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Keeping your genealogy research and records organized


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I guess this counts as a genealogy column. It’s been a while since I’ve formally done one and it’s something I’ve been interested to pass along for some time. I don’t claim to have invented this way of organizing stuff, but thought some of those just getting started might like to see some ideas of how to keep track of all that “stuff”.

Let me start back at the beginning, I was born in a …. not that far back, let’s see. I remember being about 10 or so and seeing my brother and Mom poring over notes and charting out trees in a loose-leaf notebook that they kept. At they time they had collected information from family members and were just sketching out names of grandparents, great-grandparents as far back as our oldest relatives could recall. I think they made a few trips to the library so there were a few census records. There might have been in all, 10-20 pages of family tree sketches and notes.

When I started researching around 18 years of age, I followed the same convention, took the notebook, added lot’s of paper to it and headed off to the library to research. Eventually, I replaced the notebook and started using a computer program to keep things straight and make nice tree charts (brothers keeper for dos back then…) The front of the notebook started to be used for notes, the back for the nice prints as a reference when at the library. Back then I had a shotgun kind of approach to research, in part because we had so little information on the ancestors. Few dates or even estimated birthdates to speak of, just names, not even names of all the aunts and uncles. We live int he county where 80% of them have been for almost 200 years, so the shotgun approach worked well for a while. So basically, I’d go and start looking through whatever census index was available that we might be able to pin down a few names and went from there.

Before long we had fleshed out a good deal of information on the family going back to my 3rd great-grandparents, 5-th great in some areas, maybe only 2nd-great in others. I moved to Family treemaker somewhere along the line for the computer component of this, but still liked to keep print outs in my notebook for reference.

Then, my researching exploded in many ways, I had gotten married and as time went along I started researching my wife’s ancestry, also through sources I was able to find online had found literally volumes of information, some of which were questionable but I wanted to follow up on. Additionally, I was getting more serious about getting copies of the _original_ census records since they varied from the transcriptions in some ways. I once had a researcher that though my 2nd great-grandmothers nickname was “squiggly” because that appeared in the census transcription. (Instead it was just the transcribers comment that the writing was squiggly…) Anyway, as you can realize collecting census record copies can quickly take up some space in the notebook as well as the article copies, printouts from extended relatives online, printouts from possible matches to research, death certificate copies, etc.

Well I had to sit down and reorganize because finding stuff in my own olders was pointless, I had the computer database, but couldn’t track down the documentation to match many times. So, I got a bunch of manilla folders and started labelling them, Parker, Waggoner, Eller, Bowen, White, Calloway, Walton, Herron, Bradley, Blankenship, Russell, Peace, Pace, Beddingfield, Middleton, Diehl, Seger, and Chapman among others. The idea was each folder would house relevant census records. If one record belonged in several folders, I’d make copies. I’d rather have duplicates than not have the original document to refer to.

Along this time I had taken a different turn at the computer as well. I had switched from Windows to Linux and although still ran Family Treemaker under win4lin, I was starting to look at moving to Gramps as a family tree database program. I also thought I could apply my folder system to the computer with the various assorted pictures, text files and census image downloads I’d collected. So, that’s what I did, a massive “genealogy” folder with sub-folders called Parker, White, etc…. and each of those that had pictures, had sub-folders themselves of Census, or “Scanned Photos”. It really was starting to make life easier.

Now at this time in my research I had a few brick walls that I could not unravel and thought a good way to approach them was to get “total information” on the family name in the area they lived. The family was the Bowen family and they were in Rutherford County for a time and then later, Buncombe. From my census records I started transcribing a text file where I put the census listings for the Bowen surname in the appropriate counties from 1790- the most current available (or relevant), I think with the Bowen’s I went through 1880. Each one noted with page number and relevant details. (Some were gleaned from transcriptions). It did what I had hoped though, it gave me a complete picture of EVERY person of that surname in those counties over the period of time I was interested in. In fact I managed to wrok through a specific brickwall that way.

In looking back at it now, I still have a few gaps in the listing, I have their names and index number, but no information. It gave me the ability to be much more focused in my research. I now print out a copy of the “summary of ___FAMILYNAME___ census records” to include in the front of each folder and on the rare chances I get to go out and research I take the family folder with me, and judging by what’s missing in the census summary, I know what to target. I’ve done similar summaries with deed records, tax records and marriage records for various families to give a convenient all in one file of documenting the specified type of record, but to show what I’m missing as well.

Of course, at this point I haven’t made it to all the families in my database using the summary documents, but I have a folder for each of them.

Another thing I like to do is print a 6 generation ancestor chart for each of our grandparents so that I can still have the “big picture” view of the genealogy chart. That’s another good way to spot areas that information is lacking.

As I move forward with this site, one of my hopes is to start publishing some fo the information I’ve gathered on various families I’ve researched. Likely the information I’ll start with is my “summary pages”. Remember that summaries shouldn’t replace your own research. Always try to re-trace the steps yourself, get the census images and document each step of the way.