Rant of the Wild Librarian: Cranky Genealogist Edition

This is a sort of mish-mash update—with added footnotes, naturally of some genealogical pieces I did a few years back for a newsletter which has long since gone the way of the world.   

I can’t imagine why . . .


I work in the genealogy and local history department of my library.  This is the perfect job for a nosy show-off—I’m paid to dig up dirt on other people’s families.

Genealogy is a fun, additive, challenging, and rewarding puzzle that makes Sudoku look like a snap (sorry, Mom).  It gives one a sense of history, a sense of belonging, and can provide medical facts or even personal closure.

It can also be a lot like banging one’s head against a brick wall of ignorance—but genealogy doesn’t have to be as frustrating as some people make it, for themselves or for the librarians and researchers trying to help them.

Here are a few tips to make the experience better for all of us:


Take your time—Your Ancestors Aren’t Going Anywhere

Please don’t assume you can start your family tree on Thanksgiving and have the whole thing done back to Adam and Eve (or, depending on your belief system, Lucy) by the following Christmas.

Unless you don’t really care if any of the people you collect are actually related to you, it’s gonna take more than doing a search on Ancestry and copying all the “Smith” records into your files.  To do it right, you have to verify facts, document records, and check a freakin’ calendar once in a while.*

And documentation takes time.

Likewise, there’s no point in walking into a public library and demanding that they print out your entire family tree on the spot—I don’t care what you saw on TV.

Here’s the deal:  unless someone wrote a book about your family, registered with an organization like the DAR,** took the time to enter their charts in to an online database, or compiled and donated their research in the exact place you’re looking . . . those materials won’t be available.

The information may be, but some assembly will be required.

You’ll still want to look—I’m not knocking shortcuts, as long as you treat them as alternative paths instead of the One True Way.  Try Ancestry, try FamilySearch, and don’t forget to check the 929.2 shelves at the library—if the facility does Dewey—and ask the staff about their unpublished or accessioned collections.

And, remember, unless your family tree doesn’t branch much, every generation married into another family.  So, if Great-grandpa XYZ married a girl from the ABC family, maybe someone from that side published The Fascinating History of the ABCs that has some XYZ data in it.   Of course, by the time you do this, it isn’t much of a shortcut anymore.

But don’t be shocked if you’re the first one to bother putting something together beyond the three-generation smiley-apple tree drawings we all had to do in second grade.  Unless your ancestor was the founding father of a nation—or a town with an enthusiastic historical society—in the immediate line for a major throne, famous (or rich) beyond his or her fifteen minutes, or a genealogist, it’s doubtful anyone outside of your family is going to care enough to do the work on their own time.***

Family charts don’t spontaneously generate—someone has to do the work.

Odds are, that would be you.

And after you write your genealogy, please send copies to everyone you can think of, including every library and genealogy center in all the places your family has lived or passed through.  Your descendants may be looking through those 929.2 shelves someday.


Bring quarters.

A library is not a bank and most public libraries don’t take credit cards—sometimes there aren’t change machines and if there are, they don’t always take bills larger than fives.

Leave the fifties at home, Rockefeller, and get used to jingling when you walk.


Please don’t insist that your surname has always been spelled the same exact way for centuries.

Most Americans have heard Immigration Center (Ellis Island, Castle Gardens, etc.) stories about families changing their names, willingly or unwillingly, for assimilation purposes, ease of spelling and pronunciation, avoiding extradition, etc.

But what isn’t so well understood is that surnames change over the years, anyway—especially over those early decades when literacy was optional, typewriters were newfangled, and census forms weren’t mailed out.

The majority of official documents prior to the 20th century were filled out by a second party—a clerk or a census taker.  Often, the person supplying the information wasn’t given the chance to correct the spelling, supposing he or she would have been able to do so.

If the clerk was used to spelling XYZ with a final E, that’s the way it was spelled on the document—and if the writer heard “X-HY-G” instead of “XYZ,” then XHYG it was.

To make matters more interesting, census takers often depended on third party information to fill their quotas.  If your ancestor’s neighbor was used to spelling your family’s surname SCHXYZE, then that’s what went down.

Surnames are often a game of genealogical telephone—XYZ goes in one end and ABC comes out at the end of the line.  And don’t get me started on handwriting—that’s another post.

Some of these alternate spellings only lasted until the next document, but other families found it easier to change their name than correct the paperwork.

So what do you do?

Think phonetics.

The genealogists of my acquaintance may mutter to themselves because their relatives have driven them ’round the bend—but sometimes they’re sounding out surnames.

ETTS . . .WHY . . .TREE?


If the rest of the information matches, sure.

Any researcher who refuses to believe in the existence of alternative spellings is going to have a stumpy family tree.

But there’s no need to accept everyone into the clan, either—just because the third lady-in-waiting of Queen Elizabeth I was named Mary ABC, and your gggg-etcetera-great aunt was named Mary ABC doesn’t mean they’re the same person, even if no one ever saw them together at the same time.

Correlation and documentation are still necessary—every  XYZ in the phone book isn’t a relative of yours, either, except in the sense that we all presumably share the same origins.^

But some of the EXYZEs may be . . .


And please, please, for the love of my burgeoning aneurism, stop declaring that your great-great-great-etc. grandmother was a Cherokee Princess based solely on a family story and/or the shape of your nose, and not on anything as mundane as geography, dates, cultural considerations, or common sense.

This is a genealogical pet peeve of mine—I have several, but this is in the top five.  Because in my experience, it’s always a great-great-great-etc. grandmother, she’s always Cherokee, and she is always, always a princess.

Seriously—the first and only time someone came up to the desk and said, “Hi.  Can you help me? I’m trying to confirm that my great-aunt by marriage was a seamstress in the clothing district on the west side in the ‘twenties.  She was also supposed to be Pottawattamie, but that might be difficult to prove,”  I nearly hugged the woman.^^

Let’s set aside the fact that if your family always lived in, for example, western Illinois, your ancestors were far more likely to be Sac-Fox or Pottawattamie, and maybe Sioux, if they married into your tree around the 1870s.^^^

Let’s assume that both families were open-minded enough—we are talking several generations back— to agree to the marriage and/or the couple was wise enough to find a place they and their children could live in peace.

Let’s even set aside the fact that Native American chiefs weren’t kings, and their daughters weren’t princesses—we’ll chalk that up to poor cultural translations.

But unless every single female Native American from 1787 to 1912 was the daughter of a chief,° there simply weren’t enough chief’s daughters to be everyone’s great-something grandmother.

It’s a matter of logistics.

But if you’re determined to track down this elusive Native American ancestor, please take a good look at your motives first.  It’s one thing to look for family connections—it’s another to look for a monetary handout from people who most likely don’t have enough in the first place.


*And don’t leave your research where your pets or kids can get it.  Today, a man called up and requested additional copies of what had been a fairly complex request—he told us his dog ate his research.  I was rendered speechless.

**Daughters of the American Revolution.  The current documentations requirements for acceptance are far stricter than they used to be, but their older lineage books are still quite useful.

***I’m not counting the LDS Family History Centers, as the members I know don’t think of the time they spend on genealogy work as their own—it belongs to Someone Else.

^Except for that one great-great uncle of by marriage, whom every seems to have and who appears to have been some sort of extra-terrestrial.  He dropped from the sky, left behind a single marriage record, and departed from this earth.  Or so we assume, as we can find no no evidence that the man ever died.  Perhaps he was a vampire.

^^Found that great-aunt, too.

^^^Yes, people moved around and whole tribes were moved by force—but you have to know the history specific to the area. Anyone of Cherokee ancestry who moved up here probably did so during the near half of the twentieth century, which makes them a bit young to be a great-great-great anything and far easier to trace.

°I know it’s supposed to be good to be the king chief, but  even if some Native American tribes had a tradition of droit du seigneur—and I’m not implying they did, as I truly don’t know—this is highly unlikely, as these men became leaders by leading, which probably meant they were too busy to get that busy.  If you know what I mean.