In order to make any progress in doing genealogical research, you need to be able to ask pertinent questions. You must examine what you already know and determine what you need to answer about your ancestors, recognizing that the information you need to answer your questions may be lurking somewhere in an historical document or record.
Remember that the terms, document, record, source, collections, etc. are slippery. Their usage by the greater genealogical community varies by the context of the reference to the terms and any distinctions are specific to the entity or person using the terms. For example, a collection on the FamilySearch.org Historical Record Collections, means something significantly different than the same word applied to a "collection" on Ancestry.com.
I will begin here by examining a quasi-hypothetical question and how it was answered. I use the term quasi-hypothetical because the question was real at one time, but now has been resolved through some rather simple research. I have used this example several times in my writing, but it is useful here again because it illustrates the concept of asking questions. Here is what was recorded in countless family trees and even in family surname books about my Great-grandfather, Henry Martin Tanner.
Henry Martin Tanner, b. 11 June 1852, San Bernardino, San Bernardino, California, d. 21 March, Gilbert, Maricopa, Arizona.
Now, this is not obvious, but I had a question about where he was born. Although the date of his birth is recorded and I had no reason to doubt the date, none of the various family trees, family group records or books referring to his birth date included any documentation. Perhaps there was no documentation of his birth, but the lack of documentation was a red flag to me that the information needed to be verified. The questions could be formulated as follows:
Where was Henry Martin Tanner born? When was he born?
Why would I doubt all the hundreds of entries I observed showing that he was born in San Bernardino, San Bernardino, California? Here is an example of a current entry in a current family tree on Ancestry.com.
From my point of view, the idea here is rather simply explained: any assertion without a supporting source is subject to question.
Why was this an issue? Where would I go to find a birth record for Henry Martin Tanner in the 1850s in California? Where would the records be kept? See, more questions to answer. Genealogical research is the process of answering these types of questions.
My first impulse is to determine whether or not the geographic locations in the record were accurately reported. For this, I went to the Newberry Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. Very quickly, I found the timeline for San Bernardino County:
You can see, San Bernardino County was not created until 26 April 1853. It was created from Los Angeles County. The correct entry for Henry Martin Tanner should be as follows:
Henry Martin Tanner, b. 11 June 1852, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, California, d. 21 March, Gilbert, Maricopa, Arizona.
I next needed to determine how and where to find early Los Angeles County records. I soon found that the earliest birth records in Los Angeles County were from about 1866. Early church records kept by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reflected a birth in San Bernardino.
How did I know where to look? That is one of the things I will talk about in the next installment.
Previous installments of this series include: