Remembering Granny: When Secondary Sources Become Primary

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of guest posts highlighting the ways in which intergenerational connections have inspired young genealogists. To learn more about how the NextGen Genealogy Network encourages young genealogists to build connections between all generations, see the NextGen Connection Challenge


Often in family history research, we get caught up in names, dates, and places of people we never knew, but this time in my searching I found more about a connection I had to someone I knew well.

I remember growing up that my Granny, Dorothy Marie (Verbeke) Smith, was into genealogy. Unfortunately, she had died before I became deeply involved in the field myself. We never really got the chance to talk about our shared family history while she was alive. I do recall her occasionally telling stories around the dinner table about the struggles her father (my great grandfather) went through as a recent Belgian immigrant trying to start a new life in America. I was young, so I listened intently, but I never thought to write any of these stories down. I did eventually get a copy of her genealogy binder after her death, but it was mostly filled with names and dates and didn’t have any deeper details of our ancestor’s lives.

Recently, I was looking up her obituary, and when I typed her name into Google, I noticed among the search results a page that is very familiar to me from working on genealogy for others: Ancestry.com’s RootsWeb mailing list archiver. These pages are collections of mailing lists and exchanges between researchers working on particular surnames and family lines. They often provide hints, though some more useful than others, about shared ancestors and family legends. Typically, when coming across these pages through frantic Google searching of surnames and their spelling variations, I am very cautious about the information found within. These are, after all, secondary sources, and most things don’t usually provide citations other than an occasional reference to a vital record or paper tucked away in a courthouse. In fact, I spend a lot of time trying to debunk the family myths that these sites can perpetuate.

This time, however, on my screen, I saw my own granny’s old email address associated with many of these posts on RootsWeb. While her married name was common, her maiden name, Verbeke, revealed her Belgian heritage and she posted frequently looking for leads on this family in Watervliet, Belgium.

Reading through these posts, I learned about alleged family rivals between my Verbeke ancestors and the family my great grandmother eventually married into. She recounts her successes in borrowing microfilm from the Family History Library and struggles with ordering a vital record from Springfield, Illinois. From these secondary sources, I was able to learn firsthand about her quest to trace her Belgian roots. I am thankful I can now have this insight about her research even though we can never talk about it in person. These pages became primary sources that document her life and her hobby that also help me connect with her after her death through our shared enthusiasm for genealogy.

This experience was also a good reminder of how important it is to connect with older family members and document their stories the next time you see them. Something as simple as making a recording on your smartphone while talking to relatives can create new primary sources about your family’s past to preserve for future generations.


Kristin Britanik is a genealogist and digitization professional based out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At her day job, she is in charge of digitization at the Andy Warhol Museum. Previously, she worked in archival digitization for Ancestry.com and was a researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. She writes on her blog at deepgenes.com.

One thought on “Remembering Granny: When Secondary Sources Become Primary

  1. Melissa Finlay

    What a fabulous find! A voice from the dust, as it were, from your granny. Lovely story. Thank you for sharing.

     
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