Paying it Forward: The Compleat Genealogy Database

Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.

"The Devil is in the detail," or so it is said—it's the little things that can trip you up.

For genealogists, research is a fascinating pursuit, but transferring our collected information to the printed page—or to our genealogy software program—is another story. Most of us do pretty well at recording the names, dates and places for life's main events: birth, marriage and death. And yet, the answers to our most perplexing genealogical problems often he buried in our files or in questions yet to be asked. Knowing what to look for beyond the basics is half the challenge. In her series on the "The Compleat Database," Judy Rosella Edwards provides a useful guide aimed at helping researchers identify and record key information in their genealogy databases, whether kept online or on the desktop, where it can be accessed, referenced and shared.

Why "compleat" instead of "complete"? At one time thought to be an archaic spelling, the word "compleat" has seen a revival in modern times to indicate the quintessential or perfect example of class or quality—not a bad goal.

As we review prior research and begin entering additional detail into our database, it's important to fine-tune what we have, as well as to look for things we might have missed. Reviewing prior research can be immensely rewarding. We often find new information amid old documents and notes that was previously overlooked, information that takes on new meaning in light of more recent research. There are also fine details we might not have considered. Understanding more about the review process and the value of researching and recording your ancestors' religious connections is explored in Religious Affiliations.

And in the process of review, be on the lookout for name discrepancies. Always on a quest for names, one of the first things a genealogist learns is variation on a theme: names can be spelled, misspelled and misinterpreted in a multitude of ways, and names are often changed, to say nothing of naming differences across cultures. Name discrepancies are a two-edged sword, they can lead you astray and they can cause you to overlook a correct ancestor, when a name doesn't match up to what you have. Learning to circumnavigate amid such variation is the subject of Names.

Another aspect of names is knowing which variant(s) to record for posterity and what names to include, i.e. nicknames, tribal names, aliases, etc. Valuable insights on discerning, interpreting and recording names is discussed in Compleat Names.

Along with accurately identifying ancestors by name, is identifying ancestral relationships, which can be tricky business. Take for example, children who have been orphaned and farmed out family and neighbors, some of whom, for convenience sake, may have taken on the family name. This is to say nothing of identifying infant deaths, adoption or modern-day surrogacy. Incorrectly identifying a relationship can lead a researcher down the wrong path, so it is important to be cautious in the analysis and make no assumptions. Understanding more about the complexities of relationships, familial and otherwise, and how they might be discerned and recorded is the focus of Non-Tradtitional Relationships.

Beyond names and relationships is the chronicling of life events. And just as "music is what happens between the notes," so life is what happens between the major events of birth, marriage and death. Any activity in which our ancestors were engaged from their jobs to military service to community service can yield valuable clues and unique information. If an ancestor was, even for a time, in a transient occupation, what might that tell us? In looking back, it's always good to learn as much as possible about the place and times in which our ancestors lived to help offset our modern point of view, as discussed in Life Events.

Indeed, the social context of our ancestor's lives can be telling and can provide clues, obvious and subtle, to a cultural heritage or "connections." Lutefisk on the table, for example, might seem like a dead give-away, but what about lutfisk or ludfisk—is there a difference? Information that might not seem like much at first glance could end up directing your path. Ideas for gleaning the most from your ancestor's social context is presented in Cultural Affinities.

Within that social context is our immigrant ancestor's path to citizenship, a journey with traceable milestones, sometimes taking many years, but in the process revealing much about an ancestor's path through life. In the United States, citizenship was not open to everyone; certain groups of people were excluded at various times. Understanding more about the laws in place at a given time and the value of recording immigration details in the search for records is explored in Citizenship Matters.

Many immigrants coming to the Unites States found opportunity in education. Education resources are often overlooked, but can yield rich personal data and provide valuable leads, in addition to pinpointing an ancestor is time and place. Beyond the familiar high school and college yearbooks, many records survive for primary grade, vocational, private and charity schools -- even orphanage schools. Understanding more about recording your ancestors' education is discussed in Education.

While valuable, a person's education had no bearing on land ownership, especially in the United States—anyone could own land and in many cases, with very little, if any, transfer of money. Determining who owns property is important, as is how property was acquired, what can be learned from property records, and what other records might be suggested. Keeping track of your ancestors' property ownership . . . or lack of is the subject in Property Ownership.

Property ownership itself is a legal event, but it may also spawn other legal events such as probate hearings and lawsuits. But legal events cover a broad spectrum, from marriage licenses to criminal records, although anything to do with government and the legal system feels a bit threatening. And yet, legal "events" are part of everyday life and can provide a great level of personal detail. The key is to keep track of what you find, rather than struggling to recall, "where did I see that?" Suggestions for doing so are covered in Legal Events.

And then consider the family politician. We often do not think about political elections, except maybe voter lists. Yet, many ordinary citizens held office of one sort or another, or maybe served on someone's staff. "Elections placed anyone who ran for office for squarely at a specific place in time, in between the census enumerations." Learning more about local politics as a resource, including how people came to office, how they served and what to record is presented in Elections.

Among the most important data points to capture is your ancestors' health, not only as a historical fact but as a telling fact that could affect you directly. Much is said these days on collecting a family health history, and many people are even taking DNA tests to better understand their health risks, a practice that is often debated. Ethnicity is also important and can be determined through various paper documents, and to some degree through DNA testing. Understanding more about what to look for and what to record and how to use that information is discussed in DNA and Health.

Finally, we come to recording details of our ancestors' death, which can present some challenges, in particular, correctly identifying the "place" of death—one data point in which mistakes are common. Overall, death resources can reveal details about our ancestors' lives as well as deaths. Recording this information to benefit posterity and aid our own future research is highly important. Understanding more about these resources and how to interpret them is explored in Death Data.

When it comes to building a compleat database, those who are new to research have the advantage of doing it right from the start. For those more seasoned, perhaps with stacks of files on the shelf or on the computer, there is no time like the present to begin. And while your database may not provide fields for everything, most do provide for unlimited annotations or notes, a valuable tool not to be overlooked. Those ah-ha moments often come in the process of writing. Whatever method you choose, pay attention to detail—it's the little things that can lead you astray.

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