In any genealogical research, it’s important to make contact with people who are researching members of your family, your tribe, your parish in Quebec, or who are researching collateral connections of your ancestors (brothers-in-law, for example, or anyone who married someone with your ancestor’s surname).
Of course, you should start with your own living family members and any information that they might have, including family stories or lore. But you also need to find family members whom you don’t yet know, because together you can collaborate on putting together the pieces of the puzzle, and they may have sources of information that you don’t even know exist. You can connect with these unknown relatives through the genealogical message boards and mailing lists. (Those at Rootsweb are accessible for free both at rootsweb.com and Ancestry.com.)
We all know that the first step in any genealogical research is to Investigate and access every possible source of information about your ancestor and contemporaries with the same surname and try to access and collect that information; the second step should be to share what you have found with your genealogical buddies even if it doesn’t yield an immediate return. It is highly likely that someday, someone will find your post useful and may then contact you and reciprocate.
A message board is like a bulletin board: you put up your query and hope that someone who can help you notices it and replies. However, it may be many months or even years before that happens. Before posting a query, browse the archives: the answer to your question may have been answered already. You may also find leads to good information (or to people who might have good information) even if you don’t find an entry immediately relevant to your known ancestors.
You should investigate not only surname message boards (including alternate spellings of the surname you’re researching), but every locality or ethnic message board you can find that might have any relevance. Make a list of the boards you find that “may” be useful and make a point of checking all of them at least twice a year, more often if they’re pretty active.
Whenever you identify a new-to-you in-law or collateral relative, or one about whom you know very little, you should also see if there’s a the surname board for that new surname. Here’s why: back when I was first starting out, I was soon in contact with a researcher who was looking for information on a female Chosa who had married in Baraga, Michigan (where my grandfather was born). He believed that the Chosa he was seeking was my aunt, who did in fact marry a man with the correct first name and surname.
We discussed the matter on the Chosa message board several times, but the matter eventually dropped there. What I didn’t do—and should have done then—was check the message board for the husband’s surname. Why? Because my correspondent had made a query about that same marriage on that message board—and connected there with a relative of the husband, who told him that the couple in question were elderly but alive and eager to learn more about their Chosa family history, as were their children.
This meant that the couple in question were very definitely not my aunt and her husband, who had never had children, and who both had already been dead for 20 years when these discussions occurred. If I had looked on that board back then, I could have set my correspondent straight and saved him some hassle. Moreover, I could have contacted the researcher on the husband-surname board and connected with that live Chosa cousin in Michigan. I can still try, but the elderly couple may have died by now and the opportunity may be gone. By missing a possible source of information about the extended Chosa clan in Baraga, I lost the possibility of finding Great-Grandfather Joseph Chosa much sooner.
Another good reason to use the genealogy message boards is that you may be contacted years after a particular post by someone who needs help with one of his/her mystery relatives or who has information that you lack. I connected with someone who proved to be a third cousin by answering his query on a message board. It works both ways, too. Just a few months ago, someone was working on a biography of his mother’s best friend, who happened to be a Chosa relative, and had found my ancient posts on the Chosa surname message board. We collaborated: he got a great deal of background information and detail about her family, and I got not only considerable information that I didn’t have about her life, but many wonderful photos of her.
A mailing list sends out queries and responses as soon as they come in to everyone who has joined it, and consequently a mailing list tends to be much more active. This means that if anyone makes a discovery or is looking for more information on a specific ancestor, all of the list members will know about it immediately. You don’t have to wait for someone to discover your post years hence. Therefore, a mailing list gives you a much wider (and speedier) opportunity to find other people working on your family. And it’s much easier to resolve identity questions if you can collaborate with others who are also working to identify and/or connect the same family and who work as a team. In effect, a good, active mailing list is a genealogical buddy list.
When you become part of a team working on the same problem, you dramatically enhance the amount of information available to you, as each member of the team adds what he/she has discovered. For example, when I first began my research, I discovered Rootsweb’s NISHNAWBE mailing list, for “anyone researching Native Americans in Michigan and Wisconsin, and the fur traders connected with them”, and joined the list immediately. This was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Working alone, I could never have been able to distinguish my voyageur ancestors from others with the same name who were living at the same time, because many of the crucial records are held in repositories which I can’t access unless I make an expensive research trip. But some members of the NISHNAWBE mailing list live near those repositories, and I have common ancestry with several of them. They found extremely valuable records that I didn’t even know existed and shared extracts or even full transcriptions of those records with the whole list.
So naturally, when I acquired my photocopy of a photostat of the original baptism register for the St. Joseph Mission on Madeline Island, I immediately shared the news with other members of the NISHNAWBE mailing list and offered to do lookups. (I was unable to create a legible photocopy or digital image of the second-generation derivative I had.) This was a great help to many people who were not related to my own family lines but did have ancestors in that register.
Back before annuity rolls and Indian censuses were available online, some of us went further and chatted live online (text only in those days), comparing notes on the families we had in common, trying to sort them out and sharing information. As a result of all this sharing of information, the senior members of the list now have their own ancestry fairly well settled and therefore the list is less active now, but most of us “older” members still subscribe and still stand ready to help others. If you have a voyageur in your ancestry who worked anywhere in the Great Lakes area, the NISHNAWBE list is a good buddy list for you to consult.
One of your best genealogical buddies is a good internet search engine. This goes not only for voyageurs and other immigrants from Quebec but for just about anybody; however, if you’re looking for an ancestor with a common name (or one shared by a famous person) you should narrow the search field by place or date or occupation or whatever else will keep the search engine from turning up 5,000 screens worth of irrelevant matches. Do a web search on your ancestor’s name (including spelling variations) and narrow the field if necessary) and chances are very good that you will turn up not only living persons with the same name but a mention of your ancestor (or a relative with the same name) in the archives of a mailing list or even in someone’s book or other publication.
With voyageurs, many publications mentioning them by name are travelers’ memoirs. Throughout recorded history, people who venture into “exotic” territory like to share their experiences. Nowadays ordinary people often put their experiences on social network websites like YouTube, Facebook, etc., but before the Internet existed, travelers of all sorts who were literate kept diaries and published them as books or magazine articles, even if they had to pay publication costs themselves.
Vast numbers of travelers’ memoirs and early historical or scientific publications are no longer protected by copyright and have been (or will be) digitized and published on the Internet. Many of these are available as a free pdf download, or in a format used by one of those electronic readers that are so popular these days. That’s how I obtained a copy of an 1899 Geological and Natural History of Minnesota, which included the information that in August 1897 my great-grandfather Vincent Dufauld had worked as “general woodsman” for a small group of scientists working on that project. There are several mentions of him in the report.
If a book mentioning your ancestor is still in print, a search for that name at Amazon.com may turn up a new or used copy which you can purchase. Just this year I found a book (originally written in the 1920s but not published until recently) that included pictures and anecdotes about numerous relatives.
If you’re in luck, you will learn at least where someone with your voyageur ancestor’s name was at a particular date when your ancestor was alive. This may help you track your ancestor—or prove that this fellow is not him. You are also quite likely to turn up your ancestor’s name on someone’s online family tree or webpage. If you’re really in luck, you will find that someone else has already found that missing piece of the puzzle which connects your ancestor with the correct family line—after you’ve checked the information for yourself and verified that it’s correct, of course. Even if the other person has made the wrong connection, discovering and proving the error may turn up the right connection for your ancestor.
Back during the late Cretaceous, my husband used to talk about a famous problem in physics called The Many-Body Problem. Don’t ask me to explain what that is, but the name stuck in my memory, so once I got on board the genealogy train and found myself researching my Cadotte ancestors, I was faced with numerous fur-trade Cadottes with exactly the same name living at the exactly same time. I naturally called the problem of sorting them out The Many-Cadotte Problem.
After I discovered how to solve that one (with help from the NISHNAWBE Cadotte team), I went on to The Many-Louis-Dufaut Problem (more difficult, because unlike the Cadottes, the Dufauts were relatively minor players in the fur trade and therefore not so well documented). Again, I couldn’t have solved it without the NISHNAWBE Dufaut team.
Early this year, working alone, I finally solved The Many-Pierre-Forcier Problem—but only because I had learned how to solve that kind of problem by working with my buddy list on the NISHNAWBE team.
How, exactly, did I solve them? I’ll discuss that in my next post.