The Tree Tip #6: Field Research and Connecting to Your Past

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March 11, 2012 by The Editor

It is clear to anyone involved with genealogical research today, digitization of historical records has brought the process of researching family history into the homes of more and more people. At our fingertips are decades, even centuries of information, available in databases that require little to no formal training in research or past experience in genealogy. That is not to say the task has become easier. As I have noted in past articles, services such as Ancestry.com come with pitfalls such as bad indexing, poor transcriptions, and a host of other problems that require a certain facility with searching databases that comes with experience.

While Ancestry.com and other similar research sites have indeed made genealogy very exciting for many people, it is important to remember that such websites, despite their great advances in offering historical material and all that they have done to open records to the general population, are not the last word on family history. Even if Ancestry.com has millions of records, it should not be seen as the first and only stop for doing family research.

What you cannot find online, as I have mentioned in previous posts, are ephemera such as the stories and family lore that are passed down in an oral tradition. You cannot find online information that is gathered through a purposeful interview of relatives on family history.  These are by nature opportunities for “field research” – research that comes from direct experience.  This is research based on relationships we have with other people or on a connection with a place, rather than on our ability to read the census online from 1910.

My earliest field research, in addition to interviewing relatives, was done in my hometown. It may come as a surprise to many, but places of worship, for example, did not stop keeping registers in the 19th century. Baptisms, marriages, burials, etc., are still recorded and this record-keeping continues today. Many religious bodies will allow researchers access to such records, affording an opportunity for local research for people who live in the same town as preceding generations of their family.

For example, at my home parish, St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Onaway, Michigan, I discovered in the parish burial register that my family history in the area was deeper than I had known and included  family members that were completely new to me. In addition to registers, simply walking through the local cemetery may yield information about family members which is new to you. In my own case, my extended family members were largely buried in close proximity to one another. When visiting my Mom’s hometown in South Dakota, I took the opportunity to photograph family headstones at St. Otto’s Catholic Cemetery which has proven useful in later research.

If your family members were involved in civic life, in fraternal clubs, unions, or farming cooperatives for example, organizational records my contain narrative accounts that include mention of your relative, such as activities they may have planned or participated in. They may even have photographs. If your ancestor owned property, local government offices will likely have records related to their property transactions. While some such records are available via Ancestry.com, it is important to remember that, if such things are not found there, it does not mean they don’t exist.

Taking your research out of the hands of others, who admittedly have established a great resource, is a way to establish a more personal connection to ‘lost’ family history than can be afforded by a database. My larger point is to encourage people to vary their sources, vary their methods, and to not forget about “field research.” It is this direct, ‘on the ground,’ sort of research that I fear many people will not experience as the databases of Ancestry.com are augmented by additional digital collections.

Getting out of the digital domain will enliven your search. Connecting, even if only locally, with the places where your family members walked, prayed, lived, worked, and died is a vital way to make family research more than a matter of keeping good records. Getting out and walking in the footsteps of past generations may awaken a deeper sense of curiosity about the past, but also a deeper, perhaps more meaningful sense of who we are and where we come from that databases really cannot offer us.

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2 thoughts on “The Tree Tip #6: Field Research and Connecting to Your Past

  1. LaVagabonde says:

    According to my maternal grandmother (whose parents were Slovaks from Austria-Hungary), her mother’s grandmother was a gypsy. My grandmother still has first cousins who live in southern Poland, though they are ethnically Slovak. She has asked them about this and other family lore, but they vehemently deny it and are amused that she was so fascinated by “things that aren’t important”, i.e. the past.

    Since I live in this part of Europe now, I’ve become close with these cousins and tried to bring up the subject. Again it’s dismissed, and some of them (on my grandmother’s mother’s side) even deny that they are of Slovak origin as well. Funny, because they’ve all got black hair and dark skin… Apparently, the church records were burned by the Nazis in WWII, so there’s no way to go back more than a couple of generations…and gypsies have never kept records anyway.

    It’s a family mystery that may never be solved. But the lore is definitely colorful!

    Thanks for all of the great tips on genealogy!

    • James LaForest says:

      Interesting – I think there are a lot of prejudices that run very deep – everywhere! It’s really cool
      you get to meet these distant relatives though!

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