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

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Places, Names and Dates -- What is the task of the Genealogist?

This week, I had the classic and very typical genealogical question posed to me several times. In fact, the questions were so similar that I was starting to think that they had been pre-recorded for playback to me at the Mesa FamilySearch Library. I am thinking of having this question printed up with blanks to fill in and then distributed so people can save the time it takes to tell me. All they have to do is hand me the card with the printed question with the blanks filled in and I can start in with my memorized response. Come to think of it, I could save a lot of time by just pre-printing the response, so then when they came in and handed me the standard question on a card, I could hand them the standard answer on another, slightly larger, card.

What is the question? Here is the generalized version. The optional words are in italics:
I am looking for (name or description of ancestor), I (alternate choices: our family, my aunt etc.) have been looking (searching, researching etc.) this ancestor for (years, a very long time etc.) without success and (I, we, they etc.) have looked everywhere. Can you help me?

The difficulty of the form is, of course, making the verbs agree in number and the rest of the words agree in gender, but that is a minor difficulty and can be addressed in future revisions of the standard question.

Apologies to those who have attended my classes in the past when I have used this as an example, but hearing this question several times this week got me going on the subject again.

So, what is my response? In reality, the responses are anything but standard. Every question is unique and there is no "standard" answer, but there is a standard response. I begin by asking the following questions:

Who is the person you are seeking? 
This is a more complex question than you might expect. The purpose of asking this question includes both finding out what the researcher already knows about the ancestor and what the researcher knows generally about the ancestors that link back to the one sought. In many cases, I find that the researcher really has no idea about either the target ancestor or that ancestor's descendants. Depending on the answer to this question, I can determine where the research needs to start.

What time period are we talking about?
Clearly, depending on whether we are talking about someone who lived in the 20th Century or the 15th Century, makes a huge difference in the type of research necessary to find that ancestor.

Where did at least one of the ancestor's life events occur?
Of all the questions I ask, this is the most important. Since generally, genealogically important records are created in different jurisdictions depending on the location of events, the actual, specific locations of the events in an ancestor's life are crucial to finding any information about the ancestors.

If there are responses that are less than helpful, answers to the third question are the most important. Until a concrete and accurate place is identified for at least one event in the ancestor's life, there is no use in doing general non-directed research. Doing not directed research is similar to shooting into the ocean and hoping you will hit a fish. It is possible, but not likely. The most obvious reason for my concern is that people can have the same or very similar names and can also have similar dates, but it is less frequent that all three, name, dates and places, all are the same for different people even those with similar names.

Unfortunately, when the researcher has no idea about the location of any particular event associated with the target ancestor, I have to tell them that until they do more research on that ancestor's family and particularly descendants, there is very little I can do to help them move back in time.

The task of the genealogist can be reduced to this: identify and document with appropriate sources his or her ancestors. Of this process, identifying the exact place of each event is crucial to making any progress. So, if you come to me for help, you can expect to have me review the same standard responses.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, finding the place they lived is the key. Looked for my husband's gr-gr-grandfather for years. Baden, Germany is a big place. Noted a person on a state census that I thought could be a relation. Traced that person, his family and their spouse's families. Finally found an obit that had a village name in Baden to narrow, and finally found his gr-gr-grandfather's birth record in a neighboring village.