Saturday, February 9, 2013

Does that place where your ancestors were supposed to live exist at all?

If we rank the importance of exactness in genealogical research, identifying the exact place an event occurred is far more important than an exact date and even more important than getting the name exactly right. I have written and said many times that having the wrong geographic or jurisdictional location is the cause of most of the so-called "brick wall" issues I have been asked to address over the years. In addition to checking the math on the dates, I always look at the locations given for the ancestors in any pedigree I am asked to examine.

When I look at places, two issues stand out nearly always. Locations that are so vague that they are meaningless and locations that could not have existed during the time period indicated on the pedigree. 

If my examination of my own and others' pedigrees and family group records is any indication, vague places such as, "Mary Jones, b. abt 1800, Ohio" are rampant. I get to the point that if I see another ancestor identified as "John, b. abt 1900 in the United States", I may scream. I am well aware of the motivation that cause these vague locations and dates, but I do not sympathize with it. This kind of pseudo-genealogical information is useless and pernicious. It shows a total lack of regard for the individuals and guarantees that any further information about that family line will be impossible until the individual is properly identified. 

I am not denigrating the issue of partial information available in an "end of line" situation. For some older records, we may only have an approximate date and a single name. But even in those situations, if we do not know the place, we are merely speculating, not doing research. You had to get the information from some record and if that record had a place, then the place needs to be specified.  

The second issue, lack of specificity, involves lack of sufficient research. One classic example I had some time ago involved a question of identifying a relative who supposedly was born in Indiana in 1740 or thereabouts. The problem is that the ancestor was neither British nor an Indian and the first permanent settlements in the area that later became known as Indiana occurred in the 1770s. The state of Indiana did not exist until 1816. The people looking for their ancestor would have had a very difficult time finding him in any records in Indiana even assuming that both the date and the place were correct, which they weren't. It turned out that the ancestor was more likely born in the area we now call Ohio. The fact of the incongruity of the date and place had never occurred to two generations of researchers. They just copied down the dates and places without thinking what they were saying.

What I say to everyone I help with research is get to know the locations. If you don't know where something is located, look it up. If an ancestor is supposedly identified and there is no specific location associated with the name, that is the end of the line in almost every case.

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