Meet the NYG&B: Meryl Schumacker, Staff Genealogist
Have you met Meryl Schumacker, the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society's Staff Genealogist?
Many of our members and constituents have attended a webinar hosted by Meryl, read an article of her's in The Record, or benefitted from her expertise during a personal consulation or custom research project.
Now you have the chance to learn everything about Meryl's genealogical journey, skills, and a few fascinating facts as well!
Read on for the first installement of our new "Meet the NYG&B" series, as Meryl shares her thoughts on the challenges of New York State research, and her advice for those with Empire State ancestors.
Tell us about your genealogy journey. How did you first get into the subject and what made you decide to pursue it as a profession?
My first cousin once removed was my family’s unofficial genealogist. She knew all the family stories, the family mysteries, and was always working on something. When I was in high school, she died suddenly of cancer. In her will, she left all of her genealogical research to me—family trees, vital records, photographs, I got every scrap of paper with a name or date written on it. That inspired me to start exploring my family history. Now that I use probate records all the time in my research, I think there’s something kind of wonderful and perfect about the catalyst for all of that being written in a will. Like somebody in the future could say, “I wonder how Meryl started doing genealogy,” and find all the evidence right there, just like we do today.
What is your particular area of expertise? Tell us about your professional focus in the past, and where you hope to focus in the future.
Prior to joining the NYG&B, I specialized in New York City, Westchester County, Jewish, and African-American research. (editor's note: Meryl recently hosted a Getting Started with Jewish Genealogy Webinar and authored an article on Slavery Records in the Common Council Papers at the New York City Municipal Archives in the January 2018 issue of The Record). I’ve also done a great deal of British, German, Midwestern, and upstate New York research. Moving forward, I’m excited to continue incorporating DNA evidence into my work.
When you’re hired to consult or perform research, how do you help researchers break down brick walls and find more family members?
When I was a writer, I worked hard to hone my diagnostic skills: how to analyze my work, poke holes in it, figure out what isn’t working, and make it better. When I pick up a new brick wall problem, I approach it the same way. I look at what’s there, what isn’t there, what doesn’t make sense, and what records I might need in order to resolve the problem. Tools like timelines and tables oftentimes lead to even bigger breakthroughs than “smoking gun” records.
What has helped you improve your skills the most?
I learn the most when I step outside of my comfort zone and try something new. Times when I made myself a little uncomfortable—by attending an unfamiliar program or conference session, for example—those were the most enriching.
What is most challenging about New York research, and what recommendations do you have for researchers?
New York gets a bad rap over vital records. It certainly make research challenging. For me, the challenge is what I enjoy about New York. It forces me to be creative, stretch myself, and keep learning new things. For folks doing research in New York, I’d say learn as much as you can about the history and laws of the area. Articles from the New York Researcher, The Record, and books like the New York City Municipal Archives: An Authorized Guide for Family Historians are my personal favorites.
In your opinion, what was the most difficult brick wall you have successfully broken through?
I traced a career criminal from birth until death, from coast to coast, under more than half a dozen aliases. The more I learned about his early life, the better I was able to see that his fabricated identities weren’t chosen at random. They were all grounded in truth. Magpie-like, he collected bits and pieces of past experiences and used them to remake himself over and over again. I’m immensely proud of that one.
For members who are interested in the NYG&B’s research services, how can they make the most of your expertise?
A clear research question or goal is essential, whether it’s for a half-hour consultation or a hundred hour research project. When members know what they’re looking for, it allows me to be much more specific in my recommendations in a consultation and it can save significant time in research hours. Beyond that, it’s wonderful when members can provide a research log: a list of collections that they’ve already searched, what they searched for, and if they found anything (or not). If a member has already exhausted a collection or other resource, that’s something I want to know about
What do you wish you’d known about genealogy when you first started?
I used to get so focused on the blank spaces in my tree—those nagging birth, marriage, and death dates—that I didn’t even think to ask who my ancestors were. What did they believe? What were their lives like? I didn’t think it was possible to answer those questions, so I didn’t used to ask them. Today, I love encouraging researchers to explore those details about their ancestors’ lives, their beliefs, and the events they witnessed in history.
Do you have any New York ancestors?
Yes, on both sides of my family. My nerdiest genealogical discovery was that my fourth-great-grandfather was a census enumerator here in the early 19th century. He signed and doodled on the back pages of the census! Seeing that was about the coolest thing ever.
What’s something people would be surprised to know about you?
I’ve written episodes and songs for animated kids’ TV shows on PBS KIDS and Nick Jr. - and I can tap dance!
What are you reading?
I just finished Avram Finkelstein’s memoir, After Silence. Next, I’d like to read Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant.
To quote Barbara Walters, if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
I don’t know that I’d be one, but black walnut trees are my favorites.
Meryl is available to help you break down that long-lasting brick wall, or simply get started on finding your New York ancestors. Please visit our Research Services page to see the variety of ways Meryl can help.
About the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society
Since 1869, the NYG&B's mission has been to help our thousands of worldwide members discover their family's New York story, and there has never been a better time to join.
The cost of an Individual Annual Membership is less than six dollars a month, and includes the following benefits:
- Access to over 50 exclusive digital record sets covering the entire state of New York, including the fully searchable archives of The Record.
- A complimentary subscription to all of Findmypast's North American records, as well as U.K. and Irish Census records.
- Access to hundreds of expert-authored Knowledge Base articles and webinars to help you navigate the tricky New York research landscape.
- Exclusive discounts and advanced access to conferences, seminars, workshops and lectures to learn more about researching people and places across New York State.
To learn more or join us, please visit our member benefits page.