In my previous post, I outlined how to index letters or other documents or books from your family's past. Before you file your index (a copy with the document you indexed and copies inside the files of the main surnames mentioned), mine it for clues to family mysteries. You’re not indexing simply for the sake of getting organized—the process is important for making progress on your genealogical research.
Here are five ways you can use an index to deepen your knowledge of family history and to solve family mysteries:
- Check dates against what you know. Does the index help you narrow down possible birth, marriage, death dates? Does it fill in the blanks on where ancestors were during key periods? Who is missing on key dates? During indexing, I noticed that a great-grandfather was suddenly absent from the documents after being mentioned year after year. That was a clue to his approximate death date, which I’d been unable to pinpoint.
- Look at relationships. Does the index shed light on whether family members were estranged or close? Does it confirm relationships that you suspected? Who is present at family gatherings, and how often do they show up? One set of family meeting minutes I indexed showed how warmly a widowed in-law was welcomed, along with her second family. The same index reflected the rare attendance of an uncle whose marriage outside the faith was frowned upon.
- Look at occasions. Who’s visiting on holidays? Which holidays are celebrated? Are weddings, birthdays, funerals mentioned? Who’s giving gifts, who’s receiving gifts, where and when? One baby book I indexed gave me a clue that someone was more than a “family friend” because she gave a surprisingly valuable gift. Sure enough, she turned out to be the ex-spouse of a close relative.
- Cross-reference the index against other items. Do you have photos of the people mentioned in the index during the period covered by the documents? See whether the index can help you identify mystery people in your photos or give you more context for when, where, and why the photos were taken.
- Verify details. If a diary mentions someone’s birth, marriage, or death, compare the dates with official documents. A century ago, official records weren’t always filed on time, so a birth date on the vital records form might be a day or a few days later than the actual birth. Maybe the index will point you to the actual date, or explain why the date differs from the official record. Also, names on Census forms weren’t always accurate, so check your index against what you see on the Census. Use the index to match nicknames with full given names on your tree. You might find a variation via the index that you can use to when you research that person.
Solving a mystery: My sister-in-law remembered a cousin Edith, quite a tall lady, attending her wedding. Now, years later, no one remembered Edith's last name or how she was related. When I indexed my late father-in-law's diaries, I found repeated mentions of Edith in the 1960s and 1970s. This led to a hunch about Edith's parents.
Putting together clues from Census data, Cleveland directories, and my husband's and sister-in-law's memories, we solved the mystery and figured out where Edith fits on the family tree. Using the dates and approximate ages, we also identified her and her sister in the above photo with my father-in-law. Without the index, this mystery would have taken much longer to solve.