Genealogy writer and researcher, jginmd can “search out unique genealogical information in the DC Metropolitan Area with a specialty in southern history and genealogy.” She has access to many resource-rich repositories in Maryland, DC and Northern Virginia including Library of Congress, National Archives (two branches), three Northern Virginia genealogy libraries, four Maryland genealogy libraries, DC Public Library, Washington DC Family History Center, Maryland State Archives, and the Daughters of the American Revolution library.
How did you get started doing genealogy research?
I found a handwritten draft of my dad’s mother’s DAR application in my dad’s things after he died. I had already interviewed my mother’s sister on a whim because she was the last of the sisters and getting older. Then I went to the National Archives in the early 1990s, again on a whim. When I saw the microfilm of the handwritten census from 1910 with my mother’s family on it I was hooked for life.
I even found my great-great-grandfather’s handwritten sermon notes from 1850, bound into a partial copy of the New Testament. He was a teacher in a girls’ school and a fire-and-brimstone minister. With all these documents I couldn’t stop myself.
How have you developed your research skills?
I’ve studied the experts: Elizabeth Shown Mills, James Tanner, Dick Eastman, DearMyrtle, Cyndi Howells… I’ve been using Cyndi’s list since it started. I have a list of links for different states and counties, databases, research methods, even links to lists of links!
Other researchers have been writing about my dad’s family lines since the late 1800s, and I’ve been lazy about comparing and anlyzing their results. The problem is that most of their original records aren’t accessible. One author died six or seven years ago and his family won’t release his source documents—it’s so frustrating. I should be going through my files and writing proof arguments, but I’m not getting around to it.
Do you have a genealogy superpower? If so, what is it?
I guess it’s my copyediting skills. I can edit a research report like a champ.
Describe a challenging research problem you’re proud of having solved.
Ten years or so ago I identified my great-grandfather’s parents by analyzing the 1850 census. It would be easy now, but back then I was bursting with pride, finding parents and siblings nobody else knew about. His parents’ parents are yet to be identified, though, and it drives me nuts.
I supplied some of the research for the chapter on the Turner family in Elise Greenup Jourdan’s Early Families of Southern Maryland, Vol. 7, but I don’t remember what I did. That family is so complicated that it’s all a blur now.
Tell us a favorite story about one of your ancestors.
There are so many… my grandfather’s heartbreaking love letters to his wife, my ancestor who saved her grandson’s life when he was injured in the Revolutionary War—there’s a statue of her at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina. My favorite stories are on my blog.
What’s the most unique record source that you can access for research?
Definitely the Maryland State Archives. My state has been keeping records since 1650.
What’s the one must-visit repository visitors doing research in your area?
There isn’t just one, you’d have to choose among the National Archives (NARA), the Library of Congress and the DAR Library. Each one has detailed instructions online to help you prepare for your visit and make the best of your time. You have to get a research card for NARA and LoC, but it doesn’t take long.
What tools to you use to create the reports and images that you provide?
I have a bare-bones setup. I use Word 2003 for reports, and for images a scanner and a wand scanner. Unfortunately, the wand scanner isn’t allowed in archives or LoC, only local libraries.
I photograph documents with a Canon A470 digital camera when they’re too old or fragile to copy, or when certified copies would cost $20-$30. I hardly ever use my laptop at repositories. Taking notes with pencil and paper (in cursive!) helps me focus and keep track of what I’m doing, especially when I have one day to research more than one family.
Each repository has different rules. I end up with paper copies of clients’ documents that I use for scratch paper after they’re scanned—think of it—an 1880 handwritten pension file, and it becomes a grocery list!
What advice would you give to someone trying to break through a brick wall?
First, all the usual tasks: Go over what you’ve done so far and fill in the gaps. Correct your errors and cite the original sources. Use a resource list. Keep a research log or you’ll go around in circles repeating your searches.
Then check out your ancestor’s FAN club: Friends, associates, neighbors. Everybody had a circle of people around them.
See if you’re not spending too much time on the ancestors you don’t know and neglecting the ones you do know. There’s so much information out there beyond vital records… it’s amazing to learn what your ancestor’s life was actually like.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Be careful what you think you know. I quoted a longstanding genealogical error in an interview with the Washington Post. I learned better later after digging into even more old journal articles about that particular famous person and the ancestor who wasn’t his cousin after all. I still cringe when I think about it.