Larry W. Thomas began researching his family’s genealogy over 30 years ago and has been assisting others professionally since 2008. Larry is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) and the National Genealogical Society (NGA). In this interview he shares insights into his journey of becoming a genealogist and when it is a good idea to get professional assistance in your family research.
How did you first become interested in genealogy work and what inspired you to pursue this as a career?
I remembered seeing a book on our Thomas family that my grandfather had received at a Thomas Reunion in Patterson, GA. In it, the family legacy was that our ancestor, Gilshot Thomas, moved from Maryland to Georgia before the Revolutionary War and that he and his only (then known) son, James, fought together in the war. As an Army officer, I was intrigued at Gilshot being listed as a Lieutenant in the Screven County Militia and as a Private alongside James. The more I investigated the more I learned that it was feasible to at one time be an officer and later a soldier since units elected their company officers, I also discovered there was another son, Gilshot Jr. It was the two sons who served together and there is no known record of them being in combat.
Also, after moving to Cobb County, Georgia in 1996 and discovering that my mother’s Akers’s line had Georgia roots and Cobb has a landmark called Akers Mill, I began researching that line. Then in 2008, a friend asked me to do specific research on his family, then another friend, then a friend of a friend, and so on. So I decided to start taking clients for a fee and went near full-time in February 2018 when I left my last full-time employment.
What do you enjoy most about your career?
I enjoy doing research and helping people find their ancestors.
Do you have a certain area of specialization?
I specialize in the southeastern US but I have conducted research around the country. I do not take client research that is not in the US or Canada.
What are some of the challenges you face when you do this type of research and how do you overcome them, or have overcome them in the past?
Before COVID hit, the biggest challenge was the many different ways state archives and other repositories access online documents. The other is misunderstanding many people have about how many hours are involved in doing a proper research and report writing. Shows on TV where they provide ancestor information to celebrities do not indicate the hundreds of hours of research and the fact that up to two years has been spent to achieve the findings. With COVID, it is even more complicated because very few repositories are open for research.
What are the benefits to hiring a genealogist over trying to research something on your own?
A professional genealogist can be objective in the research and is least likely to misinterpret information found so that it meets the desires of the individual. Meaning, is my ancestor John Thomas, the Colonel of the outfit or the Private? An individual doing their own research may want their ancestor to be the Colonel and accidentally twist the information to meet that desire where a professional researcher does not have that desire. Additionally, professionals are more versed in the myriad places to search for information. At what point do you think a novice should bring in the professionals? When they hit a brick wall or are struggling to distinguish their William Wales, the butcher, from the other William Wales, a butcher, or is it William Wales, the carpenter. In other words, we often run into situations where there are multiple people with the same or very similar names and must distinguish between the two.
Where would you recommend people who are new to genealogy start out and what do you consider to be the first step in their research?
I encourage people to join local genealogy societies where most will teach methodology regardless of locale. For their own research, many will say, “start with yourself and work back.” I say, it depends on what you want to know. Then start with what you do know and see if you can prove it. Then move on from there. In my case, I knew I could prove myself, my parents, my grandparents, and my father’s grandparents. The family I mentioned above lacked any solid documentation to prove it. So I started trying to build the necessary documentation to link myself to Gilshot Thomas (circa 1730-1792). I have now proven via documentation my lineage to a James Thomas (circa 1760 – 1835) and his wife, Sarah (maiden name yet proven) and am currently working on proving whether he is the same James Thomas who was Gilshot Thomas, Sr’s son.
For people facing challenges of not knowing if a record is right or where to look for something, what advice would you give someone facing those issues? I recommend trying to locate two sources of proof for any information unless the one found is overwhelming sound such as a will where the family members are identified fully. Think outside the box, I have found legal separations filed only in a land deed. I have found where a will only named the adult child who was named the executor and the minor children but discovered the rest of the children because they disputed the will and took it to court.
If you had unlimited time is there any genealogy or history project you would personally like to take on?
I mentioned that my mother’s line were Akers who moved to Georgia in the 1830s from Virginia. Two professional reseachers came up with different conclusions on the Akers family. Both determined that in the mid-1600s there was a William Akers I, in Rappahanock, Virginia, and also a William Akers I, in New Jersey. Both had descendants and in the early 1700s, two William Akers IV moved to the same area of Virginia and the families intermarried. So, all that said, does my mother’s Akers descend from the one in Virginia or New Jersey?