To trace a family, start with what is known and work backwards — parents to grandparents and so on and along the way, it’s important to note every source of information. Genealogy is all about what can be documented and it’s helpful to keep in mind that all published records are compiled by people who can make mistakes. Census takers misspelled names and recorded ages wrong; often they went by what a neighbor told them about a family rather than speaking to a representative of the family; and every researcher has dealt with the problem of handwriting. It’s often very apparent who took the job seriously versus those out to collect a paycheck. When dealing with death certificates, it’s important to pay attention to who the respondent is. If it’s a close family member, a brother, or sister, the info on parents is probably correct, but if it’s a son- or daughter-in-law, the info might not be as accurate. Sometimes, parental info is missing or may be penciled in.
Always exercise caution when dealing with family lore. Family legends can help a researcher figure out where to look for further information, but it’s helpful to remember, most family legends are embellished. If one has the opportunity to speak to an older family member, do so, but remember he or she may only know what was handed down and might not have the full story. My maternal grandmother, for instance, was the youngest daughter in her family of ten children and did not know her grandparents well. The information she had on them came from her parents or older siblings. Also people tend to gloss over stories of family members who were considered “black sheep” or otherwise had dubious reputations. My maternal grandfather was such a figure in his family, so finding out information on him from family members was frequently difficult.
In my research, I’ve noted a number of individuals who have a particular surname because their mothers never married their fathers. There’s a record in Georgia where two boys, previously identified as Lupo had their surnames changed to Watson, apparently after their father acknowledged them. If there’s an unmarried older daughter in a household with very young children, headed by parents too old to have been the mother or father of the youngest children, it’s possible that daughter was the mother of some of the younger children, or that they’re the offspring of a deceased son, though they’re all identified as siblings. Census records prior to 1880 did not list relationships, making it difficult to sort out extended families, and illegitimate children were stigmatized in society, often necessitating considerable subterfuge to conceal them. People are often very proud of their heritage and can be extremely protective of their ancestors and the stories they’ve been told about them and don’t take it well when the facts sometimes don’t agree with family lore.
The important thing is to document as much as possible. If family legend states an ancestor was born in Kentucky, but the individual is found in Alabama on the census at three months old, that casts doubt on the Kentucky story. People were very mobile, though, so such legends can’t be ruled out entirely. I found a family recorded twice on the 1870 census, once in Missouri and a few weeks later in Mississippi. Digitized records have been a big help, particularly since I’ve not had the time to conduct direct research. Without indexed census records on Ancestry, I might never have found that family in 1870.
Always be on the lookout for similar names. A common problem in genealogy is skipping a generation, which can happen in instances where names tend to run in a family. In the Lupos there are lots of men named David, William, John, and James, and frequently there aren’t estate records to spell out who is whom. Many confuse Phillip Lupo, who made out his will in 1668 in Isle of Wight County, Virginia with the man by that name living in Elizabeth City colony in 1621, but a closer look at the records reveals two individuals who were father and son.
Part of genealogy is collecting names and part is analyzing the info to sort out how everyone is connected. I started working on my family’s history in the late-80s and spent a lot of time collecting names without fully understanding how everyone fit together. After it became less convenient to visit facilities for hands-on research, I started analyzing what I had, and more of the story began to take shape. I was fortunate to be in touch with other researchers with whom I could share ideas and compare notes, and who had access to resources I didn’t. I was researching numerous lines at the time, so I had a lot on my plate.
It took me three or four years of research to have a reasonable picture of the Lupo family but eight to ten years to actually sort out how most of the Lupos are connected and I made a lot of mistakes along the way. Here, it’s very important to recheck a source, such as a website, that’s likely to be updated regularly. Much of the information on the Lupo family found on the Internet, comes from the lupo.org site I maintain and often I can tell at which point someone got their info from which version was published at the time. There’s a page set up for another family I research which gives life dates for an ancestor that are greatly out of sync with the actual record. This brings up a final point. A researcher should not be afraid to disagree with an authoritative source, provided the researcher has records to support his or her view of the family’s history. It’s often via disagreements that new evidence comes to light and new insights into a family are developed. In any event, it makes for a much more lively discussion.