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

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Outer Limits of Genealogy

Where does it all end? When can I say I have finished my genealogy? Is this even a realistic question to ask? Well the actual time frame depends on what country your ancestors came from. But in every jurisdiction, every city, county, province, district, township, parish, ward, diocese and every other record keeping jurisdiction on the earth, there was a beginning to the record keeping. Even oral traditions go back to an originator. Even the Bible goes back to Adam. Every record starts somewhere and even if you entirely ignore historicity and plausibility, you still run out of records at some time in the past.

This post came about as a result of a date and place for one of my ancestors in My ancestor, John Tanner, was born on 15 August 1778 in Hopkinton, Washington, Rhode Island. I have a source for this date and place in the form of an original town record written by his uncle, the town clerk. OK, so what's the problem. In someone who contributed information entered the date and place of about 1788 in Cottonwood, Salt Lake, Utah. In the contact or contributor name for this entry is FamilySearch. By the way, he died on 13 April 1850 in South Cottonwood.

Now here is the issue. The first permanent European settlers in what is now Utah arrived in 1847. John Tanner himself arrived in Utah with the Willard Richards Company in 1848 at the age of 69 years. See Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel, 1847 -1868. Now, this information is fairly easy to obtain. But the underlying principle is that there is a limit to the availability of written records for any jurisdiction or location. Utah's limit is 1847. Other states have other limits. Massachusetts dates back to 1620. This is not to say that any of your ancestors might date back to the time limit for any jurisdiction in the United States, you may be an immigrant and so your U.S. records will only date back to the date of your arrival in the U.S.

The record limit is a historical fact that cannot be exceeded, sort of like the speed of light for physics.

Before you start delving into genealogy, it might be a good idea to have some general idea of the history and dates associated with the places you investigate. If your ancestor was born in the United States, it is a relatively easy task to determine the date the first records were kept in any particular area or jurisdiction. The dates can be easily located online and are recorded in two reference books

Everton, George B. The Handybook for Genealogists: United States of America. Draper, Utah: Everton Publishers, 2002.


Eichholz, Alice. Redbook: American State, County & Town Sources. Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2004. 

The Redbook is online for free from in the Family History Wiki.

Apparently ease of investigation is not an issue with some researchers, they don't want to take even the barest minimum of effort to verify their dates and places. You notice I keep using the word "easy." Now, you might say, what is easy for you is not easy for someone else. Just because you (me) are so smart to know that the pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 doesn't mean that is easy for some one else. Cut them some slack. Let's remember that not everyone has been doing genealogy for 30 years and so on and so forth.

You will notice who I said was listed as the contributor for the information about John Tanner?

Back to the idea of limits. Is there an end to genealogy? Theoretically, yes. At any time in your searches, you may reach the end of a given record type. For example, statewide registration of vital records in Arizona only began in 1909. Have you ever found yourself searching beyond the limit? Good question to ask. Always try to determine the time limit of the particular records you are searching before you start.


  1. Hi James, very nice info about Genealogy
    Thank you

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  2. LOL - that's a hoot (in a frustrating sort of way). When I was reading, I had to pause and re-read where you listed the "information" listed and the dates. It made me giggle a little bit.

  3. James, you noted that "In the contact or contributor name for this entry is FamilySearch." This probably indicates it was ponged into New.FamilySearch from some submitter's item in IGI. None of those entries were verified in any way: no quick check against sources (much less evidence) indexed ~on the internet~, no comparison between date and place for logic, no verification that given place-names ever existed at all.

    Much (perhaps most) of such IGI entries also have been ponged into FamilySearch-Family Tree, including duplicate entries for same-persons that can number in the scores, depending on how many more-or-less duplicate submitter entries were added to the old IGI.

    Thus FamilySearch-Family Tree repeats all of the old errors, even when some actual researcher added corrections to some version of an individual in n.FS. Such corrections do not make the old wrongnesses disappear from the databases. Instead, FamilySearch-Family Tree is a composite of persons from n.FS (including the combined and linked persons), mistakes added to n.FS since when it was compiled, *and* the old wrong stuff.