Question of the Week: How do you go beyond names and dates in your genealogy?

+17 votes

Do you go beyond names and dates when researching and recording genealogy? If so, how?

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in The Tree House by Eowyn Walker G2G Astronaut (1.7m points)
I like to try and make an ancestor come alive if I can, getting additional information besides birth death and marriage data.  My Mother, Helen Parker Pelton, had a Master's Degree in Fine Arts.  My Father, Eugene Charles Pelton, was a medical Doctor, and served in the United States Army in the Aleutian Islands during World War 2.
I glean everything I can from old newspapers. I go to court houses and read old lawsuits, deed records. probate records. Also, I go to local libraries and read local histories written by local people.
Great idea Billie X. I also have old newspaper articles because my genealogist grandmother had the foresight to save them in files that I now have.
I was taught by  mentors to always READ IT FOR YOURSELF.  I read every document found and do not rely on indices.  If an index is all there is, and explanation for other possible interpretations is included. (that can be boring) Since 1993, digital research has grown 1000%.  I was fortunate to be able to travel to many states since 1993 and visit cems, archives, etc. I even rented from a "cousin" when I had a job from home.  

I was so very lucky. A friend told me that our ancestors "want us to find them."  My serendipities tend to support that :)

Thanks for your thoughts, Barbara.  Your last sentence touched me, and reminds me of my first trip through Rhinebeck and Red Hook, Dutchess County, New York, about 35 years ago when I was working as a charter bus driver.  I had a special feeling about these two communities, as if something important happened there.

Several years later I broke through the roadblock on my Sharp family ancestry, thanks to Lynne Cook of Morrisburg, Ontario, who shared with me More Palatine Families, by Henry Z Jones, Jr.  In this book, I learned that my Sharp / Scherp ancestors had settled in Red Hook and Rhinebeck in the 1740s.  Serendipity indeed!

Wow Bill, what an excellent experience. My husband's ancestry goes back to Palatine families. Could the two of you be related?

In reference to ancestors who want us to find them (and find out about them), Barbara is indeed fortunate in that regard. I think that most ancestors want their descendants to know about them unless something in their past had to be covered up. This makes finding the truth very difficult but not always impossible. DNA analysis is becoming more and more refined as better statistical-analysis techniques are brought to bear on ever increasing sample sizes. Data mining techniques, such as clustering, are finding new applications as genetics advances. I look forward to a future when genealogists will be able to solve at least some family mysteries by combining evidence from various sources, including a significant contribution from DNA.

Hi Marion,

Thanks for your thoughts and insights.  For 37 years my biggest roadblock has been the birth father of my great grandfather, Milton Mills Brooks (Brooks-12453).  We have known all along the surname was Rice, but which Rice?

With DNA testing (both autosomal and Y-chromosome) we are getting much closer - we now know that Milton relates closely to the families of Anson T. Rice of DeKalb, and Abner Rice of Edwards, both in St. Lawrence County, New York.  I hope the year 2020 will bring a conclusive opening to his paternal ancestry.

My Palatine families include Scherp, Carp (Karpp), and Merckel in New York, Hiester (Hüster) and Emery (Hümmrich) in Pennsylvania.  Which Palatine families does your husband have in his ancestry?


My husband, whose name is also Bill, is descended from the Hüber and Müller families. He has ancestry from the Swiss Mennonites, and other Anabaptist families who were persecuted in Germany and Switzerland. 

I'm not sure about the Y-chromosome (paternal)l line but perhaps there is a connection along one of the maternal lines. If you go back far enough, we are all related! However, people whose ancestors came from the same area are most likely related more recently than those who lived far from each other.

Many years ago a friend of mine (whom I met through genealogical research) stated, very matter-of-factly:  "I believe a biologist would tell you, that if you're not related, then you are not of the same species."  To which I would add an exclamation point!

That's rich---almost made me snort my coffee onto the monitor!   laugh  Thanks!

When I see an obituary about someone of whom I know little, I always plug military service.

It is what one does not say that is important. To be sure, causes of death may indicate things derogatory... but I dislike the term "pass away" for violent death (including vehicle crashes, industrial accidents, military deaths, falls, and fires. I try to avoid mentioning STD's and death from suicide (unless more than 80 years ago or connected with ill health or "despondency"). I do not want loved ones to feel guilt.  

I have no connection to people who died in the Holocaust, but I would not call being gassed, hanged, or shot by the Nazis -- or of overwork under starvation rations -- as "passing away".  (So much for a peeve).

I do not protect the identity of the dead. If someone sees what I have as largely citations of the census, marriages, death records, birth records, and military records... then I invite others to add details  As I live in a rural area and factory town, I find it hard to make people interesting if they were farmers or factory workers.

...It is up to others, as I am a documents person more than a story-teller, in genealogy. If you know that someone graduated from college  (date and degree), then put that in! If you have a photo, then show it! Running for and winning elective office? Show it! This is a collaborative effort, and anything done in reason (please -- avoid derogatory rumors! I will remove potentially-libelous material if it does not have documentation behind it).

So be careful about affairs, criminal records, bankruptcies, and the like.

27 Answers

+26 votes
Check census data. View BDM records for occupations, places of marriage, witnesses, informants, cause of death. Check newspapers - cause of death might lead to further research, e.g. details about an accident, epidemic, etc. Make note of all mentions in newspapers, no matter how trivial they seem at the time. I used to be amused at the social chat columns which stated who visited their relatives on the weekend, and not take them seriously, until I worked an adoption case for a DNA match and that social column placed the bio parents in the same location at the same time. Check passenger lists if the person emigrated. Check military records. In Australia there is a lot of information available online for free about ancestors who served in the military in wartime. Land records. Check history groups local to the area where the person lived and archives in the area. For pioneers check for books on the area in which they lived. Research the social issues and local history relevant to the person's lifetime and how that may have impacted upon the person. If they changed occupation, or went bankrupt, or moved, especially emigrated, what may have contributed to that? Old maps may be useful. Where there was more than one choice for a church in which to get married, research the church if it wasn't the person's regular church. Is there a likely reason why it was chosen? e.g. A local church that had the longest nave was often chosen by brides who had an elaborate gown and they wanted ample opportunity to show it off.
by Leandra Ford G2G6 Mach 9 (98.5k points)
And then when you've gathered all that information, weave it together into an interesting narrative.
Census data can be very revealing. Since it produces legal documents, it is a crime to lie to the census takers. Therefore, family secrets cannot be covered up very easily. I discovered a mystery aunt through census data. I also found out that my cousin was married, a fact that was probably unknown to my generation. What I don't know about is what happened to his wife.

Census data can tell where a person was and when they were there, but the census also can shed light on where the person was not - being conspicuous by their absence from a particular household. My cousin was not listed with his parents when he was supposed to have been married, thus lending some support to the idea that he and his wife lived elsewhere.
+16 votes
Leandra mostly covered it. In my family, arrest records are helpful. More's the pity.
by Betty Fox G2G6 Pilot (160k points)
Hey, you ain't alone.
Up until a couple years ago, there was a record online for the British Old Bailey Courts.   It covered about two hundred and fifty years from 1700 to 1950.  Perhaps there is a copy of the records that can still be accessed.


Still there  and there are some fantastic linked databases (see the side panel) London Lives which links to a Metropolitan archives database. Digital Panopticon which links convict and transportation records and Connected Histories which links a variety of major British  databases together (the latter  still in it's infancy and probably needs some tweaking with the search engine)

It's not only the criminals themselve (and heaven knows I've got enough of them...) but also the witnesses/victims whose statements can be very revealing about their lives and the circumstances in which they lived.
Very true Derek. I'm getting desperate on my Scheurer line. I have heard that there are lineages in Nazi SS that you can look at to find information on your ancestors if they were part of that group. It seems that the Nazis kept lineages to prove purity. I will take any scrap I can get.
Every family needs a scoundrel or two. I take great delight in pointing out such records to the family prudes who like to sweep all the scandal under the mat. Teasing my mother about some of her relatives has been a favourite family sport for years.
Sometimes the most intriguing stories about our ancestors come from those who may have had a shady past (we don't know!) who managed to cover it up so they were able to have descendants. Had they documented every detail of their lives, we might not be here now.
Our family has quite a few mafia ties in the st. Louis area spanning 1900-1940. I will say that the arrest records don't help because they were murdered before any arrests could be made.

(Giordano Crime Family of St. Louis married into the Hanicks/Powers)
+12 votes


The answer to this question of HOW? has various answers depending on the individuals I'm researching and their lives. 

I too love maps, for instance, some of the old township plat maps really turn me on! I love to be able to correlate what I see on the map to the route the census taker took and to see the location of the neighboring households where often all the wives and husbands of all the sons and the daughters of my direct line came from. I also really enjoy digging into military history. When I can get specific unit designations, I like to add the unit's history...deployment locations, battles engaged in, casualties etc.... For my direct line (and for some that just pique my interest or get under my skin) I like to dig into everything I possibly can to fill out their life stories even down to minutiae .....from what was it like to spend weeks in the steerage section of a steamship coming across the Atlantic for my Italian immigrant ancestors? what tree species and tools where available for my frontiersman ancestors--and what notch style was prevelant for log cabins in that time & area? (Shout out to Mark Bowe, Johnny Jett & the boys!) In short, I try to dig as deep and as wide as I can to get the fullest possible perspective on the profiles on this end of the spectrum as I can.

Now, a little bit about the other aspect of this question...WHY? My work here has varied aims/goals. In addition to the depth and breadth, effort and time I'm willing to spend on some profiles, there exists at the other end of the spectrum the profiles I create that I only care about one thing.....accurately connecting them into the broad family tree. This is done mostly for the purposes of having this connectivity available for potential hits at 23 & Me & FTDNA etc... For these profiles, I frankly don't care about any additional embellishments beyond names & dates. I have absolutely no intention to ever write a biography or enhance the profile in any fashion other than basic BDM data.

by Nick Andreola G2G6 Mach 4 (47.3k points)
I'm developing an interest in military history too, after working on a few bios. One can dig around for weeks or months on the Australian War Memorial website. Sometimes the info I find makes me ask more questions and I Google for more. There's no end of military enthusiasts out there who have created websites and blogs with lots of good information - often focusing on a very specific topic, and frequently I've found their information to be sourced.
I was in a technical/engineering job for ~30 years in part because I seem to thrive on hard data and statistics etc...  The military records seem to offer an endless supply of that HA!

I found some notes my maternal grandmother had made when she started trying to sort out our family tree years ago. Penciled in a margin on one page were some doodled calculations for her mother who had 14 children. 14 X 9=126. 126/12=10.5 years of pregnancy!

I had to laugh out loud when I saw that not only because of that staggering number but because I could see where I got at least part of my penchant for those kind of facts & figures. I really wish she was still alive to see how far the tree has progressed......
+7 votes
I usually check the censuses, see if there are photos and other documents. If a name seems familiar to me, I ask my parents if they know the person. Sometimes a person's ancestors were at my parents' wedding or sometimes they knew the person's ancestor's around town. Basically, I ask questions and check out marriages and other documents.

But, it often helps that my parents remember who was who around town growing up and who was at their wedding.

I also talk to relatives across the pond and they have been very helpful, too.
by Chris Ferraiolo G2G6 Pilot (422k points)
Lucky for you that your parents are still alive.  My advice for everyone is:  Interview your older relatives while you have the chance.  When they are all gone, a tremendous resource will be lost forever.
My mother-in-law went through the trash when her mother died. Turns out the one's doing the cleaning disposed of a lot of personal papers including a birth certificate for grandma's father from Germany. She put her grubby little fingers in the trash can. She's a brave woman.
How right you are to fish documents out of the trash. One person's junk is another's gem. It also helps to be around when an estate is being settled so those in the know can claim family items that may not be obvious to the executor. That happened to me. I was able to save for posterity an important family picture.
+17 votes
My favorite records are diaries an unpublished manuscripts available at Many University archives and state archives. Additionally I enjoy reading chancery court records because they show the human side of each individual involved in the case. Pension Records also generally tell a story from a first person account and even if I can’t find my exact ancestor I could locate someone that served in the same unit or regiment or attended the same school etc. and still get a pretty good idea of that particular time in their life.
by Margaret Meredith G2G6 Mach 2 (21.3k points)
+16 votes
This is where being source-centric really comes into play. Glean every bit of information from your sources that you can. Form stories out of collections of small details. Check sources that themselves provide these stories: newspaper articles, family bibles, handed-down family stories (corroborated if at all possible), biographical records like obituaries, etc. I have much work to do on this. Thanks for the question!
by Ryan Ross G2G6 Mach 2 (27.7k points)
Ryan, you have hit the nail on the head. This is the way to produce interesting profiles. Source everything and say what you think of the quality of the source and its information. Put together a picture of the person's life from the evidence.

This G2G question is one of the most interesting because it has elicited a variety of answers that can help genealogists of all levels of experience.
Thanks! And I agree.
+15 votes
I love photos, and I am driving out to western a Oklahoma in a couple of months to scan photos at my my mother’s cousin’s home. I know these will be lost if I don’t make the attempt myself. I also try to do research on veterans, as to their military service. This is why WiKiTree is my favorite genealogy site, as I am able to add medals and make profiles honoring their service.
by Alexis Nelson G2G6 Pilot (354k points)
Photos can help answer questions that we can't answer any other way. For example, I was able to identify details - like approximate dates - about relatives in pictures where the details about the relatives were unknown (no label on the photo) but they were with at least one other known person in another photo. For example, I knew that a aunt and an uncle must have been alive in an approximate timeframe because they were photographed with my mother. I estimated that date by what my mother looked like in the photo.
+12 votes

What I'm interested in -- and the WikiTree one-shared-tree is ideal for this -- is the communities my ancestors lived and worked in.  So even if I can't find surviving narratives about people on my tree, I may be able to find details about the lives of people they knew and can imaginatively extrapolate what my ancestors' lives might have been like.  

by E. Compton G2G6 Pilot (138k points)
+15 votes
Good question. Dates, locations, documentation are all good, but they don’t tell the full story. Finding the real story of some long lost relatives life, such as an autobiography, is an absolute treasure to discover. Recognizing that future generations will appreciate such funds, several years ago I started collecting biographies from as many living relatives as a can. I’ll call folks up, spend a couple hours on the phone with them and document their life stories, in their own words. I’ve collected over a hundred biographies so far, even distant relatives I’ve never met in person. Hopefully some future relative/genealogist will find these to be extremely valuable.
by Alex Stronach G2G6 Pilot (309k points)
+11 votes

i *try* to add more info if i can. as others have said info from census records, ive looked on google maps for address's and added a screen shot to the person, ive searched the net for photos and newspaper articles, some ive added short stories linked to their occupations
by Amy Lackey G2G6 Mach 1 (15.9k points)
+7 votes


The one place I go searching for details of my ancestors and other family members are the Newspapers. New Zealand has a very good online newspaper database called Papers Past, which is run by the national government library and is free to use.

Once the ancestors get back to the UK, then I use the census records, because the early census records for New Zealand were not kept and thus are not available in that country.

The NZ Archives Archway is another excellent kiwi database to peruse - very useful for Military records.  Also free to use.

by Robynne Lozier G2G6 Pilot (889k points)
+11 votes
I love this question!  For me, researching an ancestor (or someone else's) is all about making that person real!  I like to find out what their life was like, not just when and where events took place.  When I find family letters, bibles newspaper stories, or journals, it helps me to see them as more than just another piece of paper... or a leaf in the tree.
by Amy Gilpin G2G6 Pilot (109k points)
+11 votes
I like to include occupation information, name change history (often due to a perceived need to 'Americanizing' the family name to blend into society). I've included nicknames (Uncle Shorty was 6'4"), arrest records, and mental health issues on occasion. Everyone included in the family tree make represents a unique individual. My goal is to not have cookie-cutter style entries.
by Marty Franke G2G5 (5.1k points)
+11 votes
I gather every bit of information that I possibly can beginning with all the BMD records, censuses, etc.  Then I research the country or specific area to learn what it was like at the time, to include culture and political climate.  I draw on my skills as an intelligence analyst to get the clearest picture I can of the person/family I am researching.  I want to know absolutely everything that I can learn!
by Cinde Iacovacci G2G1 (1.8k points)
+11 votes
I like to research addresses. One recent find of a suicide victim: his father died in his (the father’s) house. That house later experienced more tragedy: subsequent residents perished in the house, a murder/suicide. And decades later, the house was the scene of a triple murder. Yikes. Not that all that goes on a wikitree profile, but, it is good to look to see if the house is still standing. Zillow is my first to-to lookup. They usually have the year a building was built, so it’s easy to determine if it’s the same building. Then, one can extrapolate economic guesses: like, if a family paid $25 per month in rent in 1930, but today the home is valued at $whatever; it tells a story of the house itself. Plus throw in architectural style, and it all puts flesh on the bones of the family who lived there!
by R Stephen G2G3 (3.1k points)
That house has bad luck! Maybe it should be torn down. ;-)
+8 votes
I also find it interesting to add a physical description, when possible.  One good source, for men (in the U.S.), is draft registrations, which include height, weight, and hair and eye color.
by Julie Kelts G2G6 Pilot (343k points)
+8 votes
Always in search of details, for my ancestors, but alas, they lived rather mundane lives, so little was recorded, beyond dates and places. Do like to follow a good story, and some of my ancestors siblings, married into interesting families, so when I find story filled sources, I can't let them pass by, without adding WikiTree profiles for the characters and going on a journey.

Just yesterday received a family history book via ILL from my wonderful local library, to expand a tree twig I'd been working on a few years ago, and  within a few pages, bumped into Willie Harpe, a notorious outlaw, who is already recorded on WikiTree,  That tree branch has meandered through stories of politicians, heroes, grief, tragedy, tears and laughter, but Willie Harpe is a new twist in the drama.
by Patricia Roche G2G6 Pilot (428k points)
+11 votes
Cemeteries! They are such a source of information. Especially if they are close enough to visit. I am the family historian; I research both my family history and ny husband's. His family is much more interesting. Almost all of them arrived in Canada between 1780 and 1840. They lived in very small towns and intermarried with other local families.

His father's family were some of the first settlers of Alton, Ontario, in the 1830's only about 60 mins drive from our home.It is fascinating to see his relationships with just about everyone buried in the cemetery before 1950, and a lot who have buried there more recently.

His 2 X Grt grandfather married the girl who lived on the farm across the road and her family was intertwined with everyone in the village. The village had about 400 inhabitants in the late 1800's and has the same number now.

We have often visited the cemetery, I can show him a headstone and tell him who they were and how they are related to him he usually says But we don't have the same last name and that's why the stories begin.

You can see on the headstones all the connections between the families.

Person 1 male married person 2 female, she died, then he married her sister, the he died and the wife/sister in law married her husband's brother.

One of his cousins and I are just starting to work on a project that will show how almost all of the people buried in the cemetery are related to each other. We are really excited about it
by M Ross G2G6 Pilot (130k points)
Good Luck with your search!
Thank you Nina

We have taken photos of all the headstones, and sorted them by family name groups, now we have to figure out the relationships between the deceased and our family members. Its surprisingly not as difficult as we anticipated
+12 votes

For my direct ancestors, I try to put in as much as I can find eg: Where they lived, their occupation, any interesting newspaper clippings about them besides their marriage/death.  For the umpty aunts, uncles, cousins, I try to put in at least the birth/marriage/death info.  If I come across something interesting, I'll post it, (eg: GG Uncle Waldo accidentally burned down the house the family was renting while he was playing with matches!)

by Dorothy O'Hare G2G6 Mach 5 (51.5k points)
+9 votes
Genealogy is my way to bring my ancestors to life; to tell their stories in writing to keep their memories alive.  That isn't a matter of only dates and locations.  It involves research to find out any kind of information that might be available.  

In one family, for three successive generations, my direct ancestral grandmothers lived long enough to have two children and died after giving birth to the second.  Those children were raised by a "stepmother" who gave birth to five to seven more children.  

In the same line, my own father's mother died 19 days after his birth.  She was one of two daughters.  Her father dropped dead less than six months later.  Her sister's newborn then died the day after his birth.  Although his father lived, he was raised by his maternal grandmother, aunt and uncle.  Understanding the tragedies of my father's family was enlightening.

Knowing their tragedies and triumphs endows  them with life.  It helps me and my family to know and understand where and who we come from - their strengths and the reasons for their weakness.  We learn from and are comforted by them.
by Linda Palmer G2G Crew (810 points)

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