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

Friday, January 13, 2012

The missing piece

Over the years I have done a lot of jigsaw puzzles. The really challenging ones have at least 1000 pieces and have very plain scenes with little detail or contrast. There always seems to be one or more pieces that defy discovery. There are several techniques I have developed to narrow down the possible choices, but sometimes I am reduced to simply picking up each remaining piece in succession and trying it in the empty space.

In thinking about this last night, I realized that I use the same tactic to solve some kinds of genealogy problems. Here are the steps in resolving the jigsaw puzzles as they apply to genealogy:

1. Study the entire scene first, before you begin and note any unusual details. At this point, I am tying to see how the picture works. I compare this step to looking at the larger picture of my family. Where did the generally come from? How did I come to live where I was born? Too many would-be genealogists jump right in and start looking for a particular pieces of the puzzle before they know what the picture shows. They just might find something by chance, but shortly the job becomes very frustrating.

2. Look for the straight edges and unusual details in the picture.  I look for the distinctive straight edge pieces that help frame the picture. This is sometimes called gathering the low lying fruit. Filling in all those people in the pedigree that are easily found. Sometimes, all of this work has been done for us by other members of the family. But occasionally, their work is not helpful because they started out in the wrong direction. You may have to dump their work back in the box, figuratively speaking, and start over to get the whole picture.

3. Take advantage of obvious relationships. Once I know the whole picture, I might find a striking detail (like a well documented ancestor). It is tempting to work on that portion of the puzzle and ignore the rest for a while. I usually end up with unconnected blocks of the scene floating out in the middle of the unfinished puzzle. If I have taken the step to know the whole picture, I can guess where the floating piece lies, but I am often surprised when I find the ultimate connection to the rest of the puzzle. In genealogy, it is easy to get distracted by the outstanding or obvious at the expense of the details that connect everything together.

4. Always go back to the straight edge frame. It may seem tedious or lack reward at first, but working on the whole frame always makes the rest of the puzzle easier in the end. In genealogy, you have to keep thinking about the big picture. If you lose sight of the relationships your family has to history, geography and society in general, you will ultimately take more time and be more frustrated in your work. This step in doing a jigsaw puzzle is where the puzzle sometimes lies around unfinished for days or even months. It just seems too hard to continue.

5. Don't focus on the hole, focus on the surrounding pieces. It is really easy to get caught up looking at the holes in the unfinished puzzle. Each piece has a unique pattern and shape (although the shapes may appear very, very similar) I need to continually go back through all the available pieces and see if I now find one that might be a candidate for the empty hole. The same thing happens in genealogy, you need to keep the entire picture in mind and review all of the possibilities every time you have a difficult-to-find ancestor. I always suggest moving back one or two steps, instead of looking for the remote ancestor, look for his children or grandchildren.

Have you ever watched a young child learn how to do puzzles? They never seem to get the idea that there is a picture there in the box of pieces and they will randomly try pieces hoping to find the right one. Sometimes the child will have the right piece but not realize that it needs to be rotated or turned over right-side up to fit. I get the same impression helping researchers in genealogy. They have the answer in their own data, but don't know how to put it together into the picture. Usually, because they are ignoring the overall relationships of the family.

6. Don't forget the brute force method of solving the missing piece.  In the end, I am often reduced to picking up every remaining piece and trying it out to see if it fits. The exact same thing may happen in genealogy. You may have to extract every possible person in a whole geographic area and see where your ancestor fits. How many times have you looked at the entire census record for a county or city, name by name? You might just have to use brute force to find the right person.

I admit, the analogy isn't perfect, but I suggest that you might just use some of the other problem solving techniques you have used in other areas to solve your genealogical challenges.


  1. Good thoughts here (though I confess I'm a great fan of the brute force method myself)!

  2. I've often used the jigsaw puzzle analogy to describe genealogy (but not as well). My theory is that there ARE no straight edges in genealogy. Each time you finally find the surname of a spouse, now you have his or her parents to find! The puzzle just grows larger.

    Great post with a memorable way to remember the research steps. Thanks!