An Interview With Kerry from ClueWagon.com
Our regular readers know that, from time to time, we’ve taken advantage of our travels to pursue some ancestry research, like the month spent on the Spanish island of Ibiza in 2015. We haven’t always had a consistent approach to our genealogy research, but our research discipline and methods have improved in the past few years. We can thank our friend and fellow blogger Kerry Scott over at ClueWagon.com for much of that: we’ve been trying to keep up with her blog since we discovered her a little over a year ago. Her blog is always informative and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. So when the idea of interviewing someone about ancestry research in a travel context came up, there was only one real choice of who to interview. So here’s our Q&A with Kerry from ClueWagon.com.
Kerry, thanks for taking some time to answer some questions about ancestry research and specifically travel related to genealogy. First off, tell us about yourself, how you got into genealogy, and about ClueWagon.com.
I got into genealogy by accident. When I was 21, I moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to go to school. I’d never been to Wisconsin, and as far as I knew, I had no connection to anyone there. Not long after I’d moved, I got a letter from my oldest living relative, who was 90 year old. To my surprise, she said my third great-grandparents had settled in Wisconsin, and she hoped I’d learn more about them. I contacted the historical society where they’d lived, and I learned that they had all sorts of records on my family, from the time of their arrival in 1847 on. The files included a copy of my third great-grandmother’s will. She’d been mad at her oldest son (the one I’m descended from) because he owed her money. She said so in her will, and took it out of his inheritance, with interest. I had to know more about these people. I started digging. 23 years later, I’m still digging. I started Clue Wagon to talk about my research, and to poke a bit of fun at some of the goofier aspects of genealogy. I spent 14 years in corporate human resources, but I find dead people much easier to manage.
I definitely agree with you that dead people are more interesting than corporate HR, but for people just starting ancestry research, what are your first recommendations? How should someone get started?
I think any experienced genealogist will tell you that there are two things to know when you start: begin with yourself, and document your sources. People often want to start with the interesting ancestors they’ve heard about, but skipping the people in between you and those ancestors might lead you up the wrong tree. By beginning with yourself and working your way backwards, you build a solid paper trail that ensures that you’re working on the right people.
Documenting your sources is even more important. Every family has stories, and some of them are even a little bit true. Many of them, though, turn out to be wrong, or a little right, or some variation of something else entirely. Keeping track of where each piece of information came from helps you untangle the mess when you run into conflicting evidence…and you will, if you’re descended from humans. Very few ancestors leave clear paper trails and complete stories. The rest require some legwork to determine who they really were and what their lives were really like. The more detail you have on where you got each fact, the easier your life will be as you try to sort it all out.
We all know about Ancestry.com, but what do you think about it? What are some of the other online research tools out there we should be aware of?
I love Ancestry.com. I work, and I have kids in elementary school, so traveling directly to every repository that has records I need isn’t feasible for me. Having access to so many records online allows me to keep researching through this phase of my life. I started doing genealogical research before the Internet, so I fully appreciate the convenience we enjoy today.
That said, Ancestry.com certainly isn’t the only game in town. I also use big sites like FamilySearch.org, MyHeritage.com, and Findmypast.com. I use newspaper sites like GenealogyBank.com and Newspapers.com. I use historical society sites like those offered by the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Minnesota Historical Society, both of which have online vital records indices. I use local historical societies, especially for rural areas, because they often have little known records and books that are a gold mine. For example, the Pierce County (Wisconsin) Historical Society has print books that are only available through them, and they contain massive amounts of information about settlers in that fairly remote part of Wisconsin. If you have roots in a place like that and aren’t looking for those hidden gems, you’re missing out.
It’s important to remember, though, that not everything is online. When I can, I travel to do my own research, but that’s not always possible. Right now, I’m waiting for a colleague to pull a Civil War pension file at the National Archives, and I have eight different vital records in various stages of being sent to me via mail order. There’s a whole world of records out there that are still in courthouses, archives, and other repositories. It’s important not to overlook those.
And that’s where the fun comes in for us sorely afflicted with wanderlust. What sort of local and US travel have you done for research? What are your research activities on these trips?
My roots are in the Midwest, so when I still lived in that region, I could travel by car. Now that I live in New Mexico, any trip back to my ancestral lands involves an airplane, so I don’t travel quite as frequently. When I do, I make sure I make the most of every minute. I do as much work as I can in advance, by using online library catalogs and other information to prepare a detailed research plan. I check the hours of whatever repository I’ll be working at, and I look for restaurants that are nearby so I can get back to work as quickly as possible (and in some cases, I’ve been known to inhale a couple of protein bars in the lobby, then go right back to work). A lot of the onsite work I do involves microfilm, so I make a list of the film numbers I need, and put them in an Evernote file, along with notes on what I should look for on each roll. Then, when I’m working onsite, I type my notes on the results of each search into that same Evernote note, so I can keep everything in one place. I try to make sure every minute of onsite research is spent doing the stuff I can’t do at home.
I also like to visit homes, graves, and other locations that were important to my ancestors. I make a list of locations in advance, and map out the drive to each to make it as efficient as possible. I usually make a map in Google Maps that marks each location, then store a screenshot in Evernote (so I can access it even if I’m offline). Sometimes those ancestral homes and cemeteries are in areas that are higher crime neighborhoods today. In those cases, I make my visits early in the morning, when I feel a bit safer.
Have you ever gone back to the “old country” for ancestry research? How is a foreign trip different when doing genealogy research?
I’m hoping to visit my ancestral countries when my kids are a bit older, but I haven’t done it yet. One thing I’ll be doing beforehand is managing as much research as possible on this side of the pond. For those of us with European ancestors, it’s almost always easier to determine the ancestral town or village from U.S. records, rather than foreign ones. I look for things like censuses, vital records, pension files, naturalization records, passenger lists, SS-5s (that’s the form you fill out to get a Social Security number, and it gives the place of birth). Those records are in English, relatively easy to access, and give you a decent shot at finding the ancestor’s original home. Once I’ve narrowed that down, I’ll be ready to plan my trip back to the various mother countries of my ancestors.
What goals do you set for a research trip?
My first goal is to make the trip cost-effective. If I only need a couple of records in a given location, it’s hard to justify the cost, because I can usually order those records by mail (or hire a genealogist to pull them). For that reason, I have an Evernote file with each location where I have lots of ancestors, and I keep a running list of what I need in those locations. When the cost of the records on the list is greater than the cost of airfare and hotel, I book the trip. Right now, I’m *this close* to the tipping point on one line, and a trip to beautiful Omaha is probably in the cards for me.
I also try to make sure I use every minute of my time effectively. There’s nothing worse than going to a new library, and finding that you brought equipment they don’t allow, or you forgot your charger, or they close early on Tuesdays. I do my homework ahead of time, so that there are no surprises. In fact, when I go to a new library, I either email the librarian or ask one of my genealogy friends what I need to know before I go. Sometimes there are important rules that aren’t on the website, or things that make your visit better. I’ve gotten lots of great tips this way.
In spite of all that planning, I try to build in a bit of flexibility. You never know what the records are going to tell you, and sometimes they contain a bombshell. When that happens, I try to adjust my research plan as quickly as possible, so I can follow those new leads.
Of course, there are some trips that you take for more reasons that don’t necessarily fit on a spreadsheet. I have one relative who I was working on who had been murdered in Dallas in the early 1920s. I could have had someone else pull the records I needed, but I wanted to see the place he’d been killed, walk around the neighborhood where he’d lived, etc. In those cases, the preparation is still important, but you also want to leave yourself room to sit and experience the journey. Some goals aren’t as easily measured, but they’re still part of the trip.
What sort of expectations can you realistically set for yourself with research travel?
I think that if you’ve done your homework ahead of time, you can create a research plan. If it’s a good one, you will have completed everything contained in your original plan. This sounds easy, but it took me years to learn how to develop strong research plans, especially within the time constraints of a research trip. You really have to be disciplined about sticking to the plan, so that you get what you came for. Making sure you know exactly what records are found in each repository and how to get them is so important. It’s not the most glamorous part of planning the trip, but it’s really satisfying to finish on time, with every record you came for (and maybe even some extra ones).
What are some of the more underestimated or underutilized tools and approaches in research?
Honestly, I think offline records are the most underused resources out there. Nowadays, many genealogists start out on big sites like Ancestry.com. If that’s all you know, you might think that’s all there is. The overwhelming majority of useful records are not online (yet), and it’s important to figure out where they are and how you can get them. If a particular newspaper for your ancestor’s hometown isn’t online, that’s an obstacle, but not a big one. If it’s an American town, it’s very likely that there’s a library that has that newspaper on microfilm. You can go there and look at it, or you can order that film via interlibrary loan. If there’s a record you need, there’s a way to get that record. Start with the need, rather than starting with what’s available to you on a drop-down menu.
I also think that because there are so many trees online, it’s easy to be misled. If you find 54 online trees that say your great-grandpa was born in Nordland, Norway, it must be true, right? 54 different people couldn’t get that wrong. In reality, one person guessed he was born in Nordland based on a third hand account, and put that “fact” in his online tree. The other 53 people copied that tree. In fact, if you look, you can see that all 54 trees have the same typo. No matter what info you get or how credible the source seems…verify. Always. Look for the record yourself.
You’re an advocate for DNA testing, aren’t you? What can we really expect to learn from DNA testing? How could it affect your travel research plans?
I’m a huge fan of DNA testing. I started in 2010, which is the Olden Days as far as DNA testing goes. It’s gotten better and better since then, because the tools have been refined, and because more people are testing. I have thousands of DNA matches, and they’ve helped me confirm that I’m right about some lines, and spot the shaky bits in others. It’s really cool to have worked on a line for 20+ years, and then see that line in a DNA cousin’s family tree. It’s even cooler when that person has family photos or other info you’ve never seen before.
One thing to know about this before you jump in is that the cousin matches are pretty solid, but the ethnicity predictions are less so. I’ve tested at three sites—23andMe, AncestryDNA, and Family Tree DNA—and all three give me different pictures of what my individual countries of origin might be. My ancestry is 100% Northern European, and they’re all clear on that, but then it gets fuzzy. If you look at European history, though, it’s not hard to see why. You might have Scottish ancestors, for example, but come up as Scandinavian. That makes more sense when you realize that the Vikings spent a great deal of time sharing their DNA in Scotland. I have German ancestors, but the borders of Germany have changed countless times in the past 1000 years, so the concept of “German” is kind of an artificial one. The ethnicity predictions are kind of fun, but you find out who your ancestors really were by pairing traditional genealogical research with your cousin matches.
Another thing to keep in mind before you swab for DNA: The results can be surprising. You might turn up with a first cousin (or half-sibling, or child) you’ve never heard of before. People find out that their racial heritage isn’t what they thought, or that their parent isn’t their biological parent, or any number of things. At the very least, you’ll have plenty of cousins you never knew, and some of them will be adoptees who are looking for their biological roots (DNA testing is huge in the adoptee community). Nobody thinks this sort of thing will happen to them, until it does. Your DNA is shared with the rest of your family, so your decision to test can affect others in your family as well. It’s something to think about before you make the decision.
For me, though, DNA has been well worth the effort and expense. I’ve made tremendous genealogical progress, and met some fantastic cousins. It’s definitely been a win for me.
What’s the most rewarding outcome you’ve earned from your genealogy research so far?
I think that the greatest benefit of my research has been the context it’s given me. Most families have some difficult bits, or people who’ve made choices that are hard to understand. Getting a sense of where those people came from and what happened in their lives has helped me see what might have led to those choices. That can be very healing, and lots of families can use a bit of that.
Now that I have children of my own, it’s really cool to be able to tell them how we came to be the family we are. I think it’s great for kids to have a sense that they are part of something larger than themselves, and that people before them did things that led to the opportunities they have now. It’s one thing for them to learn about the Civil War in school, but it’s another to learn that Grandpa Nels joined the Union Army right away, even though he didn’t speak English yet. They know where Tennessee is, because Grandpa Nels was buried there, and they know where his widow, Grandma Sigrid, kept the farm and all of her sheep all by herself. That personal sense of history is priceless.