In researching a family tree, it is necessary to find ways to navigate around 'dead ends' and to look for cracks in 'brick walls.' In other words as genealogists we need to explore all avenues a do a lot of lateral thinking.
One of the biggest problems encountered from the start is the spelling of names. Names can be anglicised, shortened, and spelt in numerous ways. Early day clerks made many errors with foreign names and they had problems with different accents. Not all our ancestors could read and write. Not all of them could write their own name. Some people used an alias. Some people changed their names by deed poll. Christian names were often interchangeable, like Anna and Hannah. Some people used their saint's name as their own name.
In the transcription of old records it is very difficult to read a lot of the handwriting. Capital letters such as J, I, and T can look very similar as can F, K and H so that indexes always have mistakes. Each time a new index appears, it has different mistakes, but check new versions of indexes as they might include a name omitted before.
When searching indexes, where it is possible use 'sound alike / look alike' rather than 'correct spelling.' Also make use of the wild card ( * ) when searching online.
It is interesting how many people have the same name. There can be more than one person with what looks like an unusual name but who appear not to be related at all. It pays to make sure that the correct person is being investigated so that not too much time is spent on the wrong family.
There are so many records now that are easy to access and it pays to look at different versions of the same record, not simply to look at one. For example a civil marriage record may give different details to a church record. Either record can have mistakes. As well as a birth record it is good to look at a christening record.
It should always be borne in mind when checking death records that the informant might not be providing correct information. A person born in the Port Phillip District might never have met nor had contact with his grandparents who lived in England. However if the name of a grandmother looks incorrect it might be a mistake but it could also mean that she has married more than once. Always check what appears to be wrong information as it might lead to a whole new story.
Many records 'cross over' such as death registrations, cemetery records, obituaries, wills, probate records and inquests. Police records, insolvency records and court records also cross over.
The Public Record Offices in each State offer much helpful information as do the main State Libraries. These places have websites with lists of their holdings and indicate what information is online. One of the best places to search is the online newspaper such as Trove, but even a Google search can bring up something unexpected. A good website by historian Shauna Hicks has a link to 'demolishing brick walls.' Cora Num's website offers lists of possible indexes to search also.
There might be someone else searching for the same information as yourself so it might pay to advertise your research. There are many genealogical sites to do this including Ancestry.com.au.
Listen to family stories and pay attention when there appears to be a secret. Most likely there will be an illegitimate child but it might be something much more interesting. Follow different lines of the family as someone else might have photos, letters, or bibles, and look at the historical background of the area in which people lived as this might give clues as to why people came and went.
Jenny Carter is an experienced family historian who answers research questions in the "Q. & A." section of "Ancestor," the Genealogical Society of Victoria's journal. She still has a few 'dead ends' herself but is always alert for a new path to explore. One point she made regarding note taking from documents was to concentrate on not making careless omissions of essential details.
(The above is a report on Jenny Carter's address at the General Meeting on 12 February 2011)
Contributed by Jan Hanslow (PPPG Member No. 1057)
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