Thursday, Oct. 16, 2008 | midnight
You tried "everything."
You looked for years. You accumulated stacks of documents. You did not find the answer to your research question. However, you still add to the collection because one day you'll find the document that ties it all together. Why not hasten the dawn of that glorious day? You may have that magic document in your files right now. Review your old research. Recombine the documents. Re-examine each source as though you are seeing it for the first time.
You will thin your stacks. You will find your research holes. You will finesse your research plan. You will find new clues in old files. As you make discoveries, write the new information or your new interpretation. As you write, think about your new conclusions and how they might lead you to other sources.
Reassess your record — is your source an original source, or is it a derivative source? Is the source reliable? Is the information it contains primary or secondary? (See "Weigh the credibility and quality of possible sources.")
Weigh each piece of information based on its credibility as evidence. I include a few examples that illustrate what new eyes found in old files.
Despite knowing where he lived, I couldn't find Daniel Sutton in New York in the 1790, 1800 or 1810 census enumerations. While I found men of that name, their family composition, residence location, or neighbors and associates didn't match with what I knew about the man I sought. I temporarily gave up and put the research away. When I reviewed my handwritten work several months later, I read my cursive "Daniel" as "David." Turns out he was indeed David. And once I knew his correct name, he stopped hiding from me. By setting the file aside I was able to ex-examine it afresh without the name "Daniel" mentally overriding any possibility that I might see "David."
My husband's grandmother kept her mother's address book from the early to mid-1900s. I photocopied the pages, but because I didn't recognize most of the names, I filed my copies. My husband's cousin shared some family photos with me a few years later. The cousin knew the names; we matched them with the addresses from the book. Address book entries enabled us to identify residences and relocations of several of the photograph subjects. However, when I re-examined the address book closely, I noticed very light pencil markings at most of the entries. The penciled notations indicated years she sent and received Christmas cards. My husband's great-grandmother's detailed Christmas card logs provided possible leads to when and where several of her friends and family members died.
Thus, my husband's great-grandmother's information enabled me to order the Florida death certificates of her youngest brother and his wife; the certificates in turn provided my first realization that my husband's great-grandmother's brother married his sister's husband's (my husband's great-grandfather's) sister (which would be akin to my brother marrying my husband's sister).
Members of the Association of Professional Genealogists experienced the following revelations when they reviewed old research files: one genealogist compared her old transcriptions of birth register entries with the original records and discovered that several times she had mistyped a month as "Juny." As she re-examined the original, she discovered the month was actually written "Jany," which then explained why her ancestor and two siblings seemed to be baptized before their births. Another genealogist linked a neighbor in the census to the witness of her ancestor's deed. Another rediscovered an Italian document she had filed away and forgotten before she took some Italian courses; when she reviewed the document with her new knowledge, she could read it. Another realized her "record" was actually an index entry; when she then obtained the original document she noted that the index date was in error. Finally, a genealogist who reviewed her old research annually wrote, "If you won't review 'em, don't include 'em."
You have old research files. You're smarter now; review them. You never know what you'll discover — even when you think you already know.
Stefani Evans is a board-certified genealogist and a volunteer at the Regional Family History Center. She can be reached c/o the Home News, 2360 Corporate Circle, Third Floor, Henderson, NV 89074, or [email protected].