In a recent class at the Mesa Regional Family History Center, I had a class member ask about one of her ancestors. She indicated that they had been searching for his parents for a number of years. The first question I asked was the geographic location of where they were looking? She answered about a county in an Eastern state. I began a search for the towns in the county as she continued to give me more information. As the search progressed, she mentioned more than once that they had always searched for the individual only by name. As we continued to discuss the project, I found a comprehensive written history of the county through WorldCat.org. Then, I began looking for local newspapers. Time ran out before we got much further, but she left with an expanded idea of where you might go to look for an individual.
Likewise, I have used the same technique to suggest that a certain individual never lived in a location. I think we often overlook the fact that genealogy is location based. It is too easy for two individuals to have the same name. I have even found people with my same name in a Tanner family book. Think about how many people you know with the same last name or the same first name and you will see the problem. I always start my search, when possible, looking for a location rather than a name. Is the place large or small or very small? Is it near a larger city or out in the country? Why would people move there? Have the same families lived there for years or is a transient area with few, if any, older residents? All of these questions and many more can help to establish a sense of place. In smaller towns, the local newspaper may have given the latest gossip and related who got married, who visited and who died, as well as every party and family gathering and who attended.
I once found an entire family listed in a small town newspaper article with all their home towns when they came together for a memorial service one week after the old timer died. The paper had previously reported the obituary, but ran the article telling about the family when they got together to honor the name of the dead person. Sometimes, the place is more important than the name, especially if the name is very common. In Danish research, for example, there is a very small pool of given names and many individuals born about the same time may have the same exact name. In Denmark, the location of the family is very important down to the house they live in. It may be the only way you can tell your Jens Jensen from ten others in the same village.
Sometimes, when I ask a person about their family, they have no idea where they lived. Until they find a geographical anchor they will always be sailing around in circles in a sea of names. In that case, I start with a series of questions. Where were you born? At least we know that the person's mother was at that location, at that time. Working backward, we have some places to start with. If the person was born in a certain county on a certain day, was there a record in the county of the birth? Is so, where is the record now. It is highly unlikely that all of the church records, land records, school records, insurance records, legal records, newspaper records, work records, and other types of records were all destroyed in a courthouse fire. By focusing on the location, you may find many alternative sources of records that are not apparent by only looking for a name.
What do you know about the town where your parents (or grandparents) lived and worked? My recent experience in finding dozens of journals collected by one researcher and deposited in a university library's special collections, graphically shows that specific and pertinent information about your family could be anywhere.
From the musical, The Music Man, one line always sticks in my mind, "But he doesn't know the territory!" Whenever I hear about searching for a name for years, I always say, "But they don't know the territory" and many times it is true.