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The March of the Genealogists

Too often we only conduct routine searches on the families we are researching. In our search for our ancestors, we need to not "march with the penguins" but act more like bored kids in search of action.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 1075 (approx.)
Labels: Vital Record 
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I recently went to see the movie the March of the Penguins with my two sons, ages 6 and 4. It was interesting to me that most of the theatre was filled with adults over the age of 35, including me. What I had initially believed would be more of a "kids" movie turned into an experience that probably was more meaningful for the adults. The kids became bored after a while because all they saw was a bunch of penguins marching together to their ancestral breeding grounds and then marching back and forth from the breeding grounds to get food and then the eventual march back to their homes near the sea with their young ones. The adults watching the movie were fascinated with how all those penguins know when and where to march year after year. No one tells them. There is no leader of the penguins that guides them. It's instinct that guides them to the same place each year where they will mate and have their young.

As I kept thinking about the movie and having just come home from the Federal Genealogical Society Conference (FGS) conference, I realized what a good metaphor that movie was for our work as genealogists.

The March Goes On . . .

As genealogists, our automatic instinct is that when we come across an ancestor to research we start searching the basics, vital records and the U.S. Federal census. We may have a few favorite genealogy websites we start with such as or If we have an ancestor who was born prior to vital registration, or lived prior to the 1850 U.S. federal census, then we may feel stymied for a bit. What do we check now to find them? We may even be one of those people who stop any serious researching and relinquish that ancestor to becoming one of our "brick wall" ancestors.

One of the most interesting presentations I heard was during the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) Conference that was held in conjunction with the FGS Conference. Birdie Monk Holsclaw spoke about her research on the students who attended the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind during the later part of the 19th century. She has spent years extracting names from the school's records and then researching each family whose child went to that school. Her subsequent report about this project became the NGS Family History Writing Contest winner for 2003, "Life and Death on the Frontier: The Robert and Loana McFarland Family of Boulder Valley, Colorado," published in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol 91, No.4 (December 2003). You can read more about Birdie's project at

Birdie's method was interesting as was her subject matter, but what really interested me was her tenaciousness and her willingness to be open to all the possible records that could be out there for us to find. One of the families she was studying had died in a car wreck in the 1920's. She did what many of us would; she sought out newspaper articles about the car wreck hoping to find out more. But then she wanted to know even more about the accident, were the couple new drivers and that's the reason for the accident? Were they new car owners? She wondered about the car itself. She started thinking that maybe she could find the bill of sale for the car. Now, I have to admit that at this point in the lecture I thought she was crazy. Who is really going to find the bill of sale for car purchased over 80 years ago? Guess what, she found the bill of sale in a local repository!

Be more like the kids, get bored!

Okay, I still can't believe that she actually found the bill of sale. But the other thought that came to me is that I would never have found the bill of sale because I wouldn't have looked. I would have thought that it was impossible. In this genealogical instance Birdie acted like a kid, she wanted more action and less penguins marching. Like children who don't know that some things aren't possible, she believed it was possible to find the bill of sale and she did. I realized as I listened to her presentation that I act more like an "adult" in that I would have never believed that bill of sale was something that I could gain access to. Adults tend to have blinders on that guide us in what we seek. We tend not to think of all the realm of possibilities but instead just stick with what we know, vital records and the U.S. federal census (just for a little drama in this article, you might want to say the words vital records and census numerous times while imagining the penguins marching off).

So how do we get off the march and really start researching our ancestors? Well, of course start with the basics: vital records, the U.S. Federal Census, and But then, start thinking about all the possible records that your ancestors might be in. You might want to use a resource checklist to help guide you. Check out the section of Cyndi's List entitled "Supplies, charts, forms, etc" ( for a list of websites that have free, downloadable checklists.

As you start to research a family, you might want to think of the family's life in terms of geography. You might want to start at the federal level by checking out the census, military records, immigration records, the Social Security Death Index, and pensions. Next, move on to the state level and check out state census, vital records, and voter registrations. Now move on to the county level and look up county history books, county courthouse records-including civil court minutes, criminal court minutes, divorces, land deeds, wills and probate packets. Now, go on a more local level and look at locality books, newspapers, business records, city directories, school records,and other treasures found at a local library or museum. Don't forget to examine every repository available to you: the Family History Library and Centers, university libraries, state libraries, state and county archives, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and your local library. When you have exhausted all of these resources, then you can truly feel like you have not just marched with the penguins in your genealogical quest, that you have gotten bored along with the kids and gained so much more in the process.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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