Several years ago when I survived a massive and deadly heart infection following open heart surgery, a specific experience took place that has profoundly influenced my life and my work in genealogy. I’d had a seemingly successful heart valve replacement in the fall of 2005; but three weeks later, I collapsed with sepsis, resulting from an unknown infection. The doctors conducted test after test, trying to find out what was wrong; and spent precious time speculating on what was causing my body to stop functioning.
As I lay in the bed, a nurse noticed that the bottoms of my toes and feet were covered with black spots. When the doctors came in, they reviewed the tests, and as they started to leave, the question about the spots was raised. The lead physician took a closer look, and straightened up in surprise, exclaiming, “He has MRSA! And we gave it to him!” Then he made the statement that has stayed with me, and has impacted my thinking ever since. “As they taught us in medical school… When all else fails, look at the patient!” And so it is also in genealogy, in family history, and in climbing the family tree for today’s genealogist.
Science and Technology
In this high tech world of ours, all too often in the quest to identify and document ancestry, too many genealogists tend to look for the easy way out… of no work, no thinking; just the click of a mouse. With the Internet and online searching, databases, indexes, and DNA testing, many people become lax in research knowledge and capabilities; depending instead on new and improved technology, science and computers to make genealogical decisions.
In such a world of machines and 3rd party vendors, with the subliminal message that everything can be found online… and it is all true…; few worry any more about learning how to do research and the importance of looking at “the patient,” or as we would say in genealogy, “studying the records.” Few take the time to learn the research skills and knowledge of records so needed to accurately determine the truth about their family tree. If it can’t be done by simply pushing a button, it seems like too much of a bother.
We have forgotten the day when information could only be found when someone went to the courthouse, pulled out a large book, and searched it page by page for a mention of an ancestor. To be successful in determining the correct pedigree and lineage, people in that day needed to know and understand the records. And this is all the more true for today’s genealogist in this growing world of information and the need for data accuracy.
Today’s Tools for Genealogy
Through technological advances, records have been microfilmed in hundreds of countries, and are now being digitized for easy access on computers. We can find cemetery records via our cell phones or I-Pods, just by traveling through an online community. There are many DNA surname studies and family health history projects available for the interested.
Millions of people are sharing their personal and family information online, or through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Thousands of databases, with millions of names on them, can be accessed at the push of a few buttons, for free or for little personal expense. The LDS Church is digitizing the millions of rolls of microfilm in their collections and freely providing it to the peoples of the World, complete with indexes.
Looking At The Patient
With little emphasis on research education and the proper use of records, websites promoting genealogy record databases offer a promise that “just by looking, answers will be found;” and people in today’s technical culture are often satisfied with whatever they get in such a search. When family lines can no longer be extended through such technology, it is assumed the family tree information just isn’t there. Without stopping to “look at the patient” or “looking at the records,” genealogists can overlook valuable information that is in plain sight and miss the truth. The important details and clues needed to guide researchers’ ideas and actions in discovering family history are missed. Making correct decisions is paramount in genealogy research as in medical science, though maybe not with such immediately dangerous consequences. But the loss of truth is still a loss.
Today’s researchers are bombarded with technology and data, and unless genealogists are willing to study the records and learn how to distinguish what is valid, applicable, needed, or connected to their family history, they will miss out on properly identifying and documenting their family tree. I saw this first hand in my search for George Munday.
George Munday and the 1850 Census
A recent project that I undertook was to identify the family of a George Munday who lived in Casey County, Kentucky during the mid-1800’s. The normal approach for a genealogist is to seek to first identify the name in census records, probate minutes, and property registers. Censuses in this time period are the key general resource to consider because from 1850 on, they provide names, ages, marital status, birthplaces, occupation, property value and other useful details about a person or family. Scientific advancements have made these records accessible, first on microfilm, and now in computer databases, with indexes to provide ease and faster speed to identify people on these records. I remember the time of having to search censuses page by page and name by name in order to find the person or persons I needed; taking hours at a time to go through this important genealogical and historical record source. Technology has now made census record searching something that anyone can do at the touch of a few keyboard strokes… maybe.
In the case of the George Munday family we searched the census using an online database. George didn’t appear at first in any of the searches in the 1850, 1860, 1870, or 1880 Census records. A search of variant spellings found George “Monday” in the 1860 Census in Casey County; but not in the 1850 record. We searched this earlier census for variant spellings and misspellings and looked for other family members; and even for all of the references that year for the name “George” in Casey County. He wasn’t found.
We did a Soundex search for the name Munday, which breaks the name down into its component consonant letters, and found 18 possibilities for the name Munday, but still, no George. We then examined each of the record entries found in the Soundex search one by one. After all, in this case the census is “the patient” and we needed to “look at the patient.” One of the 18 entries pertained to a “Thomas Manday.” When we looked his entry we were surprised to find the family of a “Charles Manday” listed on one side of Thomas, and the family of a “Madison Manday” on the other side. Intermixed with these families were families carrying the name “Peyton.” This was important because George Munday had named one of his sons “Peyton Munday.” The significance of these other Manday families, was that none of them were listed in the online census index, except for Thomas Manday.
Knowing how important it is to search the original records we began searching adjoining pages, and almost immediately located the family of George and Sarah “Manday” on the page preceding Thomas Manday. This was the family we were looking for.
Returning to the online index we confirmed that George had indeed not been included in the index.
For some reason, only one out of five Mandy families on these pages appeared in the census index, even though other families around them did appear in the database. If we hadn’t “looked at the patient”, meaning the actual census records, this George Manday/Munday family might never have been found, even with all that new technology. By finding this entry we were able to identify multiple families that had a tie to George Munday, which could now help us move back another generation in time.
Science, technology and computers have indeed made life easier for the genealogist, and opened up new information, and provided easier access to old information beyond what we’ve had before. But science, technology and computers are only tools, and we have to learn to work with them to appreciate and access all of the information our Father in Heaven has for us, to find our ancestors. Technology is wonderful… and it has made life infinitely easier for us; but sometimes it takes something more to discover the truth. Sometimes we have to Look at the Patient to see what is really there.
James W. Petty, AG, CG is the Board-Certified and Accredited Professional Genealogist, “Climbing the Family Tree Professionally Since 1969”. He is President of HEIRLINES Family History & Genealogy, Inc. (www.Heirlines.com), the “Salt Lake City, Utah BBB Accredited Business” trusted professional genealogy research services firm, providing US and International genealogical and historical research for a world-wide clientele.
For Heirlines-Quality professional genealogy services, resources, and products including free genealogy, LDS Family History advice and expert answers to commonly asked ancestry questions, visit Jim’s website www.Heirlines.com for free consultations and ordering custom family tree research services, and his genealogy blog www.ProfessionalGenealogy.com .