Yesterday, I decided to take a break from professional genealogy activities and actually do a little research on my own family. I wasn’t going to go hog-wild – just flesh out some collateral families descended from Elijah Staats, maybe see if I couldn’t find the name of a living person or two.
So that’s what I did. I went to Ancestry.com, and pulled up the census record for the first family. Then I went to FamilySearch’s Ohio County Marriages collection and found the marriage record for the husband and wife to get the maiden name. This marriage was recent enough that it gave me dates of birth, as well as parent’s names. So back to the census I went to gather info about these earlier folks. I was able to do that pretty easily for a couple of generations – one of the benefits of having Ohio families is that there’s lots of good stuff online, including probate court birth records. After I worked backwards for awhile, I went to the digitized books section of FamilySearch to compare what I had found against the mug book for that county. If I were seriously working on this family, I would have gone more in-depth, which might have required an in-person trip or ordering records from a distance, but for my purposes, this was fine.
The family eventually moved to Seattle, Washington. Washington births and marriages were online at Ancestry, and some deaths at FamilySearch, so I was able to keep working forward on the family. That got me enough information that I could jump over to GenealogyBank, where the Seattle Daily Times was online. I was able to find obituaries and marriage notices of the family. Some were in the SSDI, and I used some additional sources to piece together most of the family. To my surprise, the eldest daughter of this family happened to live to 99, passing away in 2010, and the obituary named all her children and grandchildren. Whenever I get a chance, I can go to Stevemorse.org and do some people searches for these folks.
By now you’re probably thinking “…..So what’s the big deal? We all do this everyday.” Well that was exactly what I thought was a big deal. Maybe it was the fact I was working on a family I hadn’t revisited since the “old days” of genealogy, but it struck me, rather pointedly, how genealogy has changed over the years I’ve been at this. We’ve started to take for granted that we can sit in our chairs and put together a family (in this case, spanning 1837 to 2010), document the research reasonably well using original sources, and do it all in a couple of hours.
I thought about how long what I did would have taken previously. First, I would have had to go to the WRHS library to use their census microfilm. If I wanted to get the marriage records to find a wife’s maiden name, I would either have had to send a request by mail, order microfilm, or go to southern Ohio to use the marriage books themselves, none of which happens quickly – possibly taking weeks or months. And all that is just for one couple. They had six kids who had kids. They came from families with lots of kids, and all their grandparents had lots of kids. Sure, I could have cheated a little and just followed the paternal lines through the censuses, making assumptions as I went, but that would 1) ignore half of the pedigree chart, and 2) be pretty shaky research. In short, it would have taken a really long time, and likely wouldn’t have been as well-documented.
I think I started genealogy at exactly the right time. In the late 1990s, which is when I started this madness, USGenWeb and other resources were out there that didn’t necessarily have much genealogical information, but they did have lots of information about where to find the information. Ancestry had census and other records, but I couldn’t afford the subscription, so I still worked primarily at the library. I didn’t use the internet much for actual research. I used it primarily as a guide for where I was supposed to go to do the research. I think that having had a several year window where most of my research was done at the courthouse or archives has really helped me sort through the online world of records, that while handy, might be a little confusing if you hadn’t had the opportunity to work with similar records in book form.
It brings to mind Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule from his book Outliers, which basically states that whatever the field, or whoever the practitioner, it takes about 10,000 hours to become an “expert” at something. So when the Beatles got their big break in America, they had played about 10,000 hours. When Bill Gates got his break - 10,000 hours. There were numerous other example given. I’m no Beatles or Bill gates (and I cringe at the word “expert”), but when the time arrived that I had access to all these wonderful records online, I’m pretty sure I was close to that 10,000 hour mark, and I was much more prepared to take advantage of them than if I had only started a year or two ago.
I can’t wait for the next 10,000 hours!