Genealogy chaos

There is a great deal of irony here. Having spent 45 years practicing genealogy, I have just had a very rude shock.

The first official genealogy in our family was collected and typed in the 1950s using a manual typewriter and four carbon copies (one for each of her four grandchildren) by my mother’s mother, Alice Mason Crane Hawes. Alice had inherited all the family “stuff” from both her own ancestors and and those of her husband, so she had a rich trove to use that included Bibles, photographs, letters, and much more. Gram had just about all the information she needed from family sources, plus published works in the New England Historic Genealogical Society to fill in eight or more generations of ancestors on my mother’s fan chart. When Gram died in 1962 my mother gathered the papers with the intention of carrying on and, eventually, dumping (er, passing) them on to me.

Mom loved the history of our ancestors and often regaled me with stories about those she had personally known, which reached back to people born in the early nineteenth century. Unfortunately, just at the time these papers came into her possession the family was uprooted and we moved from Hingham, Massachusetts, to St. Paul, Minnesota, and then my parents moved to St. Louis, Missouri, before finally returning to Hingham 14 years later. The genealogy traveled with them, in a suitcase. During tornado warnings in St. Paul and St. Louis, Mom would put the suitcase by the cellar door to make certain it would be with us if we had to seek shelter.

While they were still in St. Louis, I started at Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School, located about three blocks from NEHGS, so Mom took out a membership for me and sent assignments for me to look up in the library. Eventually, as I became more involved in genealogy, the family papers came under my control. For decades I worked on expanding, arranging, and drafting the family opus. Some papers came with me when I moved to Kentucky for two years, then back to Hingham for 45 years, and now they are with me in Plymouth. My good intentions were to pull all the parts together “when I had the time.”

Eventually, as I became more involved in genealogy, the family papers came under my control.

Like shoemaker’s children without shoes, my time has been occupied in tracing and writing about other people’s families. Nothing like a global crisis to spur one to action!
Talk about a fool’s paradise. In my mind the papers were mostly organized, with files alphabetized by surname, charts filled in, information entered in Family Tree Maker, and various text drafts. My mind, it turns out, was about three decades behind reality. Through the years, as professional work and family caregiving took precedence, the papers had been shuffled many more times than I remembered. Inevitably, files had been pulled but not returned to the same place, papers had been raided from one file to another and often “consolidated” into bulging expanding folders. Not to mention the suitcase had expanded to eight file drawers. The last insult came when I moved ten years ago and just took the papers out of the moving boxes, stuck them back into the file drawers pretty much “willy nilly,” all under the delusion that I would “soon” put them aright.

Now I sit here attempting to gather information to compose my “all-my-ancestors” tome, yet confoundedly unable to locate the files and charts I need! No choice but to go back to square one and reshuffle things back into alphabetical order. Yes, there is a great deal of irony here, but at least I have started.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

60 thoughts on “Genealogy chaos

  1. I hope you will in time give us more insights into how you have gone about reorganizing your trove. Although I did publish a book a few years ago, I am not altogether happy that my eventual successors will be able to find their way through my many bankers boxes of files.

  2. Several years ago I had my parents sit and identify photos from Nova Scotia and New England. Without their input the individuals would have been lost for future generations.

    1. John: My Grandmother was wonderful about that too until we came to one she didn’t know, she would raise herself to her full height and say “Well I guess that was before my time!” I can still see her doing that when it happened and I smile remembering:) As was as if I should have known it.

  3. Alicia, you are not alone in the dreadful habit of reshuffling. It’s a great day when a doc or file is actually where it’s supposed to be. Alas, not the case with the privately printed, soft-cover history of my dad’s paternal line. Three months ago I was happily entering names and dates from it, then apparently set it aside to work on a friend’s ppl, and haven’t seen my dad’s history since. The only certainty is it’s somewhere in my flat. At least I stopped using the floor as a repository for piles of files, but a lot of sorting, refiling or pitching is in order to be able to compile my own “opus” for my descendants. Be safe!

    1. Yes, the only way to find it is to stop looking for it. Look for something else and then you will come across what you want. I spent several days recently looking for a vacuum cleaner brush that was sitting on the kitchen counter.

  4. While I can realize what you are writing about here because it feels so VERY familiar, I also found myself laughing while reading it and I hope you will Forgive me! It helps during all this to know there are others who have found themselves in the same family type position as I have been in so many moves, with so much to sort when finally am retired now almost isolated with all this in my house. Don’t get me wrong I am Thankful but it just hit my funny bone today to read your “Genealogy Chaos.” Love it! Enjoy! We are out here with you!

  5. Ah, you hit home here! Last night as I got up from my computer, where I do research daily; I looked at the stacks of papers — six stacks — that surround me in this room. I said to myself, “I really must tackle these tomorrow.” Well, today is tomorrow. Wish me luck!
    (Oh, here’s that recipe for sourdough pancakes, in with the records of cousin Karen.)

  6. Interesting story. Thanks, Alicia. My story is a bit different, as I spent most of my working career in the computer industry, and, as it turns out, my suitcase was much smaller to carry. When I got into drafting my own family research later in life, I tried, often in vain, to find living relatives, and used government records to try and fill information gaps. I travelled to distant cemeteries, and found lost ancestors. I found I was frustrated because I wanted to talk with many of my own ancestors and ask them specific questions about their lives. But, many had already passed.

    After a while, I finally became reasonably good at researching the past, and people started coming to me with questions, many times the same questions, over and over again. I decided I should write down what I knew about family research, re-open my own website (, and use Highlander as a book depository for history research.

    So, my own ABCs ‘book’ on genealogy is now available for anyone on Highlander. I’ve tried to compare it to other books on the subject and see there are many differences. Maybe my view of genealogy is a bit odd, but the book is free in PDF format. And yes, it seems to be an easy read in its presentation.

        1. Alicia, I had no probem accessing the link posted by highlanderjuan, which led to a 200 page pdf book (with illustrations). You have (no “er” at the end of highland). That is likely the problem.

          1. Annie, thank you, despite my typo above, I was using the link to, but I was using Chrome, which was being blocked by my Norton Safe Web. I just tried it on Explorer and got through ok.

  7. We moved about a year ago. I was in the middle of a picture scanning project which had to be packed up for the move. I am now at the point where I want to create a “family tree wall” of photographs at our new home. So yesterday I started to unpack the tub of photos. Guess what I found in there?? A TV remote we’ve been looking for for months!! I have no idea how it got into the photo box as that TV wasn’t even in the same room as my project!! Research papers, photographs, etc evidently are not the only things that just get shoved willy nilly!!

  8. I’m so glad you posted this, Alicia! I have such a mishmash of stuff I’ve inherited, stuff I’ve researched, stuff I’ve gleaned (from rabbit holes, I confess). Stuff. Staying at home seems to make it all so visible. Your posting gives me some courage to begin.

  9. While you are now involved in shuffling papers, I have been shuffling and comparing photographs that my sister and I found in a box (stored in the family tornado shelter) after my father passed away. My siblings and I had thought we had identified all existing photos with my father before he died, but we were certainly wrong. At his death, the box of photos came to me along with the responsibility of trying to identify the individuals in the photos. My self-imposed task has been to make certain that siblings and cousins all receive copies of these ancestors from the 1800s and early 1900s. Now that we are all isolating ourselves in our homes, I have no excuses for completing what I have been postponing.

  10. I can relate. Your blog made me feel less alone in keeping records and research organized as they pass from generation to generation and several moves. Thank you for sharing.

  11. I am heartened by your chaos. I known now that I am not alone. I suspect many of us have the same issue. I haven’t looked in my two file cabinets, my 60 linear feet of paper in notebooks on bookshelves, the 20 square feet of boxes of paper stacked on the floor of my genea-cave, or the 8 four feet high stacks of periodicals for years. But I still have it – my grandkids will enjoy the bonfire, I think. If the stacks don’t fall on them first.

  12. Good luck with the endeavor. The whole nation is cleaning and organizing their houses and with better weather, their yards. Good Will will be inundated with donations when it reopens. Maybe document repositories will be also. I might just get the family photographs into the archival albums I bought years ago.

  13. OH how i feel the pain!! My mother had “the box” into which she kept pictures, report cards, class photos, etc etc… you know the rest. My older brother was doing the genealogy, went on trips to the UK and i think visted every cemetary on the easter half of the US tracking us down.. he passed away and I was handed the torch.. no papers… just the torch.. the papers et al are at my sisters… in “the Box”… but I have the census, births, deaths, marriage, addresses etc… so now what??? lol

    1. Think of a very good present to give your sister in exchange for the papers. Tell her she needs the space in her house.

  14. This pretty much echos my story, but I started rearranging things in 1989 when I got my first Apple II computer. I had to secure a genealogy program from Canada as one available in the US for Apple products. Then learn to use it and I entered all the family sheets my mother had on that. I was working as a teacher associate and attending night and summer school working on my elementary teaching degree that I had set aside in 1954 when I married and had my first child shortly after that.

    Mom had lots of documents, letters, diaries, pictures gathered from her mother, and aunt through the years, and when she and my aunt died I “inherited” all their things. After I retired and I had purchased my second Macintosh I scanned much of that material and expanded the family tree with searching online, etc. Corrected a few errors my mother had made when she appeared for Mayflower and DAR memberships. Fortunately I had saved this info to CDs because in 2008 a lot of this information was destroyed in the flood that took our house. My computers were destroyed, but I still had the CDs (flood waters don’t hurt them). Just cleaned them off and they were ready to go. In 2009 I was able to replace my computer. That was when I subscribed to the DropBox program since for about 9 months I had to use the computers at the library and I realized I needed some way to access my material any where.

    So like Dick Eastman on Eastman’s Online Genealogy Letter says, “save, save, save”.

    1. Yes, indeed. I have Dropbox and about four other online backups, plus my terabit external hard drive. Belts and suspenders!

  15. I usually don’t quote from celebrities, but things seems fitting: From Anna Kendrick (I think she was in Up In the Air). “I guess I’ll never be able to lie to myself again about all the things I would do if I just had the time.”

  16. Alicia and Dear Friends. Thank you for all the help you have been over the years. A friend in the NEHGS has sponsored me as a member of the organization. I have located 20 links to the Mayflower passengers and Crew. Today I at long last (66 years) of research has finally enabled me to track down My Mother’s Parents Family tree. I began in 1954 to study my Family Heritage, thanks to my Dad’s MOM (my Grandmother) for sending me our Hilton Family Coat of Arms in a beautiful Needle point in full color. Friends and family from all over the US and Canada and England and other areas have assisted me with a huge amount of data. THAN YOU ALL FOR SO MUCH HELP. I agree with Dick and his SAVE, SAVE, SAVE. All the best with your many efforts. Sincere Best Wishes, Paul Morris Hilton, Harvey Station, New Brunswick, Canada.

  17. …and at least you can be sure it’s all in there — somewhere! Thanks for yet another fine article.

  18. For many years I have used The Master Genealogist which assigns an individual unique number for each person entered. I have filed each original document by it’s person number in plastic sleeves in 3-ring notebooks on the shelf. It makes papers easily found. To date I have about 18 notebooks.

    1. Bette, Wow. I have binders and notebooks, too, but all incomplete. Everything will be scanned now. My family seems to be more receptive to getting a link to Dropbox for files, rather than hard copy anyway.

  19. AND, the silver lining of “Sheltering-at-home” is that we have a small opportunity to work on all these – and the many other projects that haven’t been tackled in our busy and mobile lives.

    1. Elizabeth, every genealogist I have communicated with says the same thing — sheltering-at-home is what I do all the time. I just don’t go out to eat.

  20. Loved this Alicia and Please Forgive me if I had a good laugh out of it, your dilemma exactly describes collection & files. We have moved to many times ourselves, bringing along from the family all the “stuff,” (love that expression) that now I have more to add I also changed my email address, can’t seem to get back to you on either one, but am sure glad both addresses now get me Vita Brevis still. This one is the best I have read yet and you know we all feel Thankful for all of you but this one I had to copy. Am for sure not complaining about the collection but wish I had it better organized. However do still find information I didn’t know was in the house, the old advice, check what is in your own possession first is certainly true.

  21. Loved this story. My mother passed on to me the family history in a small blue case. It has expanded into my study and several filing cabinets etc.
    At the moment I am writing the stories of my parents to pass on to my children.

  22. UPDATE
    The missing file folders have been found, still in their moving boxes under a work table in the loft.

  23. Being squirreled away during the Apocalypse was surely going to bring the upside of hours on end with nothing constructive to do that would be gloriously filled with a genealogy extravaganza — finally… time! Boxes and files of papers notes would be deciphered, sorted and organized, and, dare I dream… color coded! Missing links would be researched, stubborn facts would be unearthed, and those longed-for sources would finally be attached with great aplomb. What luck! Now, three weeks later, with brand new markers still brand new, and nary a box even touched, I’m left wondering why I got MORE done when I had LESS time!

  24. This will probably horrify people, but since I have an incurable cancer, and I don’t want my kids to throw everything out, I’m downsizing. So far I’ve recycled most of about 30 loose-leaf notebooks. I have half a dozen notebooks for the precious finished articles and unique materials. The stuff that went is my handwriting on notes from sources that are online — census, wills, deeds, vital records, photocopies of published genealogies, etc.

  25. 25 years ago, I decided to start my family genealogy. As the oldest of my generation, paper started passing to me as people passed, and then I had a box or two. I decided to take a genealogy course where I learned the importance and joy of documentation. Documentation and I now share an office, including all those hand transcribed census forms, and copies of book pages and microfilms for what seems like half of the Salt Lake Library. It became intimidating, and I ignored it and worked on other people’s families.

    It is now time. I can find no grand strategy, so it will be one piece of paper, one binder at a time … a journey of 1000 miles begins with one step. Hopefully order will suggest itself, and I will come out the other end with organized material with which I can write my long sought after family genealogy.

    PS. We haven’t moved in 35 years, so I have had no benefit from periodic “toss or pack” sessions!!!

  26. Veronica, my own “collection” began in 1981 in a similar fashion. Long-hidden pics and documents “that might help” magically appeared out of dusty trunks. I was bombarded with bits of information to “look into while you’re at it”. That’s how it starts. Good luck in organizing the mess. So far such a thing has eluded me despite several moves and many “sort and pitch” sessions!

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