You only have to look

7 January, 2011 at 6:42 pm 8 comments

I am irritated every time I hear the ad that says “you don’t need to know what you’re looking for, you only have to look”. Advice like that encourages some people researching their family history to accept anything they find without question, especially when it is the only name that seems to match when searching an index.

The internet is littered with family trees wrongly patched together by people who did not look for corroborating evidence before adopting an ancestor.

Some of my “problem” ancestors took a great deal of hunting, through every available source I could access, before I finally found some record or some descendant or something that provided a clue to a mystery. Then lots of cross-checking was required before I could have some confidence in my conclusion. For example, it took nearly 10 years of  very focussed research before I found the necessary evidence for one ancestor, Samuel ETHERINGTON. (I did also research other ancestors in those intervening years!)

I do believe that any research needs to be focussed and directed. Be systematic in the way you check all the sources you can. Lucky dip research occasionally brings unexpected finds, but without careful cross-checking of details, you won’t know whether that find belongs in your tree or not.

Having said all that, new indexes and newly digitised records are recently being released at such a rate that it is difficult to keep up. Because I was so obsessed with one particular ancestor, I once could be fairly confident that I had checked most of the available sources of information about him. But with more ancestors in my tree and more sources to check (and less time – but don’t get me started on that) – anyway there are bound to be people in your tree that you have not yet sought in unlikely places as well as the more obvious.

Because I’m writing some new courses, I was looking for examples of some lesser used sources. Today I was checking online indexes on the website of the State Records Authority of New South Wales, the archives of the NSW government.

You can’t browse shelves in a government archives (as you might in a library), but you can browse online indexes. Not every sort of record is indexed and not all indexes are online, but a lot of them are.

Today I was checking indexes I don’t usually bother with and was quite surprised at how much I found. I did not know before that John McNEILL was a 1st class porter at Darling Harbour Goods Yard in 1910. Or that two James ETHERINGTONs (father and son) held Publican’s Licenses for the Nell Gwynne Hotel (York Street Sydney) in the 1850s. I found more bankrupt ancestors (and bankruptcy files can contain a wealth of details about daily life).

Which brings me back to where I started. Perhaps I did know what I was looking for, but I was still surprised with what I found. And I am so glad that I looked!


Entry filed under: Archives, Research techniques. Tags: , .

Testing genealogy knowledge Coat of arms / ‘family crest’

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Shelley  |  7 January, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    I get annoyed every time I hear those Ancestry ads. Not quite to the point where I start lecturing the TV about it, but close!

  • 2. Ezekias  |  10 January, 2011 at 10:37 am

    Those “accept anything they find without question” folks must be the ones who patronize those generic “family crest” suppliers where you get a crest of somebody, somewhere, who happens to share your surname.

    • 3. Kerry Farmer  |  10 January, 2011 at 11:01 am

      I think there’s a difference. (Hopefully) people are careful about who they claim as their parent, so they should be equally careful about who they claim as parent of an ancestor.

      However I think it’s OK to be interested in a coat of arms that happens to bear your family name. After all there’s nothing wrong with buying a print of an art masterpiece because I like it or it happens to interest me. I’m not trying to claim that I have the original.

      By the way, the medieval knights might have worn a crest (a symbol) on top of the helmet, but what identified them was the identifying arms painted onto a sleeveless coat worn over the armour. So really we should all refer to family ‘arms’ or ‘coat of arms’ rather than ‘family crest’. It would be good if the “family crest suppliers” (your words) informed potential buyers that to be entitled to use a coat of arms you must have either been granted it yourself or be descended in the male line from the original grantee.

      • 4. Free Genealogy Guide  |  10 January, 2011 at 1:41 pm

        Sorry, but I think that someone who hangs a coat of arms on his or her wall normally believes that it is the crest of one of their ancestors, not just a cool-looking emblem of someone unrelated to them (other than having the same last name).

        I doubt that the majority of the companies selling these items stress this fact to potential clients. I understand “Let the buyer beware,” and all, but as Cool Hand Luke said, “Saying that it’s your job don’t make it right, boss.”

  • 5. Kerry Farmer  |  10 January, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    I’m sure you’re right that most people think it is the arms of one of their relatives.

    But they don’t have to think that – for others it will just be an interesting curiosity. I’m interested in anything that says ‘Mackenzie’, because I have ancestors of that name. I’ve bought bookmarks with the name on it. Doesn’t mean that I expect to inherit a castle!

  • 6. Kerry Farmer  |  10 January, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    I’m going to write a separate blog post about coats of arms. I am very interested in anybody’s thoughts on this topic – too interesting to stay in the comments section!

  • 7. cassmob  |  16 January, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    Glad I’m not the only one who grits their teeth and turns the TV to mute when the Ancestry ads come on!

  • 8. The future of genealogy « Family History Research  |  3 February, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    […] Increased visibility, due to eg the increasing popularity of television shows like Who do you think you are? I would add to that – the online advertising of tells people how easy it is to find your ancestors and that you don’t need to be an expert. (For my views on such advertising, see my earlier post ‘You only have to look‘.) […]


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