Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Systems Approach to Genealogical Research

One of the most common problem with researchers is failing to look at the context of the lives of their ancestors. Like checking off a shopping list, some researchers think they are done with their research once they have a date and a general place. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen entries people's sheets that say "George abt 1860" or "Mary, Ohio." If they have no place in their records then how do they know the name was really "George?" Or with no date, how do they know the name was "Mary?"

Systems analysis is defined as an analysis of all aspects of a project along with ways to collect information about the operation of its parts. Isn't that essentially what we are trying to achieve in genealogical research? One goal of systems analysis is to form a coherent whole. Having a dangling relative with no name or no date or lacking a place is the antithesis of a functional system. So what do you do when you come to the end of your Tanner line, for example, enter Mr. Tanner as the last father? When you are that far back in time, how do you know the father's surname was Tanner? For that matter, how do you know the people had surnames?

In a recent case, one of my friends came to me with a question about finding a male ancestor. She wanted help establishing that the individual was the next most remote ancestor in her ancestral line. Her question was directed towards sources. I was busy at that moment, so my wife looked at the information and very quickly pointed out that by subtracting the oldest child's birth year from the supposed father, the father would have had to have been 4 years old at the time of the child's birth. Either the dates for the father or for the child were wrong. My friend needed to move forward a generation and do more research. I viewed the basic problem to one of lack of systems analysis. My friend was failing to look at each part of her genealogy as fitting into the overall system of her family.

This is a very simple example, but the idea of looking at the system and the context of the system extends much further than to looking at individual dates. It also includes looking at the communities and social context of each generation. Another example, what made your ancestor or the ancestral family immigrate? What were the social, economic or political conditions that caused the family to move to a new location? Did other family members move at the same or near the same time? Is there more information about other family members than about your own individual ancestor? Where did your ancestor "fit in" to the family?

In the late 1700s some of my direct line Tanner family members moved from Rhode Island to New York. What caused the family to leave the ancestral home, where the family had lived for over 100 years, and move north to New York? You can learn about the history of the times and learn about the Tanner family and why they moved north to New York or you can learn about the Tanner family and thereby learn about the history. A family does not develop on it own. The statement I just made about learning about history is based on an interesting article illustrating this principle called "Introduction to our pages on Colonial History." If you wanted to know more about this migration pattern, you could easily find more information, for example, here is an article from Ancestry Magazine in July/August of 2000, "New England's Migration Fever: The Expansion of America" by Ralph J. Crandall on Ancestry.com. In the case of the Tanners, it is likely that, what Dr. Crandall calls, Genesee Fever, an early subdivision promotion, lured settlers out of Rhode Island into the subdivided land in New York, especially in the case of my remote grandfather who was one of the younger sons and did not stand to inherit much land in Rhode Island.

My concern about the idea of dealing with families as part of a larger context or system stems from regular contact with people who are searching for names and dates and ignoring the history. I could go to the Mesa Regional Family History Center today and sit down next to some one diligently staring at a computer screen and ask if they knew anything about the place or history of the place where they were searching and only get a very annoyed look about why I was asking such an irrelevant question. 

What do you know about New England? or Virginia? or England? or Germany? or Denmark? or Sweden? or Botswana? or Toga? 

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