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

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Scottish Independence and Genealogy

On 18 September 2014 there is a national referendum scheduled on the question of whether Scotland should be an independent country. The outcome of this referendum will have a profound effect on genealogical research no matter whether the results are independence or remaining a part of the United Kingdom. To understand this issue you only need to ask some seemingly simple questions: where are the records from the American colonies located prior to 1776? Where are the records for Mexico located prior to 1821? Of course, the questions could go on into more detail such as where are the records for Arizona located prior to 1848? (Beware, this is a trick question).

The common theme of each of these and endless other questions is the change in political boundaries and governments that end up changing the way genealogically important records are maintained or changing the location where they are maintained and/or archived. These changes may be as simple as the annexation of an area by a city or municipality or a boundary change in a county or as complex as a multi-year revolutionary war. In every case, the change in the jurisdiction results in some adjustment, either major or minor, to the stream of records.

In the extreme case, boundary change and changes in political jurisdictions result in the destruction of records. The new jurisdiction wants to "erase" any evidence of the old one. But in most cases, the records are moved and not lost, although the movement itself may result in the loss of the records when the record of the movement is not "remembered" by either the old or new jurisdiction.

Even though these types of changes are extremely common, most genealogists I work with seem to be oblivious to the history involved in locations where their particular ancestors lived. For example, while teaching a class on research, when I mention the location of a simple way to determine the changes in U.S. county borders starting in 1620 long before independence, most of the class is surprised that there is a free website with all this information. (This is a test. Can you name the website without me telling you? If not, you have likely made some major mistakes in assigning counties to events in your ancestors' lives). Clue: I have put the URL to the website at the bottom of this post. The link is the word "Counties."

My experience in helping genealogical researchers find their ancestors when they reach a "brick wall" has shown that the vast majority of these brick wall situations are caused by looking for records in the wrong place. Here is a series questions to ask yourself about all of your research:

  • When did an event in the life of my ancestor occur?
  • How accurate is the date of the event?
  • How did I determine the date of the event?
  • Exactly where did the event occur?
  • How did I determine the location of the event?
  • What were all of the political entities with jurisdiction over the location of the event at the time the event occurred?
  • What records could have been kept by each of those political entities?
  • What social, business, military or other types of entities may have existed in the area of the event at the time the event occurred?
  • Have I identified every possible type of document that could have been maintained for the time and place of each event?

An so forth. OK, the clue is Counties.

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