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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Take Off the Surname Blinders
by Rhonda R. McClure

February 21, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

While I did not grow up with horses, I was the typical adolescent girl with my fascination of horses. I had pictures galore and read about them constantly. One of the things I have always remembered is why the horses wore blinders; those black things that blocked their eyes from seeing side to side. The blinders prevented the horse from having his attention drawn to something other than what is in front of him. With the blinders the horse is not going to drift from the path set before him.

Genealogists have adopted this practice. While you don't see physical blinders attached to their heads, with their methods in working in some of the records, they might as well have them on.

Are you researching with blinders?

The Surname Blinders

As genealogists we are surname oriented. We spend a lot of time looking for specific surnames in indexes, in records, and in published county and family histories. While this is good, there is a tendency to concentrate on just the surname in question, rather than looking for some of the other surnames that have intermarried into the family.

This was recently brought to my attention as I was working in some published family histories. I had a pedigree chart and I was working from one immigrant to the next. While I was looking into the female surnames, I will confess I was concentrating on the male lines, primarily because I knew I would find entries in the library catalog with their full name.

However, as I began to work in some of the better genealogies, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they were taking some of the female lines through two or more generations. In fact, I discovered some valuable information on the spouse of one of my females, including previously unknown parents in one of these volumes.

Take Off Your Blinders

It is too easy to concentrate on the person or family at hand. It can seem overwhelming to try and juggle more than one surname at the same time. This is where research logs can come in handy. It allows you to record the surnames, all of them, and allows you to focus.

In some instances I take the research log and prepare it ahead of time, when I have all of my files and my questions and my database. There is something about getting to the library that sometimes causes a short out in our brain. I think it has to do with all those wonderful records and knowing all we need to do is reach out and touch them.

However, if you do some of your planning ahead, especially when the library catalog is available online, you will find that your search is more productive when you do get to the library or archive. And when you are preparing that research, keep in mind some of the surnames that married into the family, even if it isn't the child you descend from.

In genealogy, we need to look at all the angles, and often those angles do not come from our ancestor but from his or her siblings. The people they married may also hold a clue, especially if that surname has had a genealogy written about it. Depending on how thorough the genealogy is, you may pick up some information on your ancestorís parents, or on dealings your ancestor had with that family.

In Conclusion

The next time you are digging into a library catalog or planning a research trip, try to remember to branch out beyond the name at hand. Reread some of the records you have already and write down those individuals who your ancestor interacted with. Keep those surnames and individuals in mind as you are planning your research and then again as you are undertaking that research. You may be pleasantly surprised.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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