The Joys of Returning to Old Genealogy Research Notes

One part of getting my history degree involved an oral history class where I interviewed several elderly relatives. Recently I went back to my handwritten research notes from that day and discovered something unexpected.

First off, I’m going to keep things a little vague here since this was in the 20th century, took place in a VERY small community, and descendants involved are still living. However, everybody I mention in this blog post is, sadly, now long dead.

You see, one of this relative’s aunts had had a child out of wedlock. (We’ll call this guy Mitch and his aunt Lottie.) When the child was young, mother and child moved away to the big city (presumably to escape small town scandal) and Aunt Lottie never married. In the recorded interview, Mitch said his Aunt Lottie never told anybody who the father of her child was. 

Now, they lived in a tiny community where everyone knew everyone’s business. At the time, my mind boggled. Was this a non consensual relationship? A married man? NOBODY knew?

Later, in about 2017 or so, I asked Mitch again about his various aunts and uncles. Again, he told me that his aunt had never named the father of her child. 

The Answer Was There All Along

Now, when I reference that long-ago interview for my oral history class I generally look at my typewritten transcript of the interview with Mitch. 

But what I hadn’t done until recently was look through the handwritten research notes I’d also taken that day. 

Back in the year 2000 or so when I conducted the original interview, I vaguely remember stepping into the next room and chatting with Mitch’s wife, too. We’ll call her Matilda. She was from a neighboring (and equally small) community to the one where Mitch and Aunt Lottie grew up.

In my defense, eons ago in the year 2000, we were still using tape recorders with teeny tiny cassette tapes to record interviews. It wasn’t as easy as taking a voice note on your phone, so I hadn’t gone through all the rigamarole to tape my short conversation with Mathilda. All I had were my chicken-scratch handwritten notes.

But, in my research notes for Mitch’s interview, next to a pedigree chart of Mitch’s family, I had handwritten next to Aunt Lottie:

“Baby’s father was Johnny Johnson, shopkeeper, married, affluent.” 

The information was there all along. 

It was just hidden in a handwritten research note in a school notebook from nearly twenty-five years ago. Just because that little note didn’t make it into the final project, which was a transcript and paper about my interview with Mitch, didn’t mean it wasn’t a worthwhile nugget of information that might one day help one of Lottie’s descendants solve a family mystery. (If it even is a mystery to them! We have no way of knowing what Aunt Lottie told her family.)

Maybe Mitch just wasn’t part of the gossip mill. Or maybe he felt a certain loyalty to his aunt’s secret even years after she died. Or maybe he knew this information all along and forgot–just like I apparently did until rediscovering it in 2023!

I actually don’t remember the conversation with Mathilda that day, and barely remember speaking with her. I only know for sure I spoke to her because the paper from my oral history class mentions that she was listening from another room and sometimes interrupted Mitch’s interview with corrections! I can just imagine Matilda whispering to me that day, “Oh, everybody knew who the father was.” 

And, last but not least, we have to take the informant into account. Mathilda was a literal toddler when all of this happened, so she had to have heard second or third-hand gossip. Is this enough information to write a definitive proof argument that satisfies the genealogical proof standard? Not one bit. But it is a clue that might help someone identify their ancestor one day, and for that it was worth going back and looking at a handwritten scrap of paper in a nearly 25-year-old school notebook.

I hope this inspires someone to go back through old notes today. You never know what you might find! Have you ever found any treasures in your own old research notes? I’d love to hear about it!


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