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

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Look at the documents -- you might be surprised at what you find

Many newly-minted genealogists (and a substantial number of old timers) click away online adding documents as sources without ever thinking about the stories and research leads they are missing. Oh, I just found another U.S. Census record. Click. Click. It is now attached to my ancestor. The End. Only this is not the end. It is just the beginning. You have to give the document a chance to talk to you and tell you its story. To illustrate the need to examine each document and think about it content and the implications of that content, I thought it would be interesting to work through a few documents and see what kinds of questions, suggestions and stories they might tell.

Of course, for this illustration, I am going to use documents I have had attached to my ancestors for a long time. But the principles involved are the same. Perhaps you might find that some of the documents you have had sitting around for a while have been neglected. These principles get more relevant as you get closer and closer to an end-of-line situation.

Let's suppose that I was just starting out learning about my Great-grandfather, Henry Martin Tanner. This is quite a leap because I have more documentation about him and his family than any other family other than my own immediate one, but by using his documents I can show a chain of discovery and demonstrate how this works.

Here is a sort of random place to start; a U.S. Census Record for 1900. Remember, I am pretending I am learning about this person for the first time.

This particular document came from's Historical Record Collection. The first thing that comes to mind is that the summary given by FamilySearch is missing some very important information I can only get by looking at the document. Here is a screenshot of the Summary Page:

I wonder how many researchers look at this summary information and stop there without going on to examine the original document closely? In this case, I go on to look at the original document and find there are some interesting additions, not included in the summary. Here is the U.S. Census document again with the interesting information highlighted:

If you are going to work with historical records, you should know a little bit (perhaps a lot) about how the records are recorded and what to look for in the record. Now, in this record, I find an entry for an "Emma Tanner" and children living right next door to Henry and his wife Eliza. Who is Emma? I told you I am pretending I am doing this research for the first time. But this is what I would do with any newly discovered record. That is, ask questions. My next inclination would be to pursue this into additional years of the U.S. Census records. There are plenty of other possibilities, but since I am already using, I see no reason to jump around. So I go to the 1910 and 1920 U.S. Censuses to see if there is anything they might add to help answer the question. I use the Search Records link from Henry's Detail Page I created in FamilySearch Family Tree to pursue my research.

Here is the 1910 U.S. Census Record:

I don't suppose you can see from this image, but Emma Tanner is now listed in the household of Henry Martin Tanner but the designation of her relationship to the head of the household is blank. The plot thickens. I move on to the 1920 U.S. Census record:

Here is the answer. If I had stopped with the 1900 U.S. Census or if I had not followed up by asking a question, I might have missed this entry. Both Eliza and Emma are listed as wives of Henry Martin Tanner. Well, of course, this raises a whole book full of questions. In fact, it opens up a huge area of cultural and social history. If I were totally new to this business, I would likely think this was a mistake. But I would be wrong. Ignorance is no excuse here. How many other records have you and I looked at without spending the time to address what seemed to be anomalies? Where do I go to answer the question raised by this series of U.S. Census records? Do I really try to answer the question or do I just assume it is a mistake and move on with my "research" adding additional sources?

Remember, this question arose from examining a U.S. Census record and finding an "Emma Tanner" right next door to Henry. Now, from my perspective, this issue is really simple. But what if I run into this kind of question in a country or with a culture or time in history I am not familiar with? By the way, it happens all the time while I am helping people do some research. Nearly all of them are surprised when I stop to look at maps, dig up a history book or try to analyze what is happening from the record. My point is simple. If you are coming to genealogy without any of this background knowledge, you better start picking it up now or you will soon be lost and probably thinking you have a brick wall or even worse, you may be research up the wrong family tree.


  1. This is what is good about filing in stages. First all dics go in one place. Then months later you look at them again and sort them into categories. Then more months later, you go through them again and put them where they belong.
    Each time you look at a document, you may see things you didn't see before or didn't have enough information to recognize.
    That's how I worked with paper. Now that docs are largely electronic, that style is less intuitive, but still useful.

    1. Sounds like a good suggestion to me. I like to go back and look at documents occasionally just to see what's new.

  2. I looked at an old document last night and read past the names of my direct ancestors. Found three more people with same surname from same village - could be a coincidence but more likely cousins - I'll be following it up.

  3. Another excellent list James. the temptation with digital records, much as we love them, is to flit like a butterfly from one to the other. One of the big advantages of pre-internet knowledge is looking more widely whether maps or books, or just the pages either side of "the find". Thanks

  4. Look and then look again. Sometimes it's months or years later that we get back to a particular family or set of records. Looking at them again is nearly always useful. As we gain more knowledge and more history of our families we see things we didn't "see" before. I also wrote a post about this just a few days ago James. I'll post that link here, but if you want to remove it, then let me know and I will repost my comment without the link.

    1. I never mind posting links to blogs. I don't usually post links that are merely ads. Thanks for the link.