News / Scott’s journey through genealogy: genealogy is a marathon, not a sprint

Scott’s journey through genealogy: genealogy is a marathon, not a sprint

In this blog series, genealogical historian Scott Phillips invites us along on his journey through genealogy and shares some of the lessons he’s learnt along the way.

Hello dear readers! Scott here again with my next insight for you from my years spent working in and on genealogy and my own family history. My insight is this: remember that genealogy is a marathon, not a sprint! To get good, quality genealogy and an accurate family history will take time.

So I suggest you might want to look at it as a marathon and not as a sprint. As you know, in a sprint, you hit it hard, hit it fast, and it is over as quickly as you can do it. In a marathon, you have to train and study, set a pace, make a plan for those hills, valleys, and dry spots along the route. Then no matter what, you simply have to start out and keep at it.

This marathon aspect of genealogy is what drives me to continually sign up for year long subscription program options and then put them on automatic renewal! Yes, you could say I am hopeless, but I’ll try and explain my marathon analogy a bit better by using a couple of personal examples.

Scott with his grandsons

Scott with his grandsons

On your marks, get set…

My first example is from when I took off out of the starting blocks to begin my own genealogy. My wife and I were presented with the gift of the news of a second grandson on the way. To make the news even more joyous, our son and daughter-in-law told us that if it was a boy (which it was) they were going to name him William in honour of my father, who had just recently passed away.

I got to thinking about my dad, and it wasn’t too long before I realised that while I knew my father extremely well, my son knew him differently than I, as his grandfather, and my soon-to-be second grandson, who was to be named after him, would never know him personally at all. I decided it would be only proper if I would ‘write a paragraph or two’ about my dad for my grandsons so they could get to ‘know’ his namesake. The rest, as they say is history! Two paragraphs? HA! The genealogy bug bit me, bit me hard, and has never let go!

As you can imagine, I was quite excited as I began. I had read many of the ‘how to’ genealogy articles and knew that every one of them began with the advice to speak with the eldest members of your family but I thought I knew better. Me? I’d just race right off and get this thing called ‘genealogy’ done fast. Well, let me tell you, it wasn’t long before my mind was awash with dates, names, places, generations, ancestors with similar names, etc.

As my head was spinning, I stopped dead, put my materials aside, and rang up my then 89 year-old mum on the phone. As I bemoaned my confusion, she got busy setting me straight. I soon came to realise that many of these names I was struggling with were not just ‘names’ to her, but were family she had known! Her help, corrections, stories, and anecdotes began to flow. My fingers were flying over my keyboard as I worked to capture every word she was sharing.

Many wonderful things occurred in that phone conversation. First, I realised that I had to capture far more than simply the names, dates, and places of our ancestors. I needed to capture the fabric, texture, and culture of our family and its ancestry. Second, I realised that this was going to be an undertaking that needed to be done with care, love, and time, and was not simply something to be accumulated as fast as I could. The sprint was over and my marathon had begun.

Take two laps

You should know that I will readily admit that I do not run any non-genealogy marathons, but both my children do run the real things. It wasn’t too long ago that I was having a chat with my daughter about a certain marathon she had run. She told me it was only ‘okay’ in that they ran two laps over the same half marathon course.

Scott Phillips' ancestors in the 1940 US census

Scott’s family in the 1940 US census – click to enlarge

I laughed and told her I had just done the same thing in my genealogy work. Somehow she was not impressed that I likened my genealogy efforts to running 26 miles, but here is what I was referring to. Sometimes in our genealogy marathons we need to ‘loop back’ just as my daughter did on her run. One of my regular routines is to review documents that I have already attached to my family tree, especially those with multiple names attached, such as census forms.

Scott Phillips' grandparents

Scott’s grandparents – click to enlarge

A good example of this would be just the other day when my sister asked about the 1940 United States census form that listed our grandparents. I pulled up document you can see here on and was explaining to her what you can see on lines seven to nine. These folks are my grandparents and my father:

As I was talking with her, the name on line 27 caught my eye, ‘Davis, Ray’. I had missed that earlier, but now, later in my work, I knew that my grandmother’s sister, Emma, had married Ray Davis! It wasn’t long and I had confirmed that this was, indeed, my great-aunt and her family.

In addition to my two laps on many of my documents, I frequently find myself working on my UK-rooted branches of my family tree by searching the British Newspapers on There is little better for enhancing your family tree and truly capturing the fabric of your ancestry than finding gems in the old newspapers. After all, what genealogist doesn’t truly love the old newspaper editors’ ‘commandment’ of being sure to answer the questions of ‘who, what, where, when and why’?

So enjoy your marathon. Who knows, it just might turn you into a genealogy Ironwoman or Ironman!

Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services in Indiana, US. Scott calls genealogy his ‘sweetest passion’ and his wife calls it ‘our shadow’! Scott specialises in immigrant ancestry, especially from Bohemia (Czech Republic), Cornwall, the UK and Italy. In addition to joining as a columnist, he is a regular genealogy contributor for Huffington Post United Kingdom, and his own website, Onward To Our Past. You can follow Scott on his Facebook page and on his website/blog