Digging the Dirt on your Ancestors

I don’t know about the Brits, but here in the U.S. we say we’re “digging up dirt” when we work hard to get the details of an interesting, maybe even scandalous, story.  It’s just one of those idiotic idioms we use.

They might be, Harry. Just how much do you know about Lilly and James Potter?

I’ve just wrapped up my first professional research project. All of the records come from the British portion of the U.K. It’s been a lot of fun, and a LOT of work. Probably a lot more work than I needed to do; but I can honestly say that I now know much more about a complete stranger’s past than they do.

I’m busy trying to make a living, so my dad, who is retired, handles the majority of my family’s genealogy. My dad is from a small town in New York, but he grew up in Nevada with no communication from his father’s family in New York or from his mother’s family in Pennsylvania. When grandma left the Painted Hills area, she cut all ties. Dad had to remake a lot of connections to begin his research. Thanks to the internet, it’s been a little easier, but Dad’s no youngster, and he likes doing things on paper. It’s a little slow and messy, and he’s got to be incredibly organized. Unfortunately, my dad inherited his organizational skills from me.  I have had to learn to make a strength out of my weakness, and it is a constant battle. That last project reminded me of that.

Until I began the Untold Stories  project, I really was just a dabbler. Genealogy is a hobby I’ve had since I was a teenager. It is something my dad and I have in common, and I have very fond memories of our family search “dates” from my childhood. My most recent free-lance job was for a genealogical research company, so I don’t get to know who the client I’m working for is.  Honestly, I like it that way because I don’t enter my research with any prejudices. I was presented with just a bit of hearsay, a photograph, and four “documents”. One was an “annotated” copy of a census record, and another, a scribbled index of a census record which was not a match for the ancestor they wanted me to search. I was feeling a little better about my organizational skills upon seeing these.

But I was totally unprepared for the deluge of documents that I would uncover, and I had no clue how to store them temporarily among my already overflowing genealogy files on my computer.  After I had collected about thirty documents, I decided to go back and double check to see if I’d missed anything. It was then that I realized that I did miss something; I missed documenting my research so that I didn’t have to repeat the process while looking for things I missed. I stopped right there, and created some templates to help myself stay organized and focused while gathering piles of information.

By the time I finished recovering all of the files and missing documents, I was a week-and-a-half late turning in the finished project. It was seriously frustrating for me, but I know now exactly what I need to do to stay organized and get things done quickly and efficiently while doing my genealogy.

My dad’s managed to get documents for his parents and family members together in a system that works for him, but all of the digital files that I have been given have yet to be organized, and I was recently handed a packet of paper copies for my mother’s side of the family. They are all in German. Mom said, “We don’t know what they are. You figure it out and let us know.” Gee, thanks. In the meantime, Dad’s still digging.

My New System

Actually, I think my new system will shave weeks off of my next search, and I am feeling ready to tackle the job of locating my lost ancestors in Germany. Yes, they are lost, but that’s another story for another day. So here are my suggestions for people like me and my anonymous client:

  • Gather as much information as you can from family members. Talk to the oldest ones first, and always use a voice recorder, making sure to record the date and year of the recording before you launch into your Q and A.
  • Organize all of the vital information you have into one place. As you gather more information, add it, but make sure that you have a system to identify the information you already have versus the new information that you add. Here’s the one that I made:
I highlighted what I already knew in green, and what I found in orange.
I highlighted what I already knew in green, and what I found in orange.
On the opposite side is a four-generation chart with siblings. Once again, green for old information, Orange for new.
On the opposite side is a four-generation chart with room to add siblings. Once again, green for old information, Orange for new.
You can download a Word doc  for free until July 15, 2015. Send your request for an individual search organizer to
Keep reading. I’ve included a link at the bottom of this post for a free download.
  • Identify every step of your search, making sure to include those steps that reveal no new information. Number each found document in the order that you found it, and include the date of the original document. For example,
name your files whatever you want. Just make sure that the first part of the file name is a number matching the order in which it was found.
If the third file I found was a census record from 1851, the file name would be 3.1851.  If the fourth file was a church in London, it would be
  • Make a research table. Write down EVERY step of your search, even if you don’t find anything. That way, you won’t keep looking in the same dead ends.
  • Number each document you find, and the order you found it, even though it may not be a perfect match. Number the corresponding digital file with the same number.
Make sure that you include a date and a number for every document you find. Photos do not need to have dates unless you are sure of the dates they were taken.
Make sure that you include a date and a number for every document you find. Photos do not need to have dates unless you are sure of the dates they were taken. Any search that does not turn up evidence will not have a date or a corresponding file number. With any luck, your research table will be as long as this one.
  • Print out your finished Research Table, and file it with the corresponding vital information organizer.
  • Keep a paper copy and a digital copy of every single document you find, and number your paper copies corresponding to your research table. File all paper copies together.

I’ll talk more about using these documents and organizing files, both paper and electronic, later. Just be sure to download organizers  today, because they are free for a very short time only!


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