 years of experience as a genealogist. She has extensive experience in African ancestored genealogy, reverse genealogy, and family reunion planning and execution. She is also an expert in genealogical research in the Northeastern Louisiana area, sharing genealogy with youth, documenting the ancestral journey, and employing the use of new technology in genealogy and family history research.

Nicka has diverse and varied experience in communications, with a background in publications, editing, graphic design, radio, and video production. She has edited and designed several volumes of family history that include narratives, photos, and genealogical information and has also transferred these things to an online environment.

Nicka is the host of BlackProGen LIVE, a web show focused on people of color genealogy and family history. She is a board member of the California Genealogical Society (CGS) and for the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California (AAGSNC), a member of AAHGS Memphis/Mid South and the Southern California Genealogical Society, former chair of the Outreach and Education Committee for AAGSNC, and former project manager for the Alameda County, CA Youth Ancestral Project where more than 325 youth were taught the value of family history. Nicka is also the family historian and lead researcher for the Atlas family of Lake Providence, East Carroll, Louisiana.

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