Be Thorough With Your Research
Once you have spoken with your family and other members of your community, it’s time to start delving deeper into research – a phase that’s never-ending for the tried-and-true genealogist – and while there are plenty of great digital resources now, that wasn’t always the case.
“When I first started researching, I relied on Uncle Sam and a 3-cent stamp to contact anyone and everyone with information that would help me,” explains Jim Douthat, who owns and operates the Mountain Press, a local historical and genealogical publishing company. “I had no computer, so I had to type out each form. My life did get a little easier when I discovered a thing called carbon paper.”
David Clapp, former director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library, echoes that sentiment and notes that when he first began his journey in 1968, the only way to do genealogical research was by sending lots of self-addressed stamped envelopes with specific inquiries or visiting libraries, courthouses, cemeteries, and record repositories. By 1997, Clapp was mailing over 300 inquiries a year and planning long research junkets across the United States and even one trip abroad.
Today, however, websites like Ancestry.com can be a great resource for beginners, but they aren’t without their flaws.
“When using online tools, don’t take other people’s work at face value,” says Furr. “Ancestry lets you incorporate other people’s trees into your own, but many times, there are errors that can lead you down the wrong path. So, learn to apply a critical lens to other people’s work and ask yourself, ‘How do they know that?’”
Clapp adds that whenever evaluating an original document, it helps to thoroughly understand how the document was created and the quality of each piece of evidence within it.
“The more you understand about the work, the more you will thank yourself for following this advice,” says Clapp. “It’s also not unusual for witnesses to disagree about what happened, so do not stop with the first version you hear, and whenever possible, obtain copies of the materials you’re using.”
In addition to understanding and vetting your sources, Douthat says that it is also incredibly useful to first understand the history of a geographical area before trying to piece together family history.
“For someone with Hamilton County ancestors, your findings will come much more easily if you first understand the history of Hawkins, Greene, Knox, and Rhea counties, as well as the Cherokee Nation,” explains Douthat. “Hamilton County has been part of all of those at one point or another.”