Baby steps

Baby steps are ok. In fact, I encourage them. Any type of research can be daunting, but I find that family history research, where we have a very personal investment in the results, can be terrifying.

With so much time on our hands as the world has effectively shut down, more and more of us are turning to those projects we just never felt we had the time for, or that we started and never found a way to get back to.

It all starts out relatively simple, doesn't it? We want to know who we are, and so many of us set ourselves on learning as much as we can about where we came from. How we got here. 

If you are anything like me, the elation of discovering this unexpected downtime and dreaming up all of the things you will accomplish during this lockdown time is like a drug. It’s super exciting in the beginning–you make lots of lists and pull out those dusty photographs and hoarded bits of newspaper and letters. But then, you get up to make a cup of tea, come back to get truly settled in and you find yourself faced with research goals spanning hundreds of years, so many options of where to start that you are frozen with uncertainty, and a rapidly escalating feeling of deep despair that you’ll never figure it all out. Even with all the time in the world you become convinced that you will just never get there.

Well, take a deep breath, savor a bit of whatever beverage you have to hand, and consider this:

  • You may never, ever, figure it all out. In fact, you probably won’t.
  • Giving yourself a to-do list item of “finish researching…” anything is just not fair to yourself.
  • Putting a time limit on this type of work will inevitably result in cutting corners, misinterpreting information, and following the wrong rabbit down the wrong hole.

How do I know this? Because I’ve done it myself. And I’ll probably do it again, to be honest, although I certainly hope I’ve learned these lessons.

If we can all accept that finding every bit of information for every single ancestor is a bit unrealistic, we are well on our way to a healthier approach to genealogy research. But I get it, you really want to find everything you can, I know, I agree. But let’s take it a step at a time.

So You Want to Figure it All Out

If you are just starting to get your hands dirty, the impulse is to reach back to the farthest ancestor you know and jump off from there. Don’t do it. It will result in heartache. You will find yourself mired in swamps and quicksands of assumptions and “declarations” made without appropriate documentation, take them as biblical truth, and then discover you’ve been climbing up the wrong tree for quite a while. Start at the most recent and work from there. Even if you think you know everything through to your grandparents, I can guarantee you don’t, and taking the time to examine Primary Sources for the current generations will create a strong foundation to work further back from. Take a look at one of my previous blog posts about online genealogy research for a more in depth discussion regarding the types of sources that you should be focusing on.

The Gratton Family Saga

For years, and by years I really mean decades, I was absolutely smashing my head against a brick wall with my mother’s side of the family, surname Gratton. For a long time all I had was:

  1. Digital Images of Census reports showing our family being in the greater Boston area, and later moving up to New Hampshire. (Primary Sources)
  2. Family stories inferring French-Canadian history (at best third or fourth hand information, which does not qualify as a source or credible evidence)

I had started knowing my grandfather’s name, his siblings and his parents names. I also knew his grandparents names, and the names of his aunts and uncles. This was corroborated through census reports, and while helpful. I did not have corroborated information proving where our first Gratton to come to the USA originated from.

Seriously. That was all I had. In the early 1990s I had communicated with a genealogist in Québec who absolutely assured me that my Gratton family would have come from one particular family originating out of Luçon, France. He was very sure of himself and a bit annoyed with me for not jumping on board right away, but I just couldn’t yet. I knew he was likely correct (and indeed he was) but at the time, I just could not make that leap. I needed more information. I knew it was a Joseph Gratton that settled in the USA first, and I had a range of likely birthdates and ages (census reports can get a little crazy with this), and those census pages even referred to his parents as being born in French Canada. But that didn’t necessarily mean they were of French origin. Gratton is also not a surname unique to people of French descent–it is also found in Scotland. I really needed further evidence, primary sources, that would help me confidently fill in the gaps.

Fast-forward about a decade or so, and through the magic of digitisation and the dedication of countless hours of archivists, little by little, more primary sources were made available on-line, and the pieces began to come together. Finally, what I needed, appeared: a digitised copy of the Marriage Certificate for that Joseph Gratton. Guess what was on there? His parents names, his date of birth, and his occupation. Ta da! The link to Québec was solid now, and a whole new world was available to me through the amazing resources for Canadian genealogy. I’ll discuss those resources, and their history, in another post.

So, yes, that information that I had been given all those years prior did turn out to be correct. And now I am connected to a surprisingly large global group all researching the very same family. But the important aspect of this is that my connection to this family line is solid, reinforced with direct evidence from credible primary sources.

Building a solid family history takes time and the willingness to keep trying. Accept that you will hit brick walls, you will find a trail that leads to nothing, where there are no more records at the moment to help you get further. Keep the faith, keep trying, and reach out for help. There are tons of forums out there with other people just like you, and there are people like me at who can work with you to build your story. That’s what we do. In the meantime, set yourself simple goals, remember to take a break and come back and review what you’ve found before you start again, and accept that this is a lifelong journey that you’ve embarked on, and it will be exciting more than it will be frustrating. I can promise you that.

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