Pester a Few, Bore the Many

By Terry Hogan

If not now, when? If not by you, by whom? We’re all getting older. And if you haven’t noticed, people die when they get old. They also forget. Certainly after they die, and often before. Such are our lives. (I’ll ignore the whole tax thing.)

We live in a great time to do genealogy. It is big business. The Internet is a tool still finding new ways to work. Data bases get bigger. Computers get faster. We can search more, faster, and never leave home. We can make mistakes at the speed of light. We can assimilate others’ mistakes with similar speed. Data gathering is quick. Data assessment can be a pain. But like a chronic disease, putting it off will only make it worse.

We need to start at home. Old photos. Find them. Ask the big questions – Who? What? Where? When? Why? Write it down. If you can, buy a digital camera. Take close-up photos of the old photographs. Import the digital photos into a Word document on the computer and add the answers to the questions. If you know the ancestor, add your own stories and recollections. Don’t sweat the big events in history. Record the day to day lives.

Or if you prefer, rather than using a generic word processing software, use one of the genealogy software programs. But make sure it is narrative-friendly. But get it recorded now, while you can still ask and someone can still answer. Nag, Nag, Nag. But if I don’t remind you, who will?

Antiques in the house? Family heirlooms? Ask the same questions. Family Bibles or similar recorded family histories? Civil War journal? Keep the digital camera handy.

It is really hard to see old family photos in an antique store. Or even family Bibles with carefully recorded family histories. We are born, live, and die. If we are lucky, we leave children to carry on. We, to some degree, can live beyond our lives through the memories of others who knew us. People we knew and have died, live on in our memories. Some of this limited immortality can be passed down by carefully recording the facts, the humor, the good, and the not-so-good that make us human.

If some of this sounds familiar, good. That means your memory is still sound. But don’t push your luck. Get out there and record your family’s history. Or if somebody has already done it, try your spouse’s family line. (That’ll make them nervous!)

Start your research with your own relatives. Start with the living. Go from the living to those in the living memory. From there, go to family histories, family Bibles, oral histories, and start the long paper track back in time. Do not, I repeat, do not skip generations. Also do not start back in history and try to work forward. "Dumb" is the term that comes to mind for such energy-wasting exercises. But if you insist on making your own mistakes (like I did), go ahead. But try to acknowledge your error early to minimize the wasted time.

But on the other hand, don’t be afraid to try to be lucky once in awhile. If you have an ancestor named Tom Jones, don’t bother with this. But if you have a "Harmon Hogan" or some other relatively uncommon name, do a search on the Internet. I like the Google search engine. But to each his own. Type the name in quotes and add other search words, if necessary, to trim down the number of "hits." My best success in this exercise was probably for "Harmon Hogan." I found him in an Abe Lincoln legal database. Lincoln had the job to represent Harmon and others in a land case before the U.S. Supreme Court. With a little effort and some help from a kind legal scholar, I was able to get photocopies of Lincoln’s writings about the case and the hand-written Supreme Court decision. Not bad for a "shot-in-the-dark" Google Internet search.

And I am not alone in this. I have found living relatives…no that is not true. Living relatives have found me through the same process. I have Swedish "cousins" who searched their ancestors’ names on the Internet and found the Zephyr articles where I had written about them. I have a "new" cousin in Florida who contacted me in the last year. He is descended from a Williamson family line that left Wataga and went west. Lost to history, I thought. But there he is. A live descendant, with family tree in hand. He also found me through the magic of the Internet by doing a search of an ancestor.

The Internet is also full of wonderful databases just waiting to find your relatives. Actually, Illinois is doing a fine job of developing computer searchable records for early marriages, Civil War records and the like. Knox County is also blessed with some good folks who are volunteering their time to develop a database. Photographs, post cards, biographies from Knox County histories are being added to an Internet searchable database. I have provided some of the excellent local data sources at the end of this article, and a couple of the better known national sources.

The Church of Latter Day Saints maintains a gigantic database (address below). Records from courthouses, census records, and the like are very reliable. Records based on individual researchers and submitted for these databases need to be approached with caution. Some are very good. Some are not. Trust, but verify. Use these data as "leads" and then try to independently confirm the records.

Fort Wayne, Indiana has one of the nation’s best genealogy libraries. It’s a bit of a drive from Galesburg, but it is doable for those pesky ancestors that are too good at hiding. It is at the public library.

But even if you don’t want to, or don’t have the time yet, to undertake the library, computer, and courthouse searches, don’t put off your living relatives. Talk, document, photograph. Be a pest. It’s OK. In truth, they will likely enjoy the company, even if they don’t want you walking out of the house with the photo of great grandpa. That’s where the digital camera helps maintain those touchy family relationships.

If you don’t care enough about your family history, who will? All of their actions, inactions, successes and failures, births and deaths, culminated in you being here. Statistically it is a pretty impressive exercise. Do your family tree home work and you may find that you owe your existence to someone else’s early death, as much as you do to someone’s survival.

But unless you search, you will never know. How can you ever expect to rise to the status of being a "major bore" (that’s in rank just above captain, and below colonel) if you don’t find those fascinating stories to bedazzle your friends, and slow-footed strangers.

Remember, pester a few (relatives). Bore the many. Good hunting.

Some Internet Sources:

Knox County Genealogy & History:

Illinois Trails:

Illinois in the Civil War:

1875 Color Map of Knox County: illinois/ill875/KNOX.JPG

Listing of sites relevant to Knox County:

Illinois Statewide Marriage Index, 1763-1900:

Online Database Records in Illinois State Archives:

Cyndi’s list for Knox County:

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ("Mormon Church Records"):