RootsTech 2014


Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Most Difficult Questions

During most of my presentations, I ask anyone attending if they have any questions about anything, related to genealogy or not. Usually, I don't get many questions until after my presentation. Some of the questions I get are really heart-wrenching and they have no real answer or even a solution. Here are some of those types of questions.

Question: I have all my years of genealogy on my computer which has now crashed, the only backup I have of the file is on a floppy disk and I can't find anyone with a computer that will read my disk.

This is a particularly heartbreaking question or statement when the person asking the question is obviously very old (older than me) and appears to have limited economic resources. As time goes on, my options for resurrecting old data files become less and less viable. I no longer have any computers that have floppy disk drives and even if I did, I do not necessarily have access to the older genealogy programs. Most of the time when this question comes up, the person asking the question has no other copy of their data and hasn't looked at the file in years.

All I can say is that if you know of anyone who is using a very old computer with a very old floppy disk drive, please help them to make a copy of their data onto a newer format. Even if they do not have the resources to purchase a newer computer or storage device, help them by moving their data file to a newer format and putting it on an inexpensive flash drive or CD. If all else fails, try to make a printout of the entire file. Then, when and if they are able to continue the work, they will not have lost their original effort.

In those cases when the person has a print-out or other copy of the data in the file, the real question is whether or not the information has to be re-entered into a newer computer. Depending of whether or not some one can resurrect the old computer file, the answer is usually yes, the data has to be re-entered.

Question: My mother never told me who my father was and she has since died. 

This is a particularly difficult question. In the variation of the question, when the mother is not yet dead, there is some hope that she will help with an identification. But in those instances when there is no information, you might have to work through other relatives. It is entirely possible that the mother's siblings or even a cousin might know the "father." Although there is a natural reticence to keep this information confidential, one of the best neutral arguments that can be made is that the person seeking the information is entitled to know about any genetic predispositions they may have inherited.

If the mother came from a small town, it may also be possible to figure out the likely candidates and do some detective work and find the father through process of elimination. It may also be possible to confirm this relationship with DNA evidence, if the relatives or descendants of the putative father are cooperative.

Unfortunately, there are situations where an individual's parents are truly unknown and unknowable. I have had questions about a foundling left on the doorstep of an orphanage. If the records of the orphanage do not indicate the identity of the parents, there may be no way to proceed past that point.

Question: My relative has all the information about our family and they will not share it with us or give anyone access to the information.

This is really not a difficult issue, although it may appear to be. What I have found over the years is that the importance of the "evidence" maintained by the unresponsive relative is usually vastly overrated. Sometimes this issue arises in reference to actual physical artifacts, considered to be heirlooms by the family. These items may have a considerable amount of sentimental value, but no real genealogical value in providing information about the family. In other cases, the recalcitrant relative is simply over-protective and an inquiry as to the possibility of photographing the documents may resolve the issue entirely. In many cases, the information supposedly held by the relative is easily reconstructed from other sources.

In other cases, this problem arises from the commonly held belief that a single family member "owns" the genealogical research they have accumulated and they are afraid that the relative will "steal" the information. In that case, rather than depending on the relative, do your own research. Once you have enough information, you can then go to the relative with specific questions about the family. The relative may be surprised at the questions and may not even have an answer, in which case, you can open a path to cooperation in solving the mutual problem.

Question: My relative did all of the genealogy for our family and left me a file with thousands of names, what do I do with this file?

This really is a difficult question to answer because the answer invariably involves a lot of work for the person asking the question. I usually begin by asking the person with the file if they know who all these people are? I then take some time to look at the file and start to ask some question. Invariably, I find that the supposedly "complete" file is really either poorly documented and suspect or far from complete, with the bulk of the names having been copied out of books without sources. I have a very high batting average of finding inconsistencies and inaccuracies in these larger data files. By the way, this goes for my own files also.

In all these cases, the person starting out has to spend the time and effort to get to know the family in detail, so he or she can begin to have a feeling for the accuracy of the inherited file. Usually, once this process starts, the person finds something obvious that needs to be corrected or sourced and the research can begin.

I am sure I can think of some more questions and maybe I will.


  1. I found an illegitimate birth of one of my great aunts and I searched birth,baptism and marriage records to no avail. Since she was fourteen at the time I can only surmise that this conception was the result of a rape and the father was unknown.

  2. I have an external floppy disk drive. If it works on my computer I'd be glad to copy disks. I'll let you know.

  3. My floppy disk drive works fine on my Windows 7 computer. Let me know how we can connect.