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

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Comments on Becoming an Excellent Genealogist -- Chapter Ten

This is an ongoing series of chapter by chapter comments on the book,

Meyerink, Kory L., Tristan Tolman, and Linda K. Gulbrandsen. Becoming an Excellent Genealogist: Essays on Professional Research Skills. [Salt Lake City, Utah]: ICAPGen, 2012.

I am now commenting on Chapter Ten: Big City Research by James W. Petty, AG, CG.

The idea that there are different methodologies or as Petty expands that term into research patterns is very appealing. He takes the position that researching in big cities is different than "traditional genealogy methods." I am not sure what this means and I am further not sure what is meant by traditional genealogy methods in this context. After reviewing the entire article, I am puzzled as to why "big cities" is a category different from research anywhere else in the United States? It seems to me that the methodologies outlined by Petty apply to every part of the country. Each part of the country has it own distinctive types of records. To me, the main issue with research methodologies is apply a common analytical process to the records available no matter what the location. I would certainly not characterize the research in rural areas as "relatively simple" when comparing the methodologies to those used in any other part of the United States. Petty seems to make this distinction based on the criteria of the size of the population and the number of records. My experience is that finding a family in a big city is usually easier than tracking a family through rural areas.

From my own experience, very few of the sources outlined in the chapter apply solely to big cities. I would suggest that traditional genealogical research includes research methods that can apply just as well to big cities as they can to rural areas of the country. For example, Petty mentions some records such as port of entry and shipping records that apply only to those cities that are sea ports. The U.S. has huge cities such as Phoenix (mentioned in the article), Atlanta, Chicago and others that never acted as ports of entry. In many instances, the differences between large cities in the U.S., when you consider the types of records available, are greater than the differences between the large Eastern U.
S. cities and those in their surrounding area. Boston is a large city, but the records in Boston are similar to those in other smaller communities in Massachusetts and are, in some cases, dramatically different than those in Phoenix or Los Angeles.

One example of this type of difference is that Arizona is a community property state. The land, marriage and other laws in Arizona are derived from Civil Law sources, primarily because of our Hispanic heritage. The community property states are Louisiana, Arizona, California, Texas. Washington, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin. Obviously, Wisconsin is not a community property state because of its Hispanic heritage. However, the law in these nine states concerning property ownership, marriage, divorce, probate and inheritance is substantially different than those same laws in the other 41 states. I view this type of variation much more important than the differences in research due simply to increased population. Now, if you are reading about community property law in the United States for the first time, perhaps you need to realize that the location of your ancestors is important.

One very astute observation made in the chapter is made in the context of outlining the use of City Directories for research. I might note that City Directories are available for many smaller cities and towns throughout the U.S. and are not unique to big cities. Here is the quote from page 99:
For a genealogist, these details in a city [referring to directories] is of immense importance, because every place of social interaction created records, and having the means to graphically identify where a person lived in relation to churches, cemeteries, schools, businesses, hospitals, and other facilities provides tremendous opportunities for successful research. 
I would say exactly the same thing about any other location in the United States. I do not think big cities are different, in this way, from any other place in the country. Every level of research in the U.S. and around the world will benefit from an emphasis on determining the exact location where an ancestral family lived, whether it be an apartment in a city or a farm in the country. The importance of determining location is the same regardless of the number of records or the number of people that live in the area. Big cities do present some unique challenges, primarily due to understanding where the records are located and how to obtain access; the article outlines some of those challenges, but my opinion is that the basic methodology for finding ancestors does not change with the number of people or records. It is always based entirely on finding the location and then identifying the available records.


  1. When I try to access older comments, Google tells me that my credentials aren't good enough for that. Are they private?

    1. I have no idea what that error message means. Anyone else have an idea?