As I wrote my first historical fiction novel, I relied heavily on research done by genealogists whose findings intersected with those in my own family history. For years I hunted for clues about who may have interacted with my 19th century family members: their neighbors, fellow church members, and even whom they may have met at the local general store.
So I was lucky indeed to happen upon genealogist Cathy Meder-Dempsey’s online records. Thanks to her meticulous research, I learned about a man who went from enslavement to freedom in 1830s western Virginia, a man whom my ancestors definitely knew or at least knew of. How do I know this? Because, thanks to Cathy’s research, I found their signatures on a petition presented to the Virginia legislature requesting permission for him to remain in their community after he became a free man. That’s how Isaac Sims became part of Caroline’s story.
Although Cathy lives in Europe and I’m in the US, we connected through her blog Opening Doors in Brick Walls. The information she provided to me was invaluable to my writing and research for Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story. Her genealogy “sleuthing” and expertise have impressed me so much that I wanted to ask her how she does what she does so well. She recently answered some of my questions about her methods via email.
Q: How long have you been doing genealogy research? What spurred your interest?
Cathy: Next year will be my Silver Genealogy Anniversary. Okay, I just made that up but while doing the arithmetic, I realized it will be 25 years next year. In 1992 I received a little package of genealogy information in a roundabout way for several generations of my paternal line. I couldn’t do much with it at the time and I began researching my mother’s and my husband’s ancestors to fill in the lopsided family tree. These lines are mostly from Luxembourg where I live.
Q: If the internet has changed the way you do your research, how has it changed your methods?
Cathy: I’ve had internet access since 2000. RootsWeb mailing lists, Genealogy.com genforums, and Ancestry.com‘s messages boards were the places I went to connect with other researchers. I’m still in touch with many of these people who were so helpful and willing to share. The internet has changed since 2000. RootsWeb is still around but their mailing lists are hardly used as Facebook and Twitter have changed how people get in touch and now post queries.
I don’t think I’ve changed my methods of research. But I have improved them. In the beginning the notes in my genealogy software was where I stored all information found, usually noting where it came from if not from Ancestry.com which in the beginning was only pay-site I used. Since I began blogging I’ve learned I need to do correct source citations. I’ve added a few steps in my work flow. Now I add the information to my notes, attach the image to the person’s scrapbook, document where the information came from and when.
Q: What is one of your best tools for knocking down –or at least opening doors–in brick walls?
Cathy: My genealogy software is my best tool and I would be lost without it. Instead of dumping all my research into a Word document or posting it to a white board I use my genealogy software to keep it organized. It makes it easier for me to see the family group, other family connections, and documents found. I keep all notes in chronological order and as a reminder I include questions I have which need answered. Very often the questions posed have been answered by people who see my online gedcom file (a work in progress). When I end up moving on everything stays in my database and I can easily get back to work on it. Stepping away and coming back is what usually opens the door in a brick wall. It also helps to keep up with new databases and research methods.
Q: Is it a good idea for a genealogy researcher to go back over information time and time again?
Cathy: Of course. Before I began blogging I would work on one of my earliest known ancestors and all of his/her descendants. I’d work on the line until I no longer found anything new. I’ve spent up to six months on one family line. Since I began blogging I’ve been going back over this information, finding errors, asking new questions, looking for records I didn’t know about or didn’t have access to. Time and time again? Yes, as long as I remove myself completely from the subject before I go back. It gives me a different perspective when I’ve pushed it away and come back after working on something else. It’s like proofreading your own writing – you miss things because your brain knows what you want to see.
Q: What are your go-to websites, databases and/or software programs?
Cathy: FamilySearch.org, WVCulture.org, Ancestry.com, Rootsweb.ancestry.com, FindAGrave.com, Deltgen.com (the largest database for Luxembourg), misc. French archives, and Geneanet.org are the websites/databases I use most of the time.
My most used software is Ancestral Quest 14 (family tree) followed by
- Evernote (document management system – I use it mostly to do screenshots, annotate, and then save the images for blog posts and saved recipes)
- PicMonkey (free online version to clean up images and add watermarks)
- Transcript (transcribe documents)
- WordPress editor (online) to write my blogposts
I rarely use MS Word as most of my writing is done in AQ14, Evernote, and WP editor. I recently bought Scrivener as I would like to get all my blogposts arranged in book form. I want to get in the habit of using Scrivener to write my blogposts which would then be backed up to IDrive. If, heaven forbid, I don’t have access to the internet then I cannot work on drafts I keep in WP editor.
Q: I find it’s easy to get off on a wild goose chase when doing research, especially using the web. Do you have advice for keeping on task and using one’s time efficiently?
Cathy: Since I started blogging two years ago I’m reading more and more blogs written by other genealogists. This means I’m reading about things on the web that need to be checked out. There might be something that’ll open a door in one of my brick walls. After quickly looking at a new site I save the link to Evernote with a short description and tag it as a bookmark to be checked later. This keeps me from getting in too deep.
The best advice is to finish what you are working on before running off on a wild goose chase. I know this is easier said than done. I have to follow my own advice because, unlike other bloggers who have posts ready to publish months in advance, I usually do my posts only up to a week before they are published. I procrastinate and work best under pressure.
Q: How do you connect with others who may have information that will aid your search?
Cathy: My preference is to contact people privately per email. People who do serious genealogy work usually keep the same email address for years and are easy to get in touch with. If I can’t find their address I’ll try contacting them through Facebook with a private message. I’ve had my GEDCOM ( acronym for GEnealogical Data COMmunications) file online since December 6, 2002 and most people contact me and offer information when they see their relatives in my family tree. Now and then I will post for help in one of the Facebook groups for the US counties in which my ancestors lived.