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

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Chaos and Genealogy -- How Accurate Can We Be?

Chaos is a state of complete disorder and confusion. However, recently we have begun to understand that chaotic systems are merely organized in a way that we are just now beginning to discover. Sometimes when we are researching genealogical records we start thinking they are chaotic. Usually, this just means we do not appreciate or perhaps understand the underlying system of organization. Some of us feel like the conglomeration of online family trees has become chaotic. Our inability to see the patterns in genealogical data come from looking at discrete facts rather than backing away to get the whole picture.

Very recently, I was asked a question about finding the marriage license for a couple married in 1940 in Arkansas. Of course, we could search Arkansas marriage records. But we probably need more information before we start blindly looking for a marriage record. It might be helpful to know that in the United States, marriage records are primarily maintained on the county level, so even though we might find the record in a record for the entire state, it would more likely that such a record would be associated with the county. The county in question was Lonoke. A quick look at the Research Wiki shows that that marriage records have been kept in that county since 1873.

Next, to check the availability of the records, I would go to the Catalog. Here is the list of records. has the following marriage records:

It turns out that both collections of records are digitized and online in the Historical Record Collections.

But what happens if I don't find them in a search of these records? If I shoot an arrow and it goes past the target. I have a search situation. When I go to look for the arrow, I know for a certainty that the arrow exists. I also know some of the parameters of the search. For example, from my experience, I can estimate the speed of the arrow and the direction and distance it may have traveled. I know if I keep looking that I will probably find the arrow. But I did not always find every arrow. Sometimes the arrows were in totally unexpected places when found. Finding the arrows seemed to be an easy task but became very complicated. When we are searching for genealogical information, we commonly assume we know what we are searching for. The basic problem is that our assumptions may be wrong. There is an old computer adage that says "garbage in = garbage out." If we make invalid or incorrect assumptions at the onset of any search, then the search will not produce the results anticipated.

In looking for the marriage record in my example above, we have a number of different possibilities.
  • We have the wrong couple or the wrong names.
  • We have the wrong date for a search.
  • The couple never got married, even if they lived as husband and wife.
  • The couple got married using names other than those we have recorded.
  • The couple got married outside of the county (perhaps due to a Gretna Green issue)
  • The marriage record was somehow lost or mis-filed.
  • The record was moved to another location and we are searching in the wrong place.
There are likely quite a few other possibilities. Some of these possibilities are more common than others. Some of them are highly unlikely but still possible. In this type of situation it is easy to conclude that the record does not exist and to stop looking. It is also an option, taken by many genealogists, to estimate the year of the marriage and leave it at that. But if we think about the time period, 1940, estimating a date that should be verifiable, seems like you are avoiding the issue rather than conducting research.

This is where many researchers start believing in chaos. But realistically, at this point in a research procedure, you have barely begun to review the possible records. We need to know a lot more about the couple and about their lives before we conclude that there is no record of their marriage. But there is always another side to this issue; the marriage record may not exist. Concluding that the record does not exist can be as disrupting to continued research as its opposite, concluding that you need to keep searching again and again for the same record. A record of an event many not exist in the form and recorded at the time we envision it to happen. Just as my arrows were sometimes a long distance from where I imagined them to be, records are slippery and may have moved or been transformed.

It may seem simplistic, but looking for any record at all about an ancestor or relative will always be easier than looking for a specific record about a specific event. Let's suppose that we are looking for an ancestor in the 1700s. Before we spend an inordinate amount of time looking for say a death record, it might be helpful to know how and where death records were kept at the time and place in question. In practice, we may never find a specific death record, but at the same time we must conclude (absent the supernatural) that the person did die. As we accumulate records about the individual, his or her family and all the surrounding families, the exact date of death may become less and less of an issue. Hammering away at finding one date is mostly counterproductive.

In the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number and availability of records of all kinds. This situation makes it easy to assume that we have all the records necessary to establish every ancestral event we can imagine. My experience is that we have far more records to search than we have the time and inclination search. So we need to focus on the core issue of searching, that is to identify the places where events occurred before spending time searching for records of those events.

I used to practice shooting arrows in my backyard. Like most homes in the Southwest, we had a 6 foot block wall around our property. Often, the arrows would go over the fence so I could not see where they landed. Fortunately, there was a vacant lot of some considerable size on the other side of the wall. Because I knew that the arrows were most likely in the vacant lot, I could focus my search on the most likely landing areas. Had I not known where the arrows were likely to be, I would never have found them. This is same situation we find ourselves in with genealogical records, the location is paramount in determining whether or not our searches will be successful. Here is an example of a "lost cause" situation for searching for an individual:

This is supposed to be his son:

Looking for more specific information about the father would be hopeless. This is especially true when we realize that his son was supposedly born in Huntingdonshire, quite a distance to the north of London. We are left with a question as to why a person in the 1600s who was supposedly born in London had a son born 85 miles away in a very, small farming community called Great Raveley. In this situation, it is imperative that we search for a parent in Huntingdonshire, rather than assume that the information we have is correct. Why did the parents wait for about six years to have their son christened in London and why did this person die in Huntingdonshire?

This is a clear example of a failure to identify the place where the events occurred. This also is a good example of why we might begin to belief in chaos.

No comments:

Post a Comment