If you were to round up 100 genealogists, whether professional or amateur, and ask them one thing they wish they had known from day one, all one hundred would say "to source everything".
Everyone begins researching their ancestry for a different reason - for some it's seeing a photograph of our great-great-grandmother, for others it's being forced to for some junior highschool project. Most of us go into it having no idea that it's going to become a lifelong passion; it is for that reason that so few of us source things properly at first, and it is for that reason that we've all had to go back over our entire tree asking ourselves "where the #*@% did I get that information?" While that is admittedly a valuable learning experience, it's one you should nevertheless be spared.
The dead, it turns out, leave paper trails. Census records, marriage licenses, birth and death certificates, wills, newspaper mentions, and baptism records - just to name a few - are out there for most of our ancestors, it's just a matter of finding them. Finding them, however, can be a bit intimidating, as you will be convinced by your Google searches that you have to pay for this subscription or that record, and if you do not have the money to spare, it may seem that there's no hope of collecting these documents. Not true. Sites like Family Search and Find A Grave offer records, portraits, and burial information for free. You can download these images and use them as you see fit. Even Ancestry, which is largely a pay-to-use site, allows you to link records to your ancestors and relatives for free, if you have a tree with them. The catch is that you cannot download them unless you pay for a subscription (pro tip: if you cannot afford the yearly subscription, consider paying for a single month and saving as many records as you can over that time).
So, you've got a few tabs open, and you're ready to search for sources. Now what? One would hope it would be as simple as typing in your ancestor's name, and having all their records pop up. Ah, to hope. In truth, you have a lot to contend with. There were probably several people with your ancestor's name living in the same country at the same time. You may not know their date of birth or death, making it harder to narrow down which one is them. Census takers recorded names as they heard them, allowing for many mistakes. Searching for, and sourcing, our ancestors is not purely a matter of pulling up documents, it is just as much an exercise in deduction, in making intelligent guesses, in putting two and two together over and over again. For example, my 3x great-grandfather's name was Benjamin Ellis Trowbridge, and he was born around 1823. I have records, however, that list him as B.E. Trobridge born in 1828, Ben Trawbridge born in 1819, and Benjamin Troridge born in 1821. On the face of it, I cannot be sure that these are all the same person, but I do know that they were all married to a woman named Martha, they all lived in the same city, they all had the same occupation, and they all had a son named Sylvester. There's no such thing as an absolute guarantee in genealogy, but that's about as close as it gets.
In seeking sources for our ancestors, we must keep plenty in mind. Things then were not as they are today; I can tell you the exact minute my doctor recorded my birth (7:23 am, if you're curious) - my great-great-grandmother wasn't entirely positive of the year she was born (she favoured 1870, but she turns up on a census record from the late '60s). Not all that long ago, people were far less sure of what year they were born, what country their parents were born in, or their mother's maiden name. Oddly, we ancestral researchers end up knowing more details about their family than they ever did. We have the luxury of the library, the internet, and knowing that we should perhaps cast a wider net. We are able to look through numerous records and compile those most likely to match up to our relative. And that is exactly what we should be doing.
We also must be willing to reject sources - the very first John Smith you find on Ancestry.com is unlikely to be your John Smith. This is the biggest issue I see with people's family trees; they are so eager to grow their tree, they do not take the time to really read the documents they are attaching to their ancestors. They add anything they find that has the right name and the right general location, quickly accumulating dozens of "sources", turning their tree into a buffet of information. This, in turn, encourages new researchers to copy some of those "sources", which in turn makes things so much harder for those who want a truly accurate tree. Properly sourcing things takes time. You must be willing to read each document carefully, to do a little math, to seek out clues. And, you must be willing to set aside or outright reject documents that may bear your ancestor's name but no other resemblance.
TL;DR: The Quick and Dirty Version of the Above
1. Make it a priority to source everything: names, dates of birth and death, spouse, children, everything. Where you can find those things: census records, birth and death certificates, gravestones/cemetery records, baptism and christening records, obituaries, land deeds, local newspapers, just to name a few. Where you can find those things: Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilySearch, FindAGrave, Newspapers.com, or, if you happen to live in the same region your ancestors did, your local archives.
2. Cast a wide net. Know that spelling and numbers may change slightly from document to document. If you cannot find any records for your ancestor using the information you've been given, go broader. If you think they were born in 1828, consider looking at 1827 and 1829 births as well. If their last name was Smith, consider that it may have been recorded as Smyth or Smythe.
3. ...but not so wide that it collects everything. Don't add sources just for the sake of adding them - be as certain as you can that the person named in the document really is your ancestor. Read each document carefully, looking for hints that it belongs to your ancestor: does their spouse's name seem right, and does it stay the same/similar from source to source? Is an address listed on the document? Do those addresses match up? If you find consistent facts from document to document, you can feel pretty confident they all belong to the same person. If you don't, you must be willing to discard them, or at least set them aside for further examination.
4. Be patient. Accurately sourcing each and every person in your tree will take time, and while that's not what anyone wants to hear when they're first starting out, I promise you it is a positive. The more time you take in researching your ancestors, the more you will learn about them, and the more you learn about them, the more you'll want to know. And that, that is what this is all about.
It was about this time last year when my hubby asked me what I wanted for Christmas. Approximately 30 seconds later, I was online, ordering an Ancestry DNA kit.
When I bought it, I knew next to nothing about genetic genealogy. My hope in testing was that I would put a few family rumours to rest, one way or another, and perhaps chip away at a brick wall or two. I had no idea what to expect, and no idea what I was doing.
The test kit took what seemed to me forever to arrive. When it finally did, I busted it open, read the instructions, and cursed a lot. One was not to eat, drink, or smoke prior to taking the test, and I had done all three. I'd have to wait until the next morning. When I did get to take the test, I was overwhelmed by the possibilities. As I spat into that tiny vial, I wondered what I might find. Would family rumours be proved correct, or would they be put to rest? Would I finally figure out who my great-grandfather was? Were there any family secrets lurking out there that my saliva had the power to reveal?
I spat. I sealed. I sent. And I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, I received an email that took me to my results. As I watched Ancestry's fancy-shmancy presentation of the final result, I could barely contain myself; I had heard so many stories from others, ranging from devastating to thrilling, and each one served to feed my anticipation. Would I learn of a new ancestral line? Would I find out my research had led me astray? There were so many possibilities, and I was just seconds away from a whole new world of genealogical discovery.
What I actually learned is that I am really, really white. Not at all surprisingly, my results came back as 94% European. The family stories of Native ancestry were immediately put to bed, and those who had heard about an ancestor from somewhere hot and sandy were to be disappointed. What was a bit surprising, however, was the breakdown of my results. All of my research had taught me that the vast majority of my known ancestors were English, Scottish, and Welsh, so the 59% England/Ireland/Scotland/Wales result made complete sense, and was a much appreciated confirmation of 12 years of research. The remaining 35% came as a surprise, though - 21% from "Europe West", which Ancestry defines as "Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein", and 14% from Scandinavia. Aside from a 5x great-grandfather from Germany, I knew of no ancestors from either Western Europe or Scandinavia. A year later, I still don't.
While the "ethnicity estimate" was interesting (if grammatically obnoxious), what I'd really been hoping to discover were living relatives. I wanted to see the faces and learn the names of those with whom I shared an ancestor. I hoped to break down a brick wall or two, to find someone out there who knew about the people I did not. I had some cheesy wish that my DNA would be a puzzle piece that would make the whole picture a little clearer. In this, I have been a bit disappointed thus far. While I do currently have 146 "shared ancestor" matches and over 1000 distant cousins, I have learned very little through any of them. Many have no family tree, and few answer messages - they obviously tested for more personal reasons, or lost interest along the way. I've not broken down any brick walls, nor found relatives from lines I didn't already know a lot about. On the bright side, those who do want to communicate are eager and helpful and as thrilled as I am to find a distant relation. They seem to be doing this for the same reasons I am, and I'm grateful for having discovered them.
Of course, some fault for not finding more sits with me, as well. Learning about genetic genealogy is almost like learning a new language; there are halpogroups and centimorgans and numbered chromosomes and all sorts of other terms to sort through, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't find it all bit overwhelming. One of my goals for 2018 is to stop procrastinating and actually dig in to what I was so eager to learn, before I actually had to learn it, hopefully leading to a post this time next year in which I share all my new discoveries.
Overall, I have found the genetic genealogy experience fascinating, confusing, exciting, and more work than I'd anticipated. I've learned little, but been greatly inspired to continue searching. I now know that many other parts of Europe are holding secrets to my ancestry that I have yet to uncover. I know a little bit more about how I got here, and am driven to learn even more.
Oh, and that other 6%? Eurasia, Asia, and Spain.