Monday, April 4, 2011

The limits of genealogical research -- Part One

A number of events have gotten me thinking the past few days about the theoretical and practical limits of genealogical research. I published my spoof about researching "back to Adam" but the real question is how far can you go? This is a question I think can be answered for any given jurisdiction with fair accuracy. But the question also involves a lot of other factors, such as record retention, record loss, record availability and so forth. Why is this a question that needs to be asked and answered? Mainly, I feel, so that folklore does not supplant history and genealogy. It is so entirely impossible to construct a pedigree "back to Adam" you would think the whole idea would be preposterous, but there are a significant number of people who not only belief that it is possible, but have that as their avowed goal.

The whole idea of an endlessly extending genealogy may be either discouraging or challenging. Can you ever consider your research to be done if there are no limits?

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of records and documents, I need to identify what it is we are talking about. Genealogy expands both in the temporal sense and in the details. I may know all there is to know about my grandfather's date, birth, marriage, death etc. but I may still lack important facts about his life, work, hobbies, beliefs, etc. I can do research to fill in the gaps in the history and tell the stories. Although there may be practical limits with respect to documents, this is an area that never seems to end. I recently found 16 feet of documents about my Great-grandfather, his family and others who lived in the same small town in the Northern Arizona University Special Collections library. I am certain that very, very few of the family members were aware of this collection of documents. How long do you think it will take me (or someone else) to go through this collection and extract all of the pertinent family information? So, I am not talking about the historical context.

In this post and any subsequent ones on this subject, I am looking at what you or anyone else can reasonably expect to find in the way of documentation about a particular lineage. Where do the records end and the folklore begins?

Let me start with a relatively simple example. I live in Arizona. What kinds of records are available and how far back do they go? How do I make this determination? First, there are some readily available references. I suggest these two:

Eichholz, Alice. Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources. Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2004.

Everton, George B., and Louise Mathews Everton. The Handy Book for Genealogists: United States of America. Logan, Utah (P.O. Box 368, Logan 84321): Everton Publishers, 1991. 

Yes, good old paper books. However, both are available in electronic format online. Each of these sources give a specific date for the availability of types of records for each state and county in the entire United States. They do not cover all kinds of records. They mainly deal with vital records, but you can get a good idea of the limits for any jurisdiction from these two books.

Back to Arizona, the state began statewide recording of births and deaths in 1909. The first U.S. Census records date from the 1860 Census. Arizona became a territory on 24 February 1863, before that it was part of New Mexico Territory. In 1863 the U.S. Federal District Land Office opened. So if you are not of Mexican or Indian descent then there is a limit in Arizona. You have to look elsewhere for records before about 1860. But let's go a little further. The first European contact with Arizona was in 1528 probably by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. So you can comfortably stop looking for European ancestry in Arizona before that date. But the first European settlements of what became Arizona did not occur until Eusebio Kino in about 1700. So here are two practical, non-theoretical, limits to research. If your ancestors did not speak Spanish, then you can stop looking for records in about 1860. If they spoke Spanish, you have to move on to some other part of the world sometime before 1700. If your ancestors were Indians, then you probably run out of records about the time the Catholic Church records end.

Let's look at one more source. How early do the microfilms in the Family History Library go back for Arizona? Hmm. There is a Mexican Census of Pimeria Alta in 1801. There are some records of letters sent in 1854. There is this book on microfilm:

Dobyns, Richard and Cara E., Archivo histórico de Sonora, Museo del Estado de Sonora indice de lo que contiene un legajo de este archivo, como ejemplo de los muchos documentos tocante de la historia del actual estado de Arizona que ya existe en él, Manuscript FHL INTL Film 1162420 Item 7.

I think you get the idea. You have to move on to some other jurisdiction, no matter what you believe or think either in the mid-1800s or in 1700 depending on your ancestry.

Where am I going next? I will move south and east. How far back can I reasonably expect to find records in Mexico? Where did the European settlers come from and how far back can I find records?


  1. I look forward to other postings in this series. I'm struggling with research in North Carolina in the far western territory and just decided I may have reached the end of my research on this family.

  2. No matter where you stop going back there is almost always unending opportunities for descendancy research. :)

  3. I have found that just when you think you can not go back and find anything else some acorn pops you on the head and you are off and running again.