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

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Avoiding Genealogical Search Frustration

When I was a whole lot younger than I am now, I used to practice archery from time to time. One of the things that happened frequently was that I would lose an arrow over the block wall in our yard. I would then spend quite a bit of time looking for my lost arrow. I learned that the lost arrow was always further away than I thought it might be and that it was always harder to find than I expected. I learned to look for the pattern of the arrow.

When I grew older and went to the University of Utah, I worked as a bibliographer in the University Library. My job, for about four years, was to find books ordered by professors using the information they provided which, of course, was almost always invariably wrong or incomplete. We had to verify the name, author and publication information of the books and publications. I spent hundreds of hours searching through the card catalog, Books in Print, the Library of Congress Catalog, the British Museum Catalog and hundreds of other reference books. This was way before and computers, but it taught me how to search even when the information given was spotty or wrong.

These same lessons, and many others, now carry over to genealogy. The first lesson is patience. Always assume what you are looking for is there if you just keep looking a little while longer. Lost arrows do not just disappear despite how much you would like to believe. The same goes for ancestors, they do not just disappear no matter what the appearances from the information you are given. I am sure that every one reading this post will disagree and could give me an example of an ancestor that just "disappeared" from the record. I admit that there are some people that seem to disappear. I had one ancestor who lived in California who did just that until I found him listed as a prisoner in one of the California State Prisons. When was the last time you searched prison records?

Here are some rules for searching that can help you avoid frustration:

Rule No. 1: Always assume what you are looking for is there.

The reality of genealogy is that you always have one more generation of ancestors. People do not just pop into existence from no where. They always had a mother and a father. Just because you can't find them has no bearing on the fact of their actual existence.

Rule No. 2: Always assume that the record you are searching has the information you want. 

Indexes may be deficient or wrong. Names may have been misspelled into oblivion but the people were likely there. You may have to look at every single entry in the record to find them but they are there and you need to keep looking.

Rule No. 3: Always, always move from the known to the unknown; never start looking for the unknown until you know all about the known.

Many people will see a blank spot on their pedigree chart and immediately start looking for that ancestor without verifying the information that produced the blank. Always completely verify the information about the family members that leads up to the blank. Carefully research the known records before moving on to the unknown. You may just find that the information you had about the closer ancestor is entirely wrong.

Rule No. 4: Look for patterns.

If your ancestor has a common name, find someone in the family with a name that is not common. If all the names are common, look at the pattern of the family, i.e. a husband with a certain name married to a wife of a certain name with a child or children of certain names. Keep looking.

Rule No. 5: Keep a Research Log.

When the the search gets really tough, the tough keep a research log. Make sure you have searched all the records and written down when and where you searched and the results. Keep from going in research circles.

Rule No. 6: Assume there are more records.

If you get to a place where the records you know about have no information, then start searching for records rather than people. Read the history of the area and learn all you can about the people who lived there. Widen you search to surrounding towns, cities, counties or districts. Become the expert in the area where your ancestors lived.

Rule No. 7: Start over.

Question all your assumptions and start over. With a fresh start, you may just discover that the arrow didn't go over the wall at all. People do change their names, they do die, they do get divorces. Husbands do abandon their families. Wives do run off. Take into account all possibilities and start over.

Rule No. 8: Open your mind to the endless possibilities of family life.

It was not uncommon for families to be other than conventional. Maybe the children were raised by the grandparents or another relative. Maybe they all died in the Flu Epidemic. There are countless possibilites, think this through and never give up.

Rule No. 9: Records move.

Don't assume that records stayed in the same place. Commonly, local records may have moved to the state or into a private repository such as an historical society. Always search on a national, state or province or district, county and local level for your information.

Rule No. 10: Don't believe your relatives.

Family stories are just that; stories. Don't believe what you hear until you can verify that the information is correct.

I could go on, of course, but that is enough for right now. Don't get so wrapped up in computers that you forget microfilm and paper records. Go to the records.


  1. Excellent advice, but do take note of the family stories, I have found yes they were untrue as I have disproved stories about our great grant mother but I found that it was true about her grand mother which was great because it all then made sense

  2. Thanks for the reminder that records exist - just a matter of making sure to look for what is known & go from there! Thanks!