16 Traits of a Successful Genealogist

Genealogy Research

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Do you have what it takes to become a successful genealogist? Of course you do! First and foremost, an enthusiastic love of history is essential, and most of us who enter into the field of genealogy already possess this crucial trait by the bucket load.

But what other qualities do we really need in order to successfully climb the family tree? Here are the top eight genealogist traits that you will need to nurture and cultivate if you truly want to unearth all of your family secrets.

Personality Traits

1. Tenacity

Like a dog with a bone, you never give up. Delving into the family ancestry line will likely come with a certain amount of obstacles and difficulties. Genealogy research is a lot like putting together a very detailed and oddly shaped jigsaw puzzle. If you focus on only one piece at a time, you might give up long before the Big Picture is fully formed.

Persistency pays, but sometimes we need to try a different approach. Researching marriage certificates and census documents will only get us so far. We may need to widen our search to include other people in the surrounding counties with the same surname if we have any hope of tracking down that single, long-lost relative.

2. Patience

Many newbies to genealogy often have the misperception that all it takes to complete a family history is a few short trips to the library or clicking on a few simple websites. The truly successful genealogists know that researching the family tree is a never-ending, life-long pursuit.

We need to be patient, waiting to hear back from queries that we have placed or for research material to arrive. This may be the “age of the Internet,” but our great-great-great-grandparents didn’t have this luxury.

3. Good Manners

As we’ve already stated, conducting the research may require some face-to-face interaction with county clerks or librarians in our local libraries. It will most definitely involve making more than a few phone calls to possible relatives or family friends. The importance of good manners and good old-fashioned politeness cannot be emphasized enough. Keeping your inquires brief and to the point, smiling, and saying “please” and “thank you” will get you much farther down the road.

4. Attention to Detail

Eventually, every family tree is going to involve a branch named “John Smith” or “William Jones.” Be sure that you have the right one, or your ancestry path might take a rather strange and twisted turn that will take years of backtracking to correct.

Sometimes, there are telltale signs located in the tiny details of the pictures and images that might help us to determine ”when” and “where” the picture was taken. A true genealogy enthusiast pays attention to every little detail.

5. Discretion

Every family has a certain amount of skeletons in its closet, and yours will be no different. As you uncover these deep, dark secrets, your discretion in keeping this damaging information confidential may be the determining factor in whether or not you are allowed to proceed deeper into the leaves of the family tree. If word gets out that you cannot be trusted, potential relatives might become ever more elusive.

6. Generosity

Yes, you are on a mission to complete the puzzle that is your family ancestry, but don’t be afraid to share a bit of your non-destructive insights and information along the way. Your research is going to bring you in contact with a great many people, people who might initially view you as simply some stranger asking way too many personal questions. Conducting your research requires a great deal of tact and highly effective communication skills.

You might have to “give” a bit of family history first in order to “get” that one bit of information that you truly need. Besides, this is what genealogy is all about, learning and sharing with the people who have made us who we are today.

7. Humility

In those times when we uncover some rather negative information about one of our ancestors, we might have the tendency to react somewhat harshly. Avoid saying things out loud like, “No Way! Not in MY family tree! Are you nuts?”

As you are talking to hundreds or perhaps thousands of people, having a certain amount of humility is going to prove invaluable. But don’t worry. If you don’t already possess this important trait of humility, you’ll acquire it very quickly after beginning to research your family tree.

8. Positivity

Some might call this enthusiasm, but positivity is a better word. You only “get out” whatever you “put in” when it comes to genealogy research. Remaining positive and inquisitive, even when we meet those unforeseen obstacles and roadblocks, is what makes being an expert genealogist so much fun.

With each new family member that we discover, take the time to appreciate and take pride in their own personal stories, no matter how tragic they may be. Remember, genealogy is all about the journey, not the destination, for the final destination never truly comes.

Tactical Traits

If you’re just starting to research your family history, knowing where to start can be a challenge. With so many resources available it can be overwhelming for a budding genealogist to get a sense of how to prepare for the journey ahead.

With that in mind, here are eight more genealogist traits to make your research as successful as possible:

9. Start Local

Online resources for genealogy research are great tools for acquiring information, but local research should not be taken for granted. Tracking down city, county and cemetery documents is an excellent starting point as these documents are all public record. Birth, death and marriage records were all legally required of your ancestors and many of these documents cannot be found electronically.

Other useful starting points include visiting churches and your state’s historical society. Many churches will keep marriage and baptismal records, and your state historical society can provide you with census records unavailable at the county level.

10. Research the County

Though it’s understandable to want to focus on your ancestors and their lives, taking a broader approach can have its benefits. Local county histories often contain passages about specific families and prominent individuals and these books are readily available at your local library.

Arcadia Publishing specializes in local histories in their long-running Images of America series. These books not only thoroughly cover the history of a specific region, but they offer dozens of wonderful historical photographs. It’s quite possible you’ll discover a new relative.

11. Know Your History

Taking an even broader approach, knowing the history of the era or eras you’re working with can be a great advantage. Researching the political and social climate of your ancestors, along with facts about nationalities and ethnicities, can help your relatives seem more than just “people on a page” and can give you new insights into their lives.

12. Find Supporting Evidence

Anyone who’s researched their family tree knows all about dead ends. With hazy memories, missing documents and conflicting information it can be difficult to keep everything in order.

This is why finding supporting evidence is so important. Uncovering a new relative can be exciting, but be prepared to scour all information available to confirm your findings. Do everything you can to avoid another dead end and your genealogy research will successful.

13. Prepare for Interviews

When people think of genealogy research, they think of sorting through and compiling records. While that’s a key component, interviews can supply a wealth of information. If you’re going to conduct interviews, however, you need to be prepared.

Have a list of prepared questions and follow-up questions for your subject and either record your conversation or take careful notes. Remember with busy schedules you and your subject may have limited time, and this may be the only time you’ll talk for the near future. The more prepared you are, the more you will get out of your session.

To see a list of family history questions that you should ask your relatives, click here.

14. Start or Join a Genealogist Group

Once again, online resources can be very valuable in this regard, but don’t overlook local opportunities. Your library and historical society will often be involved with genealogists like yourself, and local Craigslist ads can offer chances to meet likeminded individuals.

15. Go the Distance

Being a successful genealogist often means being willing take research trips to key points of interest. While much can be discovered from the comfort of your own home, exciting facts and anecdotes are just waiting for you at your ancestor’s home turf.

Both my uncle and my father have taken numerous trips like this to distant cities, churches and cemeteries. Most notably, my father and I once visited ancestral homes while in Scotland and Wales. Getting the chance to see the towns, buildings and countryside my ancestors experienced everyday was very moving and made them more than just “people on the page.”

16. Organize and Document

Whether you’ve compiled an impressive collection of information or just found your first historical photo, you want to get in the habit of organizing and documenting your findings.

Scrapbooks and binders are excellent for this, but any system you devise is preferable to a box full of loose clippings. Remember, this isn’t just your family’s history you’re preserving; it’s also its future. Someday a son, daughter or other relative may be picking up where you left off and you want your material to be as clear as possible so that they too can become successful genealogists.

And with the ability to create a digital archive of your family’s history through Crestleaf’s services, you’ll be able to preserve your memories and collaborate with relatives better than ever before.

This is hopefully just a start on “Successful Genealogist Traits”. Do you have any others you would add to this list? What are they?