When I was young and had time to do things other than genealogy, I used to practice archery from time to time. I would set up various targets to shoot at in the yard, which was big enough to use for the activity. Inevitably, I would shoot all of my arrows and miss the target at least a couple of times. In targets, think cardboard box, not the nice straw kind with big circles. Anyway, there were a couple things I did know when I started to search for my lost arrows. First, the arrow could only go a certain distance and second, I instinctively knew that there was no use looking in the next lot or across the street, the arrow was somewhere in the general direction of the target and only at a limited distance. I would then systematically examine the ground in the direction of the arrows and would always find all my arrows.
Think about your ancestors. Searching for them is exactly like searching for my lost arrows. You can only find them in a certain place and time. They have to be there. You were born, therefore they exist. This simple fact seems lost on many who are looking for their ancestors. Expressed another way, you research from the known to the unknown. This basic principle of research means you don't jump back to search for your great-grandfather until you know all of the ground between where you are now and where you think he was. There is even a scriptural admonition, which says, “Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall..." (See Jacob 4:14). So, what do you know about your parents?
I acknowledge that there are those people who cannot find their own parents. Some arrows do get lost. But it is amazing to me how many people skip the middle to get to the ending without even knowing they are doing so. To repeat the question, what do you know about your parents (or the person you are looking for)? I am talking about research in depth. To use another analogy, you can't build a bridge without a pier. You need to be firmly sure of the ground on which you stand before you reach out across the void and try and find your family.
Let's say you want to find your great-grandparents wedding date. Start with their children, your grandparents. What do you know about your grandparents? When was the first child born? Where was the first child born? What was going on at the time? What kind of record might contain information on a marriage date? An insurance application? A medical record? A newspaper story? A journal? Letters to relatives? A draft registration form? A Social Security application form? Where would these records be kept?
This topic has been brought to my mind repeatedly by questions asked at the Mesa Regional Family History Center. Every time I help answer a question, the answer usually lies in re-examining what the person knows and not what he or she doesn't yet know. Do not look beyond the mark, look for people only where and when they might be found.