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

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

How To Find Really Obscure Genealogical Sources - Part One

I have had an interesting experience recently. For the past year or so, I have been working with some extremely capable researchers on the FamilySearch Research Wiki Utah Project. The object of the Project is to add content to the Utah pages of the Research Wiki and put that content into a usable format. In the course of working on accumulating this information, I came to appreciate the vast background and experience of the Project volunteers. Many of these people were professionals and worked at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Frequently, they would refer to sources of information I had never imagined existed. These sources were then incorporated into the Research Wiki.

This experience with the Research Wiki is far from unique. I am frequently amazed to find whole categories of genealogically valuable information of which I was previously unaware. For example, I was recently contacted by a researcher who is investigation Arizona National Guard Veterans who participated in World War I. In the course of her research, she has found a previously unknown and very valuable collection of letters and post cards written during the Mexican Border Campaign from 1910 to 1918 prior to World War I. As this research notes, most of the volunteers during that Campaign came from places other than Arizona. She wonders if their descendants would know to look for their ancestors in Arizona cemeteries and for records of the Border Campaign. My Grandfather served in the Border Campaign and I have very little information about his actual service, other than a few photos.

This situation with research about the Border Campaign points up a very valuable lesson about doing genealogical research: the most valuable documents about your ancestors may be extremely obscure and difficult to find. In addition, the documents may turn up while you are researching something only very distantly related to the information you find.

Here is another example. My Great-grandfather, Henry Martin Tanner, left very little personal, autobiographical information. However, his next-door neighbor, John Bushman, kept a detailed personal diary of his daily activities. Portions and extracts from that diary have been published in book format. See Bushman, John, and Derryfield N. Smith. John Bushman: Utah-Arizona Pioneer, 1843-1926. Provo, Utah: John Bushman Family Association, 1975. However, the cataloging information about this book and the other library holdings of various libraries, contain no reference to my Great-grandfather. Notwithstanding this lack of references, I found a copy of the complete, original, hand-written diary in the Kline Library at Northern Arizona University. The diary has dozens (perhaps hundreds) of references to my Great-grandfather. Without looking at the original diary, I would never know that the information was there. Bushman and Tanner were not related, they were neighbors.

In a recent post, I talked about layers of genealogical resources. I am now focusing on some of the deepest and most difficult to locate sources. They are difficult to find because they are not obviously related to your ancestors and there are no superficial indications that the records may contain valuable information. In the case of the Border Campaign Veterans, some of these men had come to Arizona for relief from respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis and may not have left any record of their move to Arizona from other parts of the country and descendants may have no clues that the man served in the Arizona National Guard.

As I have written many times, the basic principle here is to keep looking and widen your search. Stop looking for names and look for information about the family, the area where they lived and the country they lived in. It also helps to look in a variety of repositories; libraries, museums, historical societies, governmental agencies and many others. You just may have to reconstruct the history of an entire county to find your one or more elusive ancestors. Do not rely solely on online sources. You may have to get in the car and drive to where your ancestors were supposed to live and start talking to everyone you can find who might know about the area.

This past May, I taught a very valuable class on breaking down brick walls. I have another series of classes scheduled for Thursdays and Fridays, starting on the 8th of August, during the entire month. I would guess that we will continue to repeat the class as long as people will come. This series of posts is based on the discussions in those classes and my preparation for the classes that are presently scheduled. Stay tuned for further discussion.


  1. Hi James,

    While I have a birthcert. for my Irish-born grandmother (1896), despite best efforts I can find nothing about her parents, both said to have died c1900. Given the plethora of 'Irish roots' entities out there, I don't know what to do. Can you recommend the best Irish site for me to use to pursue this?

    best wishes,


    1. I would suggest starting with the FamilySearch Research Wiki article on Ireland. See
      There are a lot of useful links especially those dealing with immigration.