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

Friday, August 12, 2011

It is both who and what you know

Here is a common scenario, I am at the Family History Center and someone comes in and asks for help. My first questions usually concern what their expectations are. Who are they looking for? What is the location and what is the time period? Commonly, the answers are something like; I am looking for my _______ (fill in the blank) in about _________ (fill in another blank) but we don't know where he was living. This may seem like a pretty standard way to answer my questions, but hidden in this response is violation of the first rule of genealogical research:

Rule No. One: (Not to be violated in any way, shape or form) Work from the known to the unknown.

Here is what I mean by my example. Instead of looking for information about people they do know, the inexperienced researcher almost always tries to find information about people they don't know. Simply put, if you want to know something about my father, you start by gathering everything you can find about me especially if you know me. The prospective researchers, unfortunately, do not want to hear about how they should be looking for information about the ancestor's children or grandchildren and not worry so much about finding the missing ancestor. This brings up the second unalterable rule of genealogical research:

Rule No. Two: Focus on more recent sources and documents before you try to jump back in time.

How many researchers think their work is done as soon as they find the family in the U.S. Census? Too many, that is for sure. By the way, Rule One and Rule Two are really saying the same thing. Let's think about a hypothetical situation. Mr. Brown wants to find his father who he never met or knew. His father abandoned his mother shortly after Brown was born and he has no idea where he went. Oh, yes, his mother is now dead. In this hypothetical case, we will assume that he knows his father's name and that he believes his parents were married. Obviously, there is a whole different issue if the unknown father really is unknown and the parents were never married.

So what does Brown do? He spends all his time searching for the missing father. What should he do if he is following the first two rules? Look for information about his mother; letters, journals, newspaper articles, employment forms, school records etc. Also, he should talk to any surviving relatives about his mother and her family. Where did they live? Where did she go to school? etc. etc. Why would he need to do this? He is more likely to find references to his lost father from his mother's family than from unspecified sources in the public record repositories. The more he knows about his mother, the more likely it will be that he will find information about his lost father.

But this brings up the third rule:

Rule No. Three: Doubt everything. 

Even though Brown takes the time to find out what his living relatives know about his father, he should not believe any of it. However, he should record all of it and try to verify anything that might be significant. So how will he find his father? Likely from some source he never expected to look at or consult. We once found a missing uncle, who had disappeared years before and never contacted his family again, by the simple expedient of looking in the Social Security Death Index and then newspapers. But sometimes the search is not that simple.

The rules for Brown in finding his father are the same no matter what the time period or how remote the ancestor. Don't skip over these basic rules.

1 comment:

  1. What a timely post. I'm looking for my gggrandfather, just like your Brown scenario. He was with my family (his wife) maybe a year, so I don't know if they knew him enough for their records to help, but it wouldn't hurt to try.