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

Monday, November 4, 2013

Finding all the pieces to the puzzle

It would be really nice if all you had to do was plug your family name into a big database and you would get back a fully sourced 5 generation pedigree. But even the largest libraries and online databases only seem to have half of the box or less of the 5000 piece puzzle and they leave it up to the researcher to guess the rest. Sometimes it looks as though all of the pieces of the puzzle are the same color.

After spending a week helping researchers in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, I can very safely say that the library has a huge amount of information, but not everything. It is also fairly easy to show the limits of or any other online program. The fact that millions of new records go online every week graphically illustrates the fact that no all of the important genealogical resources are online.

All this got me thinking that maybe some of the tactics I use to do huge jigsaw puzzles might apply to genealogy. After some further thought, I think they do. No matter what you are searching for some of the same tactics apply. But are there similarities between research and just searching? I think there are a lot of parallels between the two activities.

If you have never done a really big jigsaw puzzle, such as one with 5000 pieces or more, you probably don't know what I am talking about. There is a level at which you have to mount a campaign to solve huge puzzles, they don't succumb to the casual search-through-all-the-pieces strategy of the puzzles with fewer pieces. This is especially true of a puzzle with a very light or faint pattern or even one with no pattern at all, then you are dependent entirely on the shape of the pieces.

Easy genealogy is like looking for all of the pieces with a straight edge. This is mostly easy and goes faster than the rest of the puzzle. This works even when the straight edged pieces are only straight on a tiny portion of the piece. These are my steps for solving a huge jigsaw puzzle with comments on the similarities to genealogical research.
  1. Look at the picture on the box carefully and note any small variations or strong patterns in the puzzle. This is the same as the survey step in genealogy. You look to see what you already have before you begin to solve the puzzle. 
  2. Lay all the pieces out on a table or other large area and look them over to see if there are any "easy" pieces, such as the edges. This is the same as gathering all the genealogical low-hanging fruit or gathering in the information that is easily obtained about near ancestors. 
  3. Start sorting the pieces by size, shape or coloring pattern, assuming there is one. After your preliminary survey, you begin the process of winnowing out the people who do not fit into your pedigree or any of the families at all. 
  4. Start picking up a piece at a time and see if you can figure out where it goes. This is analogous to starting your research into source records to see if you can find potential candidates for entry into your family tree. 
  5. As you get some pieces into the puzzle, try and match the rest to the pattern. Just as I find myself looking for a puzzle piece with a special pattern or different edge, I find myself looking for ancestors with some distinguishing characteristic; an uncommon name or something else that helps to tell me I have found the right person. 
  6. As the puzzle begins to fall into place, sometimes I spend a huge amount of time on one piece and never seem to find it until the puzzle is more complete. This is a good example of using other members of the family or even neighbors and distant relatives to find an elusive ancestor. Sometimes you can't see the ancestor, no matter what. But then after finding other pieces the missing one becomes obvious.
Well, I could carry on this analogy for some more steps, but I think it begins to get a little more far-fetched than it already is. But I do think genealogy is about solving puzzles, they just aren't as confined as any 2 dimensional jigsaw puzzle. 


  1. Glad to see that James Tanner has utilized my post of Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010 titled The Picture on The Box @ to help his writing above

  2. Glad to see you have used my post of Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010 titled "The Picture on The Box" @ I tried to place this comment before but said had to be approved? This is a second try.

  3. Mr.Jones, Genealogists have been using the 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle analogy for years. I myself have used it for at least 20 years when telling newbies how to hunt down elusive family members. I've never seen you blog, but I did look at the "The Picture on The Box" Good to get the word out on the method. Not sure who invented the method 1st but it's a good one.

    1. So glad to see we share similar concepts....have been tree climbing and puzzle working now more than 50 years. My first 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle was done 1959...and published first family newsletter in 1989...not many folks back then climbing trees.