My Genealogy Do-Over

When I began compiling my family tree several years ago I operated on the philosophy of name collecting without giving the underlying structure much actual substance. I focused on the skeleton while avoiding the meat. As a result my tree was fragile, weak, and rather meaningless.

Through family interviews and “cousin” contacts I found that most family historians operate under the same philosophy. And what is most frightening is that we fail to report our source information. I was rather fortunate to have two early historians in my family, a sister and a cousin to my maternal grandfather. And while they collected a great deal of data that has been helpful in my own tree, both failed to record their source information, thus I have the problem in not knowing who said what and when they said it.

Simply stating a fact is worthless unless source data is recorded with that fact.
I was as guilty as my great aunts in not recording source information. And this is something that I have since decided to correct. If you take a look at my family website at you will see how I am doing just that. This site focuses on my 2nd Great Grandfather James Pennington who was born around 1828 and died in 1903 from Typhoid Fever. James was a Private in Lincoln’s War, serving with the 9th New York Cavalry. He was injured in that war and suffered the repercussions for over 40 years post-war.

While this website focuses on James as the immigrating ancestor, it also contains information on his entire family through the several generations recording all information using the NGSQ descending numbering system. My site was even featured in Maureen Taylor’s Family Tree Magazine blog where she called the site “a wonderful example of how to present your family history on the web”.

My site is a work in progress and by no means complete. Not all facts have been sourced but they are in process of being so. Its a struggle attempting to collect all known facts and placing these into historical perspective with where each bit of information allegedly came from. That’s the importance of sourcing information. So future generations can find that same information and duplicate my results. It’s really a rather scientific process.

So how do you begin a genealogy do-over?

Start with what you know: your parents – and work your way back from there. Source each and every piece of information you have on your parents. Interview them (if possible) and fully develop the story of their lives before moving on to the next generation. In time you will work back to the early 1800s where information is lacking. That’s OK. Just compile and source what you are able.

I enjoy walks through a couple of my local cemeteries, both which are laid out as park settings. The other day I was walking along looking over the stone faces that I’ve seen a multitude of times when it finally dawned on me: this is what genealogy is all about. The people buried here were just as real in life as you and I. They lived lives that are begging to be discovered. While the tombstone records a date of birth and a date of death, it is that “dash” in between that the family historian is most concerned with.

Look for the Dash.

When taking each person back on your tree it is your duty to focus on the life that individual lived. Who were they in life? The closer a generation is to us the larger the changes someone remembers that individual and can relate who he/she was in life: their mannerisms, their spirituality, their likes and dislikes, their appearance, etc. But the further back we go, that personality starts to fade away. We then define them based on the facts we are able to collect: fraternal memberships, jobs worked, church memberships, etc. These facts help us build on the individual, not in personality, but a personhood. We begin to see who they were based on what they accomplished or failed to accomplish in life.

Taking the story back to my 2nd Great Grandfather James Pennington, there is much that I do not know about him. But what I do know has painted a story about his person. It shows me what made him tick as a human being. I have no clue what he was like in personality. He may have been a complete ass or one of the sweetest individuals of his neighborhood…there is no way of knowing. What I do know is who he was based on his war service, his employment, his children, his post-war experiences, and his fraternal membership in the GAR. Make sense?

I can guess at his personality based on the personalities of his children. Each was private, reclusive, introverted, hard at work, serious, and stable. The apple doesn’t fall from the tree. It is likely that his children developed these personalities, at least in part, from their father.

So discover as much as you are able about each individual in your tree, source that information, and create a brief biography of each before moving on to the next individual. Find every Census. Leave no stones unturned. Complete the life story before moving to the next.

I enjoy the NFSQ Numbering System. I’ve been asked before concerning this. Perhaps a future article will focus on how to use the NFSQ System properly.

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