Genealogy is one of only a few socially acceptable addictions. I remember my grandpa pulling out a super long pedigree chart from his dot matrix printer and getting so excited about all the family history work he could do now that he had a computer (in 1990). My father in law used to spend hours hunched over the computer with his nose practically to the screen. My mother has done so much in our own family that she has started branching out to in-laws’ family lines just so she can get her next fix. I have managed to avoid falling into addiction by never starting in the first place.
Since they’ve done all that work, I’ve settled into the notion that there’s nothing more I can do and so I do nothing. It seems like it would be easier to do my own family history if I could start from scratch instead of searching for the one or two people my mom and grandpa might have missed (pretty unlikely for a novice like me).
We wanted to do something, so a few years ago we started focusing on our family history by teaching our boys about our grandparents. For Christmas one year we gave each boy a framed portrait of a great grandpa and a gift that represented that grandpa’s interest (a banjo method book for our oldest and a picture of Great Grandpa George playing the banjo, some science books for another son and a picture of his biochemist great grandpa, etc.) The next year we did the same with our grandmas, this time giving each boy a book that she loved to read as a child or read to her children (some easy to find, like Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, others took more searching, like The Thunder Cave. We also started a binder of each grandparent with pictures and stories so our boys can learn more about them. We hope to continue this tradition as we move further back in the family line so we can all learn more about ancestors we never knew.
But as far as doing regular family history work, I couldn’t see a way to make it part of my life until I realized that I didn’t have to search my own ancestors to do genealogy. I could do indexing. I didn’t even know what indexing was but I was willing to give it a try.
Before I got started I thought I was going to have to call someone to show me how but I thought I should Google it first so I didn’t look quite as dumb. It’s pretty straightforward, actually: you simply look through old public records, read the handwritten names and dates, and type the information so that it can be searched in a database by people looking for ancestors. I ended up at Family Search, which showed me how to download an indexing program and how to get started without needing any outside help. It puts the scanned document right on your screen, you read it, and type in what you read. It was so easy.
The next day I decided to try to index my first document and it looked nothing like the tutorial – instead of a certificate with neat little boxes with easy-to-find information, it was a probate file which looked like this:
I had a mild freak out. I spent forever looking at the handwriting guide, Googling to see if what I thought I was seeing was an actual last name, and checking the instructions again, but I still felt like a big fat failure. I left it sitting there a few hours until my mom was visiting. I asked her for help but she said she’d never done probate files. Then we ended up getting in a fight over whether the guy’s last name was Patenou or Patinson. She kept saying, “Well, I think it says Patinson,” and I kept saying, “I know you do because you keep saying that.” My dad stepped in and dragged her home (after saying he also thought it looked like Patenou) and I decided to send the whole batch back unfinished.
If I weren’t doing this for a blog challenge I would have quit right then. But since I had to report on it, I looked for a batch of documents I could actually index. It took a few more tries, but when I found some death certificates from Chicago in 1902, it clicked and I just stayed with those for the rest of the night. I started to feel like I was the sole expert on all the cemeteries in Chicago and that if I didn’t keep going, how could it possibly get done? They needed me.
I can be a bit obsessive when I play a game or watch a season of a show or open a bag of potato chips because I’m not very good at knowing when to say when. Not surprisingly, the same thing happened to me when I started indexing. I set a goal for the week not really knowing how long it would take me to reach it, and that first evening I surpassed it.
When I was a teenager I used to play Tetris for so long that I would dream about it as I drifted off to sleep. In college it was Spider Solitaire and nowadays it’s Sudoku. I don’t have games on my phone or computer because I would waste so much time if I did and then I would feel guilty. But indexing lets me use that same part of my brain – the obsessive puzzle-solving part – without feeling guilty. After that first evening I knew I was hooked.
On Monday night I decided to teach my husband and two teenage sons how to index too. It took a while and it was good to have my husband and me there to help them read some of the documents, but they got pretty good at it. One son who was indexing marriage certificates eventually quit because he got tired of trying to decipher “old people cursive” and I couldn’t blame him – some of those documents are really hard to read. Now I understand why my father in law put his face so close to the screen – that’s the natural reaction when trying to read illegible handwriting. My husband and I both did it automatically.
My other son was indexing death certificates from 1914 and happened upon this – “Occupation of Father: Dead”.
And then he found this:
“Cause of Death: Stab wounds to the neck and chest…Homocidical.” What better way to get a 14-year-old boy hooked on family history work? After he finished this batch, he immediately downloaded another one.
As morbid as it sounds, it was interesting to read the causes of death on the death certificates because so many of them are now preventable. My son would ask what a certain disease was and I’d say, “That’s another one you were immunized against.” I’m not one who wishes for the “good old days” and reading these documents reinforced that for me. The diseases, the illiteracy (one bride whose last name was Schumer signed her marriage certificate “Choomer”), and the limited career options for so many… I’m so glad I didn’t have to be a woman one hundred years ago and after reading some of the entries about race, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be asian (listed as “yellow” on his death certificate) or African American:
Although the indexing work I’m doing isn’t technically my own family history work, I feel good that I’m contributing to someone’s genealogical records and I’m learning a lot in the process. And even though I really only tried it so I’d have something to write about and so I wouldn’t feel so guilty about never giving it a chance, I think the obsessive side of me is hooked. And maybe someday I’ll understand enough about the process to try researching my own family tree to see if my even more obsessive mother and grandfather missed anything. What? It could happen.