Perils of Pursuing Pedigrees

by Barbara Renick


©2007 Barbara Renick


PERIL #1: The definition of a chigger and why not to use red nail polish as a treatment.

Survive Outdoors Web Site (

Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet: Chiggers

ADVICE: Why not to use red nail polish to treat chigger bites? Because during the rest of your research trip you may appear to have a contagious disease just when you want to get close to public officials and other people with the family tree information you are seeking.

ADVICE: The best time to go cemetery hunting is in the fall when the poison ivy turns red, the chiggers and snakes are in hibernation, the ground is more likely frozen than soggy from spring rains, and the weeds have died back from the frosts so you can more easily find the gravestones you are hunting.

PERIL #2: The rigors of travel, or lessons I learned on the morning of 9/11.

It is a sad but true fact that by the time you retire and have time <ha, ha> to go do genealogy, you have less money and are less able to pursue your pedigree. If fact, waiting until you are the oldest living family tree generation is guaranteed to be the hardest way to start. You have no one else to ask those important starting questions:

bulletWhen you were a child and your family got together, who were the relatives they visited? bulletWho else did your family gossip about when you were a child? bulletWhere did your family go when they went to the big town to shop? bulletWhat were some of the landmarks in the area when you grew up? bulletDid your family always live in the same place? bulletWho else was there when .... ? bulletWho else might know about .... ?

ADVICE: Do your homework at home before you go. Nothing is sadder than to arrive in a foreign country seeking the records of your ancestors, only to be advised to go to the LDS Family History Center to view those records on microfilms you could have ordered closer to home. Try to find Family History Library microfilms at a Family History Center near you.

ADVICE: Driving directions are great, but if you make a wrong turn or encounter a detour you are going to get lost. Take lots of maps along, too.

Yahoo! Maps give you not only driving directions, but also the approximate time it will take UNDER IDEAL CONDITIONS to drive that route. (

Google Maps give you stronger browsing capabilities and satellite pictures that aren’t quite good enough to read the gravestones in the cemeteries, yet. (

MapQuest is still around ( and has a wonderful link to maps and directions and help in other countries (look for the Outside U.S. & Canada link). has a maps tab that even does historical place names in East Europe.

Try Google (, but click on the IMAGES tab, and type the name of the county and state you are researching into the box. Your search may return a wide variety of results, and not just older or topographical maps.

Lessons learned from traveling on 9/11:

bulletTake more cash than you might otherwise. Plastic credit cards may not work in an emergency. bulletTo avoid airplane food (when served anymore), airport food (in most cases), and for emergencies, consider traveling with trail mix or other nutritious snacks you  like. bulletTake along your whole address book/contacts list. If stranded in an unexpected location, you might just know someone nearby (if you have as many genealogy buddies as I've accumulated over the years spread all over the country). This can be done easily with a PDA or U3 USB flash drive. bulletTake copies of all your genealogy databases into which you've entered your research over the years. You never know when another branch of the family tree you hadn't planned on researching will suddenly crop up with a hot lead. bulletTake along chargers for all your electronic gear (cell phones, laptop computers, PDAs etc.). This includes both electrical chargers, chargers that work in the cigarette lighter of automobiles, and battery-powered chargers or solar chargers (for when the electricity is out). bulletIt often pays to take along paper copies of the genealogical reports and pedigree charts you plan to spend most of your time working consult rapidly yourself (this avoids a servere battery drain on your electronic devices from repeated searches) and to give away to the people you sondult--which may return dividends later. bulletConsider studying a martial art and/or traveling with a genealogy buddy. I've been physically grabbed twice in the Washington D.C. Metro (subway) system while traveling alone. Consider how often you go to a courthouse to do research and the types of people who have to go to courthouses.


PERIL #3: Sitting at a computer for hours on end, trying to read old documents and type at the same time.

Ergonomics is the fit between you, your activities, equipment, and environment so you are safe, comfortable, efficient, and your productivity is not compromised. It is also so that you can go back and do more genealogical research the next day without body strains and pains.

ADVICE: Eye-strain is inevitable. At least try to have good lighting, proper glasses, a big magnifying glass on hand, and take regular breaks where yours eyes focus at other distances.

ADVICE: One of the best additions to my computer station was a tilting footrest that greatly eased my back strain. Not all mice and keyboards are created equal. Find those that best fit your body and work habits. Do not hesitate to give away any piece of equipment that irritates; well, maybe not your whole computer….


Old Scottish Proverb: "He who has in his family neither thief, knave, nor whore was begat by a stroke of lightning."

PERIL #4: Finding out that neither your family tree nor the people on it are perfect.

Beginning genealogists are often shocked, disappointed, even embarrassed to find out their ancestors were human. Genealogy is more real than Reality TV. Every family tree produces some lemons, some nuts, and a few bad apples.

ADVICE: Don’t judge your ancestors prematurely. We didn’t live in their times with their culture and under their circumstances. Knowledge, especially a knowledge of social history, can open your eyes.

Friedman, Lawrence M. A History of American Law. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.

Friedman, Lawrence M. Crime and Punishment in American History. New York: BasicBooks, 1993.

If your Revolutionary War era ancestress was pregnant when she got married, she’s in good company. The professor in my graduate level class on the American Revolution quoted research claiming one third of the females getting married during that era were pregnant at the time. Why? Women were considered chattel—daughter’s being their father’s possessions to marry off as he saw fit. Additionally, the cost of a marriage license was so great, and hard money so scarce, it may not have been financially feasible for a couple to marry. In many colonies it was illegal to preach and officiate in any religion other than the official religion of that colony. So if your ancestors in colonial Virginia were Baptists, as some of mine were, do not be surprised not to find a registered marriage for them by the visiting Baptist minister. It is well documented that Patrick Henry defended a Baptist Minister for the capitol offense of preaching and marrying outside the established Anglican Church. No matter what your religion in colonial Virginia, you had to tithe to support the established church.

PERIL #5: Danger of finding your ancestor in an original record, but not recognizing what that record is trying to tell you.

There are five phases to family tree tracing: Background Phase, Survey Phase, Research Phase, Evaluation Phase, and the Publish or Perish the Thought Phase. These phases are repeated over and over again as your fill in your family tree, but the Background Phase is the foundation for all the other phases. The goal of the Background Phase is to build your genealogical knowledge and skills to help you figure out what records may still exist, where they might be found, what they may contain, and how to read and interpret them once they are found.

PERIL #6: Danger of not going back to the original record.


PERIL #7: TIMING. Looking in the right time period is essential to find your ancestors’ information. Sometimes you must look earlier or later than you anticipated.

PERIL #8: TARGETING. Identifying all the localities where you ancestors (and their descendants) lived helps you find more records and more answers.

PERIL #9: TOPOGRAPHY. Geography influenced your ancestors’ migrations, lifestyles, and where their records ended up.

PERIL #10: TECHNOLOGY. You need to recognize the impact such things as the Industrial Revolution, changes in transportation, and developments in medical science had on your ancestral families.

PERIL #11: TERRITORY. Knowing shifts in political boundaries and jurisdictions is key to success. Conversely, looking in the wrong location for records hinders your success.

PERIL #12: TRANSFORMATIONS. One of the biggest challenges in family tree tracing is to recognize the different ways your ancestors’ names changed and were spelled.

PERIL #13: TERMINOLOGY. Family tree tracers eventually face the challenge not only of foreign languages, but also of your own language as it was a hundred years ago . Genealogy even has a language of its own (examples: IGI, PRF, SS-5, APG, FGS, GSU, etc.)