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

Monday, February 25, 2013

Digging yourself out of a genealogical black hole

Unfortunately, there are a significant number of genealogical researchers that become fixated on one overwhelming issue in their pedigree. They become so adsorbed in trying find the missing or end-of-line ancestor that nothing else matters. This missing or unresolvable problem becomes a virtual black hole sucking in all their time and resources. In my experience these unresolvable problems can be categorized into a few broad categories.

Here is a list of the main categories of legitimate candidates for genealogical black holes:

  • Actual time periods where there are no longer any records of ordinary people
  • Individuals whose parent or parents were not recorded (i.e. foundling or out-of-wedlock)
  • Individuals who, for whatever reason, left the family, changed their name and were never heard of again (sometimes you can ultimately resolve these)
  • Ancestors who originate in countries that either did not keep records or where, because of war or otherwise, the records are no longer available. 

Spending time on any of these does not hold out much promise of resolution. However, there are other situations that appear to be black holes but are usually resolvable through additional much broader research. These include:

  • Claims that the records were destroyed in a fire or other natural disaster
  • Families or individuals that just seem to disappear from Census or other records for no particular reason (this is similar to individuals who leave a family, but not exactly the same thing)
  • Individuals who changed their name when the immigrated or emigrated
  • Individuals or families that moved into the frontier

If these circumstances apply, then the solution is usually looking at additional records and broadening the search to other areas. Easy for you to say, you reply. But really, no matter how much the researchers protest that they have searched all of the records, it is very, very seldom accurate. In the past couple of months, for example, I have learned about whole classes of records that I never previously imagined existed. Frequently, the issue is availability of the records and the researcher has neither the time nor the resources to travel to the original jurisdiction to search for additional records.

It is further my experience that the largest percentage of the situations that can ultimately be resolved have not been resolved because the researchers have been looking in the wrong place. They have usually assumed that an ancestor lived or was born in a certain area when the facts are otherwise. In some cases, the researchers are hung up on details of name variations and refuse to look beyond what they "know" to be accurate.

So what are the solutions?

In the all of the above examples, the first step is to move back to the first verified individual in the first verified location and start the research over again. Begin by looking for additional types of records before searching for names. At this point, it is absolutely important to start learning the local and regional history. You have to start digging your way out of the hole by building a scaffold of information about where, when and how you family lived. The hole occurs when you focus on the narrow identification of an individual or family and forget the larger picture.

In my case, the solution has turned out to be additional study and education in genealogy. It seems inevitable that each time I find an "unsolvable" barrier, it turns out that I need to study more and read more.

There is no magic wand to make these challenges go away. The reason why I classify the two groups differently is because I have seen most of the problems from the second list resolved, but I have seldom seen the ones from the first list.

1 comment:

  1. Right on, James. Particularly your comment, "In some cases, the researchers are hung up on details of name variations and refuse to look beyond what they 'know' to be accurate." We hear this occasionally in our Family History Center, and try -- gently -- to teach the newbie.