Tracking Research: Keep a log!

This part of preparing for a research project is where many of us stumbled in the formative years of our genealogy adventures.At least it was the case for me. Tracking my research has been the single biggest time waster, and is at the root of many of the brick walls I ran into early on. It’s such an obvious concept…keeping a log of all the resources used in pursuit of an ancestor’s vital information or proof of a relationship. Such a log would in turn create an organized, focused to-do list, once again, brilliant in theory, but somewhat elusive when it comes to actually doing the research. It’s so much more exciting to prepare a mental list and then jump right in to the thick of things.

As I’ve said before, my client work revolves around keeping a detailed research log, which becomes an integral part of every research report. My personal research deserves the same care and attention to detail. Thomas MacEntee has created an excellent Excel spreadsheet which you can download here to track his research, and with a few modifications, I could make it my own, but I’m more of a Word girl. As appealing as an Excel log would be, I’m inclined toward creating one in Word, because that’s my comfort zone. I suspect I will have more success this way; that there’s more of a chance I’ll stick with it. Plus, I love Word tables!

Revisiting Old Research: Beginning at the Beginning

Looking back to the time when I discovered genealogy; when I felt the first stirrings of what would become a life-long addiction, if only I’d known then what I know now, I’d have approached my personal research in a much more organized way: beginning with a research plan and starting with what I know, instead of what I assumed; setting goals; conducting a self interview; and conducting family interviews, All of which I write down with detailed citations. It’s never too late, however, to pause to look at that early research with fresh eyes.

Genealogy has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. My journey began with the smallest of moments. While on a family vacation in England when I was 13, my grandfather, knowing my love of all things equestrian, gave me a faded, dog-eared photo of a man on a horse.

The photo was 50 years old and the man was my great grandfather, Leonard Turner. Granddad was patient, answering all my questions and then some; spending hour upon hour of that month long visit feeding my hunger for the past. And so it began…

Back on American soil, I painstaking drew out a pedigree chart, writing in all the information Granddad had recalled about his ancestors. As you might imagine, some of the details and family stories were more fiction than fact, but what did I know… Over the years, that treasured document became quite tattered, as I frequently erased penciled-in facts, and scribbled out the ones written in pen. The handwriting became smaller and smaller with each new fact, leaving no room for citations, even if I had known about them then, which I did not! I kept the chart in a drawer, and dug it out whenever my grandparents came for the summer, or we traveled back to England for a vacation. In the meantime, I turned to my paternal side of the family tree—markedly easier than my British roots, because I was surrounded by relatives. And their history. In fact, I sometimes felt I was living their history. Although I was born in England, I grew up in the house my father built, next to door to the house where he’d spent his childhood, two doors down from where my grandmother grew up, and about a mile down the street from the house my German Ebert ancestors lived in following their immigration to America in the 1880s.

Grampie was one of seventeen children, and I grew up visiting a good number of them at the Varrieur family compound in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where they gathered together on Sundays. As it happened, those great aunts loved to talk about themselves! The stuff of genealogists’ dreams! None of my grandparents’ generation is alive today to answer questions in a formal interview, so I will have to rely on my love of story, and my memory of theirs. I do have documents supporting, or in some case casting doubt on, many of those stories and family remembrances, and it will be interesting to look through them as I layout some research goals for bringing the research up to standard and filling in the holes.

Migration Paths Which Led Our Ancestors to Western Pennsylvania

Our ancestors led lives as complex as ours are today. They celebrated milestones and events just like we do; they weathered hardships similar to ours; and, their actions were driven by the same hopes and fears that we face today. We tend to think that in the ‘good ole days’ back when life was simple, our ancestors lived their entire lives in one place. Family and community were everything. Travel was always difficult and often dangerous. Wagons and saddle bags were the only means for moving belongings. But, colonists and immigrants were a hardy bunch. They’d already survived a trip across the Atlantic and they were adventurers at heart. As the land of the eastern part of our country filled up, our ancestors looked westward. The earliest among them were attracted to a frontier of abundant, virgin land. Later, the draw was industry and opportunity. Some received bounty land for military service, many moved for economic or politic reasons, others followed religious leaders. They migrated with extended family and friends and tended to follow established routes, many of which were laid out by Native Americans long before the colonists arrived. Studying the routes and learning about the push and pull factors of any given time period can help us better understand our forebears and provide clues to the origins of ancestors who seemingly appeared out of thin air.

Erie, Pennsylvania, is an ethnic melting pot. Early settlers were looking for land. Later, waves of immigrants from all over Europe and Asia were attracted by opportunities which arose as industry developed along the Great Lakes. Periods of heavy migration, particular to our region, stemmed from:

1. Seventeenth century New Englanders enticed by open land
2. Post American Revolution, military bounty land.
3. Early 1800s, development of industry along canals and railroads

The first two were primarily rural to rural. The last was usually rural to urban. If you have a general idea when your ancestor arrived in Erie, study the U.S. history of that period. Was there a war? Was there crop failure or economic crisis? What were the predominant roadways and water systems in place at the time. Using historical context, you may be able to trace your ancestor’s elusive origins, by working backwards. Study maps of the time period. Your ancestor may not have made the trip west all at once. It was much more common for migrants to stop along the way for months or even years at a time, while they earned the money needed to continue on their journey. There are two excellent resources for learning more about the specific trails and routes which impacted Erie:

Eldridge, Carrie. An Atlas of Appalachian Trails to the Ohio River. Huntington, WV: CDM Printing, 1998.Eldridge, Carrie. An Atlas of Northern Trails Westward from New England. Huntington, WV: CDM Printing, 2000.

In modern times, when migration was motivated by industry, ancestors can be followed through census records. But moves west before the 1850s are harder to trace. Erie’s population grew from migration along several well–known routes.

The primary early route west from New England was the Mohawk Trail, which followed the Mohawk River. Massachusetts colonists often took a military road known as the “Old Connecticut Path,” westward from Boston to Albany, across the Berkshires, where it joined with the Mohawk Trail. This route crossed the Hudson River and then took a northerly route through the Appalachian Mountains. Loyalists took these trails into Canada, during and immediately after the American Revolution. It was along this route that the Erie Canal and railroads were built, and later the Massachusetts and New York Thruways.

If your ancestors arrived in the mid to late 1800s, especially single young men, they may have come with the canal or railroad. Look along the New York Thruway to find towns where he might have stopped for a period of time.

Braddock’s Road was a southerly route west across the Appalachian Mountains. Developed as a military road during the French and Indian Wars, this route led from the southern colonies to the Pittsburgh area. It was a route taken by many Scotch–Irish, and it was also popular among trappers and traders, heading toward trading settlements in Ohio and Michigan. If your ancestors only stopped in Erie briefly, they could have been on their way farther west.

Forbes’ Road, also military in its origins, led from Philadelphia and Harrisburg, crossing the middle of Pennsylvania to arrive at Pittsburgh.


Reference material for this article was found in Beverly Whitaker’s United States Migration Patterns, National Institute for Genealogical Studies, Toronto. Also, Ray Allen Billington’s Westward Expansion: a History of the American Frontier. 5th Ed. New York: Macmillan, 1982.

My Genealogy New Year: or, Why I’m Abandoning my Genealogy Software

I’m kicking off the new year with the rather lofty goal of starting my personal family history research over, from scratch, follow the lead set by Thomas MacEntee, who is spearheading the very popular project which he’s calling a Genealogy Do-Over; you can read all about it here. Using his program as a guide I’m going to begin by:

1) Setting Previous Research Aside
2) Preparing to Research
3) Establishing Base Practises and Guidelines

Notable of course is the concept of NOT diving right in. If you’re anything like me, beginning research on a new ancestor is a lot like opening a big bag of your favorite candy. Despite every good intention of moderation and common sense, before you know it you’re feeling bloated and maybe even a little dizzy from the sugar rush, and nothing gets done the rest of the day because all you can do is nap. Needless to say, when, as a young teen, I embarked on this journey, I took a lot of naps. Thirty years later, there are family facts I feel certain are true, but proof is often precarious and the documentation to support my convictions is in many cases non-existent. Hence the allure of the Genealogy Do-Over!

Setting Previous Research Aside

Not as hard as you might have guessed because: firstly, I’m just moving my files to a virtual place known as HOLD EVERYTHING; and, secondly, it’s really a mess, a very unattractive, stress-inducing mess, kind of like that hall closet where I shove everything out of place within reach when an unexpected visitor rings the  door bell.

What I am not putting aside, are original records, scans of original records, and copies of vital records and paid research findings because to do so would be a waste of money and time. The difference this time will be the methodology I apply in analyzing and correlating the evidence found in those documents. The original records are filed by family name, and all of them are digitized and stored on my OneDrive for safe keeping and easy access from my laptop, tablet, smart phone, and any computer I happen to find in front of me that has internet access. Redundancy is EVERYTHING!

Preparing to research

For me, this involved determining which branches of my tree would be the focus of re-do. I’m over committed as usual, and can realistically, and in good conscience, dedicate only one day a week (and at this point it’s looking like Saturday) to this endeavor. I could have gone in any number of directions, but I’ve settled on three generations of my paternal grandfather’s forebears.

Ernest Napoleon Varrieur and his wife Elsie, the author’s paternal grandparents

It’s doable, my documentation appears to be only moderately disorganized, and there are a couple of tantalizing brick walls. Plus, I find the families interesting. Really interesting. There’s a painting I love by my dear friend and gifted artist, Frank Sullivan, called The Stories We Don’t Tell. As Frank so eloquently puts it,

We all have our stories – the ones we tell the people in our lives. The one that define us, the ones that everyone we know has heard at least once, the ones that we can’t wait to introduce to new people who come into our lives….They’ve shaped us, made us who we are and they help us to show others who we are. But there are other stories. The ones we don’t tell. The things we’ve done or that have been done to us that we don’t want anyone to know about. The stories that have scarred us or that reveal our dark side. The stories that we’ll take to our graves.

Our ancestors left us bread crumbs. If we’re lucky, those crumbs are more fact than fiction, but we can never really be sure of the motivations behind their actions and the veracity of the details they chose to share. Yes, they took a lot of stories to their graves, but if we dig deep enough and carefully enough, using patience, good organization, and The Genealogy Proof Standard, we can find clues they left behind for us, whether intentionally or inadvertently. I know I missed a lot in the infancy of my role as family historian, which is why I’m going to follow Thomas’s lead and take is slowly this time round.

Establishing Base Practises and Guidelines

So…about abandoning my genealogy software. I bought a new laptop a few weeks ago, a Surface Pro 2 which, by the way, is the best laptop I’ve ever had. Moving my software and files took a lot of time, and one thing I never got to was downloading Rootsmagic 7, my tried and trusted genealogy software for as long as I can remember. Last night, as a first step to my Do-Over, I installed the software and imported my personal Gedcom. My database contains around seven thousand ancestors (at least, I hope they’re mine, although the confidence that they are has waned exponentially with the honing of my research skills). It’s orderly, and easy to search and maneuver through, but, and it’s a big “but,” the structure of the database limits its use in getting an accurate picture of the thoroughness of the research on each family group, quickly highlighting brick walls, and determining the reliability of evidence for each person’s life facts. Family group sheets, while great for some purposes, are no where near as useful, at least for me, as narrative or compiled genealogies. The Board for Certification of Genealogists provides excellent samples of three different formats here. There are pros and cons to each format, and I’m not sure at this point which will work best for me. However, I am sure that the net positives of these written styles clearly out way the net positives of any reports produced by genealogy software.

This opinion has formed over a number of years, beginning in 2011 when I took Boston University’s genealogical research course. My long term clients will have noted an evolution in my research reports since then. I’m really happy with the research template I’m currently using. Essentially, it contains five parts:

  • A defined genealogical problem or question & all known facts and previous research of relevance.
  • A summary of key findings, followed by a detailed discussion of the research, and my written conclusions. Also, if appropriate to the problem or question, a formal genealogy of the research subject.
  • A research log, with bibliography and full source citations, including sources containing negative findings.
  • Recommended next steps
  • Scans of all documents referenced in the report.

Structuring the report as such allows me to quickly ascertain the status of the problem or question, what sources have already been searched, the structure of the family with proof summaries and arguments, with complete source citations, on which I’ve based my conclusions, and a plan for continuing the research. Having images of the documents referenced also refreshes my memory of the research when I next pick up the project, and allows me to further evaluate my findings and conclusions before moving forward. This approach works really well in my client research, so why would I not want this for myself????

One other base practise, which is so critical to good research, it deserves notice here, is to never work without a research plan at hand. Not even, or perhaps especially, when there’s just a few minutes to spare while dinner cooks. In the beginning, research took time, the pace often determined by the post office. The advent of the Internet, while wonderful, introduced speed to the hunt. The ease of accessing information online is mindblowing, and without a plan, you can head off in a dozen different directions in the blink of an eye. This willy-nilly approach, while seemingly productive, generally results in poor or non-existent source citations, and no real proof of anything. Research plans, while malleable, keep us on the straight and narrow. They give direction to our research, and create a work flow that we can refer back to later. I never tackle a client project without one so, here again, why handle my own research any differently??????

My plan then (and, for sure, one in written form!)…while I’m certainly not going to delete my Rootsmagic database, I will begin at the beginning with Word. And about that: my good friend and colleague, Brent Chadwick, over at Knox Trail Ances-Tree, has been hard at work on a Word template which is designed to automate the numbering of a compiled genealogy. I, happily, have been a bit of a guinea pig, and in the process have incorporated much of his automation into macros in my own research template. I generally use the Modified Register method of numbering my genealogies. Entering the numbers by hand is simple enough when one is working with a single lineage, or just two or three generations of a person’s ancestors or descendants; however, things can quickly become unmanageable as new research reveals additional children, or siblings, who need to be inserted in their proper place. Brent’s macros allows for easy insertion and adjusts the numbering automatically and effortlessly.

And, there you have it. I’ve filed away years of research and am armed at the ready with a blank Word template, eager to start afresh with focus, solid research methodology, and my already dog-eared copy of Mastering Genealogical Proof. I’d love to have you join me 🙂