After more than fifty years doing research, I have two principles that I think are very important in your genealogical search. Many of your mistakes and brick walls will be cleared up once you learn one or two principle approaches to your research.
PRINCIPLE ONE – KNOW THE GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY
It is very important to know the geography of the area where you are looking. It is frequently, especially in the eastern half of the United States, that you are looking in the wrong place. A friend in Knoxville, Tennessee was talking about researching in the middle part of eastern Tennessee, which is sometimes very complicated. She tells me that she once was tracing a man in Cocke County, Tennessee who over a twenty year period was in three different states and seven different counties and yet he never moved off his front porch.
You need to know the time period, the history and the movement of people around the area. Several years ago a lady called me who was researching her family and found that her twin ancestors were born in Franklin County, Tennessee in 1788 and she needed help. I mentioned to her that at this time period, there were very few settlers in the area since there was no Tennessee until 1796, and therefore, Franklin County did not exist either. I then asked if she could look at the record again. Reading it carefully, she noticed that the twins were born in 1788 in Franklin County, Virginia. She had the facts, she knew what she needed, but she needed to be careful about the location.
Frequently in the Civil War records it is noted that someone lived in Coon Hollow, Tennessee. Does anyone live there today? Is there a post office for the town? In many local post offices, there is a zip code book that gives all of the local post offices for the entire nation and other places. That book is a good place to start, but it only gives the current post offices. You may have to consult some local histories of the area to find “Coon Hollow”. One interesting series of books we have published are the 1905 Community and Business Directories for various states. This is a listing of communities within a state and some only have three people living there. Since this was published in 1905, many of these little communities are identified.
What battles have been fought in the local area? When were there great disasters? Each item of interest has a bearing on your ancestors. If, for example, they were living in the northwest corner of Tennessee or southwestern corner of Kentucky or lower Missouri in the fall of 1811, they went through the worst earthquake to ever hit the United States. The were reports that the Mississippi River ran backwards, the shock waves ran the church bells in Washington, DC and Boston, MA and Cherokee cabins were knocked off their foundations in north Georgia. There may be something in your ancestors’ papers that mention these events.
PRINCIPLE TWO – STUDY THE ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS.
We are all guilty of finding a transcription of the records and that information becomes fact for us. How many times do you go back and search out the original records? Many transcribers do not include all of the information that is available in the document. With one of my ancestors, the original deed records gave so much more information than did the transcription. Yes, the transcription gave the important dates, locations, etc. of the land transfer. However, in the margin of the deed book the clerk wrote, “He signs in English Matthias Painter, but in German it is Matthias Bender.” The transcriber failed to include this little notation. It took me years to discover the full meaning of this note. In German, the word “Bender” would be pronounced “Bainter”. We were not English at this point, but were German transplants.
On the other hand, many transcribers leave out vital portions of the material. We have just finished transcribing the first marriage book for Coffee County, Tennessee. In the WPA transcription, the transcriber left out any of the marriages that did not show a return to the courthouse. This meant that on each page of the original, there might be as many as three out of eight or ten marriages that were not put into the transcription.
Original documents definitely take a little more effort to find and study. Some state archives will loan microfilm of their county records while some will only sell copies of them. With the difficulty of finding original documents, Mountain Press is in the process of making the original documents available via CDs in a PDF format. Slowly, we will be making available our transcriptions coupled with the original documents on one CD. You will be able to study the transcription as well as the original record and then decide on the appropriate wording. We have been publishing for over 25 years and many of the original records are not easily available, but we will be making as many as possible available to you, the researcher.