Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Loose Ends and Lost Files

What do you do with those wisps of information that you know, only intuitively, belong to your family—but you can’t quite figure out how?

Before I had settled on a satisfactory answer to that question for myself, I’d just make a stack of those loose ends. At first, there weren’t too many items in that stack. After all, with a little work, most stuff fits into one or another branch of the family tree quite tidily.

Not Johanna Lee. The last time I had worked on researching her line was around the turn of the century.

Doesn’t that make it sound so old?

I had tucked away some hard-won photocopies of material in one of those plain manila file folders, labeled the tag, “LEE,” and moved on to more productive pursuits when I hit the inevitable brick wall.

Apparently, I repeated that scenario at another date, for at one point, I discovered that I had two folders with the same surname marked on them, in exactly the same manner—one loaded with lots of data, one with only a few items. So much for memory.

Yesterday morning, I was poking around all the stuff that, having gotten accumulated, graduates to storage bins out in a remote part of the house, and what should I find but a box which holds what used to be half a file drawer. I must have needed the room in my file cabinet in a hurry, for I had unceremoniously dumped the files, helter skelter, in the box, packed them away and promptly forgot about them.

When I realized what I had just uncovered, I went straight to the spot where “LEE” would have been filed. There it was—sadly, only one of the folders, and no, it wasn’t the fuller one.

I lost track of time, wandering around the other folders that came with that set of long-since researched family lines. There was one labeled “FLANAGAN” and one for all the spelling permutations for “MALLOY.” There was one for “TULLY” from long before I knew John Tully’s siblings’ names, let alone his parents’ names or their residence in Paris, Ontario, before their move from Canada to the United States. There was even one for “Civil War Info,” a folder I had started in anticipation of tracking down the source of the family tradition that John Tully had fought in the Civil War.

Because these items were photocopied on much older machines, their clarity was lacking—a great disappointment when I finally uncovered my copy of the farewell letter from Steven Malloy to his wife in his hasty departure from Ireland to Boston in 1849. I will try scanning it and sharing it here in a few days, but it is so washed out that I fervently hope I had saved a transcription of the original text somewhere. Perhaps toying with the contrast settings on Photoshop may yield a more readable copy.

While it is a relief to find these files at last—well, only partially a relief, given that the larger “LEE” folder is still missing—it still brings up that nagging question: what to do with “sort of” family members who may fit into a line…or maybe don’t?

I’ve since answered that question for myself, at least in the case of Johanna Lee. I had to. I was uncovering so much more about Johanna, then setting the work aside, not knowing what to do with it—or where to put it. Then, forgetting what I had already done, years later I’d stumble over it once again with an “oh, yeah.” I had to plug these data streams in somewhere.

So I made up “faux” people. I’d figure out the most logical connection, and grant that person that helpful moniker, “Unknown.” So, for Johanna’s father, since her maiden name was Flanagan, I dubbed my mystery man “Unknown Flanagan.”

I know there are a lot of Unknowns out there in the genealogy world—second only to FNU (First Name Unknown), I suspect. Who would want an entire listing of the family whose ancestor was named FNU LNU?!

It was merely a device I could use to create a temporary fix and buy myself some more research time.

To create an entire entry composed of Unknowns may be something you are uncomfortable with—what if, for instance, you do that, then drop dead, smitten by the wrath of some unknown genealogy god, and your heirs subsequently decide to publish your tree online so they can throw away all your research paperwork in good conscience?

I think of improbable nightmare scenarios like that on a regular basis.

That’s where the note sections of database programs come in handy. So, I document all sorts of “I think” notes to myself so someone following my research trail can reconstruct what I am attempting to prove.

That’s what I do now. But back then? I hadn’t thought it out that much. So a lot of the loose ends I remember finding about Johanna Flanagan Lee’s family is still out there, firmly tied down in a file folder in some lonely box in the nether reaches of my domain, just awaiting re-discovery.

Above: Finally found: my own copy of William Flanagan's obituary, originally published in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, August 15, 1893, on page six.


  1. I have no qualms about entering "Unknown" in my database. Your filing system sounds like mine.

    1. When I think of all the wisps of paper I've likely lost over the decades for lack of the guts to plug in a "maybe" with a caveat, it really makes me wilt. That kind of a filing system is just fine--it at least provides a tentative resting place in which to assemble all the maybes so they won't get lost.

  2. Hey! We are related!! I got lots of ancestors named FNU LNU!!!!!

  3. I transcribed and post all my obituaries into the note section for the individual. My RootsMagic data already has Obituary listed in the Facts category. Then I complied my source citation for that Obituary.

    1. Charlie, for me that was a hard-earned lesson, long in coming. Now, I have no qualms about putting whatever I think necessary into my note sections. Back then, I saw that white space as virgin territory, and had no clue it was okay to put anything in there I wished. Must have thought there was a "right way" to do that...a terrifying thought that can shut progress down to a standstill.

  4. I think of improbable nightmare scenarios like that on a regular basis.

    :) I am certain you do:)

    1. Far Side, we are definitely on the same wavelength on this one ;)


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