Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, March 30, 2012

Round up the usual suspects

How many times when we are doing genealogical research do we "round up the usual suspects?" What I mean by this is how many times do we go back to looking at a particular individual or individuals that seem to elude our research efforts but approach the search, again and again, in the usual way?

In the Casablanca movie, this phrase is used by Captain Renault to avoid doing a "real" investigation. But from my standpoint, the issue is doing the same research over again and again, without making any progress. In a sense, through inertia or otherwise, we avoid doing a real investigation.

So how do we avoid rounding up the usual suspects? In genealogical jargon, we talk about breaking down the brick wall, but what is really involved is approaching the problem in different ways and looking at sources that my have been ignored or completely unknown.

Here are some basic rules for avoiding the usual suspects:

Rule One: Move back one generation or more
Whenever I suggest this to someone, I can see in their eyes that they are immediately rejecting the suggestion out of hand. What I mean is to begin researching in depth in the generation preceding the target individual. The more you know about the children, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews etc. of the target ancestor, the more likely you are to find your elusive ancestor. The challenge is that this takes work and most researchers are looking for the easy way out. No one wants to do the basic searching they need to really find out about the ancestor.

Rule Two: Expand the scope of your research
How much do you really know about the city, county, state, province, parish, etc. where you are searching? Have you read a county history? Do you know about the national or international events that occurred at the time of your search? What about migration patterns? The more you learn, the more likely you are to find suggested resources that may contain information about your ancestor.

Rule Three: Look at what you already have
Have you examined each document and source for all the information contained in the record? For example, have you looked at every section of each Census record to get suggestions? Such as occupation, ownership status, education, immigration? Think about what the record says and what it does not say.

Rule Four: Look for the obscure
What I mean by this is look for records that may contain information but are not those usually listed in genealogical research guides. For example, cemetery records may include a permit for burial, a receipt or contract for sale of the plot, a cemetery register and other records not normally listed. These more obscure, but useful records may be located onsite and may never have made their way online.

Rule Five: Widen your search
Look in adjacent counties or adjacent states. Try alternative spellings of names and widen the year spread. Don't rely on dates provided by previous researchers. One research problem I had was a person who was known to have served in World War I, but none of the U.S. Army databases for the War showed his name. I found the unit on a gravemarker and determined that he served in the Texas National Guard, which was activated by the Regular Army and there was whole history of his unit. So don't give up, widen the search.

Don't get caught rounding up the usual suspects.

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