It started with a handwritten copy of my grandmother’s application to the DAR. She's No. 13033; she joined in 1896. (The application is online at Ancestry.com.) The document was in a file of information about my father's family that I unearthed after he died in 1974. I had never seen it before. Once I looked through the papers in the file, I was off to the races.
Now I have at least 19 three-ring binders labeled with surnames, containing various kinds of information. I have about 41 booklets of genealogy materials—photocopies from books and journals, maps, pedigrees, handwritten analyses, and more. I have a rough wooden drawer full of original documents and sort-of-original documents. I have an alpha sorter labeled I try to use the alphabet whenever I can—Radar O’Reilly that contains papers to pick up and file when I open a surname notebook. I have binders labeled Research Methods and Research Forms and Sources and Bibliographies.
I have Family Treemaker 16 (FTM) files for my mother’s side and my father’s side with data ranging from absolute fact to Whoa, that’s wrong, how did it get there? My Name Index binder contains FTM printouts, one for each side of the family, alphabetically and by date.
I have folders and files in a Family History directory on my computer, mostly .jpg, .pdf and MS-Word files. I won’t try to describe those, except the ones called Notes or Notepad. They’re repositories for squibs gathered online to be analyzed later. It’s amazing what you can discover when data has sat quietly for a few months, waiting to be scrutinized.
I can't call it a system or say I'm organized, but I'm not actually out of control. this scheme has evolved over about 20 years. Since the mid-1990s when online genealogy burst onto the scene, I’ve found tons of data on the Web. I’ve obtained published books, journal articles, and good information from generous researchers, but my family tree is on Ancestry.com in a God-awful file I mistakenly submitted to Broderbund many years ago with terrible errors and lots of WFT estimates for dates. I can’t access it or delete it; it just sits there for anyone to read or even download.
A computer crash two years ago destroyed my FTM files and sources. I reconstructed them from earlier saved files, but I’m still finding things like Uh-oh, I don’t have a source for Mother's grandfather’s birthdate! I know the data in FTM is accurate, but where did I get it? Let’s see… who was Daddy’s first wife again? She was a New York fashion editor named Dot. I guess I never knew her full name. Then I found the divorce decree in a dilapidated old expanding file I had looked at and forgotten.
I work hard to document my sources, but there are errors I blush to relate.
I told The Washington Post I was George Washington’s third cousin once removed. DAR researchers, genealogy journals, online cousins, and distinguished family historians have long asserted that the Washingtons in Westmoreland County (VA) and in Surry County were related. The National Society of the Descendants of Washington Families has stated that there is no evidence for the kinship, although many still claim it.
Alas, as Nathaniel Taylor wrote in 1996 about a different Washington line, when I read the National Society article, all nine barons went flying out the window.