Local Genealogists Share Their Tips for Success

In the Interest of Time


For many people all across the world, knowing and understanding their family’s heritage is an endeavor that can span anywhere from months to decades. The yearning to know more and play a role in preserving history is a hobby for some and an obsession for others. Regardless of what you’re looking for or how you got started, the Scenic City has plenty of resources for novice and seasoned genealogists alike. Here, we talk with four local men as they unveil their tips and tricks for making sure that those who are gone are not forgotten. 


By Christina Cannon | Photography by Andrew Rayn


Jim Douthat (Above)

Why is knowing information about your lineage important to you?

“Your heritage is who you are. Growing up in Virginia, it was important to know who you were for someone to understand who you were. Families in that area had ancestors who stepped off the boat at Jamestown as early as 1607 and have been living in place ever since. They have a very close association with their surroundings and their community.”


David Clapp

Why is knowing information about your lineage important to you?

“My sister and I were both born with serious genetic defects. She has spina bifida, and I have a rare form of ichthyosis. Since spina bifida is relatively common, my parents were encouraged to have more children. After I was born, the team of doctors could not (and still cannot) determine what caused it. The best answer I’ve been able to get was that my parents brought together some recessive gene-linked vulnerabilities. That made me curious about deeper ancestral medical histories.”


Talk With Your Elders

For anyone just starting a journey into uncovering their family’s past, it can be hard to know where to turn. Step one is deciding exactly what it is you want to discover. Sure, you’ll learn plenty of neat and valuable pieces of information along the way, but having a more refined search will help keep you focused.

Whatever it is you’re looking for, working your way from the known to the unknown will likely be the easiest path and result in the most answers. Local genealogists suggest starting with relatives and getting as much information from them as possible.

“The best, easiest, and most available resource you have is your family. Talk to your elders and get their stories while you can,” says Joe Furr, a board member for Picnooga. 

If you don’t have many living relatives, speaking with other senior citizens is still a great way to learn the history of the area. This is how senator Todd Gardenhire first became interested in tracing his own family’s heritage, and he also notes that joining a group like the Daughters or Sons of the American Revolution will provide access to a well-connected group of people eager to share their findings. 

In addition to having conversations with older members of your family, study and ask questions about their belongings. Photo albums, diaries, letters, and other records stowed away in basements and attics can be a treasure trove of information. 

In order to do your part to help preserve the past, it’s also important to not just talk with those older than you, but those who are younger as well. While your elders may have key pieces of information that will make your search easier, placing an importance on your family’s heritage will ensure that younger generations also come to value your heritage.

“I was fortunate to grow up with family history as a part of my life, and I think that is partially what drove me to be interested in doing my own research later in life,” explains Furr. “My parents both valued our family’s past, as did their parents, so I was exposed to family stories and artifacts at a young age. I always found it fascinating to hear about how people in our family used to live, and that curiosity really had an impact.”

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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.”

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Joe Furr sitting on the couch in his library


Joe Furr

Who is your oldest known family member? 

“My oldest known ancestor whom we know a good amount about is Alexander Kelly (1750-1840). He was a soldier in the Revolutionary War and was captured at the Battle of Germantown. After the war, he used his pension to settle in the Tennessee frontier (at that time, part of North Carolina). He was an officer in the militia and participated in frontier conflicts such as the Battle of Etowah. This raised him to some prominence, and he was selected to serve as a founding trustee of Blount College, which would eventually become the University of Tennessee. In 1824, he moved to the area that would become Marion County.”


“I think a genealogist needs to be curious – curious to learn about the past, the lives of their ancestors, and how those lives led to themselves.” – Joe Furr

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Be Prepared for a Challenge
and Stay Organized

Even with the ever-growing digitization of documents, genealogy takes persistence for those who are successful. The further back in time you look, the sparser the documents get, and Clapp notes that researching common names in the South is challenging at best.

“Especially between 1650 and 1850, many people were moving into frontier areas, and the legal records of their passing are often scattered in constantly shifting legal jurisdictions, if they still exist at all,” says Clapp. “Finding answers there is the most time-consuming thing you might do, but also the most rewarding.”

Douthat agrees and cautions to not jump to conclusions about your ancestors. Not all John Smiths are the same person, and similarly, names and spellings change over time, so don’t write people off immediately, he says. 

“At some point, every genealogist will hit a seemingly insurmountable challenge,” adds Furr. “You eventually reach a point where you can’t find any more documents or other sources to trace your tree back further. Breaking through those brick walls takes persistence, which is an essential trait of a successful genealogist.”

In addition to being curious and determined, it is also crucial that genealogists are highly organized. Create a system that works for you and allows you to keep everything from book clippings and birth records to census data and marriage certificates in a place where you can easily find it at a later date. Douthat adds that keeping track of any individuals you have met with or talked to in your search is also valuable and should have a place within your organization system.   


Senator Todd Gardenhire sitting on a rock formation


Senator Todd Gardenhire

Who is your oldest known family member? 

“Jacob Gardenhire, who came over from Brusselgraph, Germany. He served in the Revolutionary War and was a part of the group, Overmountain Men. He had a son named Jacob who was born in 1756, who in turn had two daughters and three sons – John, Adam, and William. Adam’s oldest son was a state senator in Tennessee, a congressman and judge in Overton County; his second-oldest son was the attorney general and the first Republican candidate for governor in Missouri. He also received a presidential appointment from Abraham Lincoln. It’s pretty neat to come from a long line of men involved in public service.”

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Regardless of how your system looks, why you got started, and what you’ve uncovered thus far, seeking out the events of the past can help you learn more about your ancestors as well as yourself.

“I think, like many people interested in genealogy, there was an element of self-discovery driving me when I started my family history research. The desire to know who you are and where you come from is universal, and many people enjoy the sense of belonging they feel as they learn more about their ancestors,” says Furr. “As I was researching my family history, I was also struck by a feeling of how ephemeral our time here is, and that by preserving their memory, I was keeping a part of them still alive.”


Local Resources

  • Afro American Historical and Genealogical Society, East Tennessee Chapter
  • Chattanooga Area Historical Association
  • Chattanooga Delta Genealogy Society 
  • Chattanooga Public Library
  • Hamilton County Genealogy Society
  • Picnooga
  • Signal Mountain Genealogy Society 
  • Mountain Press

Digital Resources

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