Family History Research Paper Trails

I’ve been on the road since March 2006 tracking down family roots and living relatives. I’ve driven from Alabama to Ohio, to Michigan, and across to Washington State. Then south to Oregon and back to Seattle. Along the way I’ve collected photographs and paperwork to scan, stories, records, and a lot of tall tales to tell.

Along the way I’ve also collected paper piles. I’d like to call them “paper trails” but they look more like piles than trails. I left Ohio with digital copies of paperwork and photographs, which definitely helped to keep my load light. But in Michigan, I gathered up about 3 inches (7.6 cm) of stacked papers along with digital records. In Spokane, I copied almost 500 pieces of paper at the local copy shop to drag along. That’s about a ream of paper, not counting paper clips and staples.

In Seattle, the paper collecting began in earnest. As did the collection of digital images and files. I have spent HOURS scanning old crumbling photo albums from many generous family members, old records, letters, notes, books, and everything I can find. I am still scanning and I don’t have a total yet, but I’m guessing that I have at least 50 gigs of material scanned. Probably a lot more. Thank goodness I brought along my 400 gig portable hard drive unit.

Stacks of paper pile up on the makeshift desk in my mother's spare bedroom, photograph copyright Lorelle VanFossenThen my mother got into this with a vengeance. When she gets “into” something, she gets very seriously into it.

The paper started arriving within a few days of my arrival. I made a makeshift desk in her spare bedroom to sort through what I’d already collected and now she is adding more to the pile.

She has an amazing ability to think so far outside of the box, there is no box. Which is awesome for genealogy research. She sits in front of her computer and comes up with word combinations and ideas on researching people, places, and events, and plugs them into the search engines. Unbelievably, she finds priceless connections, little bits and pieces of data that stun me.

Not everything matches up. She follows a tangent to its extreme, but sometimes there are sudden leaps of intuition and connects are made that we would have never thought possible if we thought in conventional manners.

We have a Seneca and Sealey Primley in our family tree and you would think that these would be fairly distinctive names. They are not. We’ve found a bunch of Seneca Primley and Sealey (Seeley) Primley names all over the place, in different time periods and different situations, but typically close in proximity to each other. She finds a hospital record of a Seneca Primley as witness to the court appointed submission of Sealey Primley to a mental ward in an Indiana Hospital. She tracks down census information, birth and death records, and all kinds of records, but we can’t seem to connect the dots. Still, how many Primleys can there be with the same two names? We are starting to think that these might be family names and we are looking at generations of Primleys. I just have to get through the piles and piles of research paper she keeps bringing me to figure out who is who and if anyone is the same who.

We were delighted to find out that most of the family history research on Nicholas Knapp has been done, and we are in the direct bloodline. Along with thousands of other descendent’s of Nicholas Knapp. In researching that line, my mother sent off emails to people researching the Knapp line requesting more information and giving them clues to link us to them. When she gets a response, she prints it out and brings it to me, asking me to follow through on the response.

Now I have more paper and more emails to keep track of. I respond and they generously send me batches of files, records, pictures, and notes that I’m thrilled to get and anxious to investigate, giving each its due, but the stacks of emails are climbing as high as the paper, and I can barely see what color the walls are.

Long trail of paper on possible Nicholas Knapp ancestors, photograph copyright Lorelle VanFossenOne night she came down late with a long trailing ribbon of papers. I thought it was an art project. I wish it was.

She had printed out page after page from websites and files, cut them down and stapled them in some kind of order to larger pieces of paper, tracing a possible family line going back from Nicholas Knapp to England. Ignoring the fact that Nicholas Knapp has been thoroughly investigated by hundreds of expert genealogists for the past one or two hundred years and no evidence has ever been found on who his parents where, only assumptions that he came from Suffolk, England, my mother decided that she could track him down from her own office and computer.

She’d listened to me very carefully when I said that all this research was fabulous, but I had to be able to track down what she was finding later. I needed to verify things, see them for myself, and possibly follow a trail she missed. So when she cut out the pieces of paper on the people she was tracking, she also cut off the header or footer of each page listing the URL and stapled it to the edges, creating wings on the pages.

Closeup of Long trail of paper on possible Nicholas Knapp ancestors, photograph copyright Lorelle VanFossenThe ribbons of papers all neatly but chaotically stapled together flittered in the absent breeze with a life of their own. At midnight, this is just the kind of haunting artistic genealogical display you want to see.

I try to make sense of all the hard work she’s done, but I’m up against my own reluctance to push aside the research that has already been done. I’m not in Connecticut. I’m not at the courthouse, city hall or wherever all these records are stored so I can see them in person. I just found out we were related to Nicholas Knapp a month ago. How could I possibly make the assumption that I could track down the missing links from my home computer better than the experts can?

But nothing stops my mother.

I’m not saying she is doing anything bad. In fact, I’m really proud of her. I would never have made all the connections she has uncovered. She’s not hesitated emailing and calling people related or even possibly related to us and asking the hard questions about the family, digging through the material and making new connections all the time.

I hesitate, wanting to go through the stacks and stacks of paper that I’ve accumulated, carefully examining, cleaning up and labeling every image I’ve scanned, and process the information I already have. She pushes through all of that crap to plunge right out into the middle of things to get the information now, and deal with the rest of it later.

There is a great lesson to be learned in such courage.

I know she feels like time is running out for her. I’m sure she has another 20 years of running up and down stairs and putting all of us to shame with her vigor and energy. But she thinks of those 20 years as moving towards the end, where us younger folks are thinking of those 20 years as a long time. She’s been around enough to know that 20 years can be over in a heart beat. Literally.

So she needs no excuses to slow down or make this process sensible or slow. And me? I just have to figure out what I’m going to with all these boxes of paper that still need some methodical processing. I guess that’s what I’ll be doing for the next 20 years and the 20 after that.

Thank goodness for recycling.

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About Lorelle VanFossen

Lorelle VanFossen hosts Family History Blog covering her ancestors and related family members. She is one of the top bloggers in the world, and host of the Lorelle on WordPress, providing WordPress and blogging tips for bloggers of all levels. A popular keynote speaker and trainer, she is also editor, producer, contributor, and official disruptive thinker for Bitwire Media which includes WordCast, Making My Life Network, Stories of Our Journeys, Life on the Road, WordCast Conversations, and the very popular WordCast Podcast.
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