In a previous blog post, I focused on the idea of searching in the large online genealogy database programs using a rather complete entry. But what happens when the details about the person we are searching for are missing or scanty? That presents another more troublesome aspect of genealogical research: finding the information when you are not sure what documents might contain those records.
I recently spoke with the patron of the BYU Family History Library. She was getting back into genealogical research after a long absence and was asking for some direction as to areas she might pursue. The main issue was that she did not know what she did not know. She started asking about doing some research for missing German ancestors in the early 1800s. We were looking at the FamilySearch.org Family Tree and found that a considerable amount of research it been done on one German line. Her approach was similar to that of many others, i.e. looking at a fan chart and choosing to research a missing ancestor without knowing anything about the connection between the present and the past.
A basic component of genealogical research is moving from the known to the unknown. Obviously, this methodology implies that you know something. In the case of my patron of the BYU Family History Library, she had no knowledge whatsoever of the individuals, their history, the geography of Europe, or any other subject that would assist in doing research into German-speaking people. There is really no difference between this patron and anyone who starts to do research beginning with an entry in a genealogical database program that has little or no data.
It is axiomatic that a family tree is a network of interrelated individuals. Starting with you or me, we did not spring into existence out of nothing. The more we know about the events that occurred in our own lives the easier it will be to determine who our parents are. Likewise, extensive knowledge about her parents will lead to our grandparents. This concept is fundamental. Here is a quote from the Bible in Luke 15:8:
8 ¶ Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?This is a perfect metaphor for genealogical research. First of all, the woman has 10 pieces of silver. From our standpoint, we have known relatives. The woman knows that she is missing one of the coins. If we organize our genealogy into a family tree we can easily see what is missing. But it is important to focus on what the woman did when she discovered that a coin was missing. She did not begin looking for the coin, she began by lighting a candle, i.e. learning about the environment where the item was lost and then began cleaning the entire house. The point here is simple. We need to clean our genealogical house before we do the search or while we are searching.
My BYU Family History Library patron was a perfect example of failing to understand this basic principle. She knew little or nothing about her family and yet she wanted to begin searching even though she was unaware of what was "lost."
Here is a classic example of a lack of information:
I take this example from the FamilySearch.org Family Tree because it is so easy to find them. According to the Family Tree, his father was Charles Peterson Garoutte, (b. 1810, d. 1896) who was both born and died in Adell, Dallas, Iowa. Garoutte was supposedly married to one of my cousins, Sarah Adeline Shepherd, (b. 1821 in Vermont, d. 1905 in Adel, Dallas, Iowa. Because of the dates of the places, it would seem to be reasonable to begin searching immediately for this individual. They should appear in a US Census record. But in doing so, we are ignoring the parable. First, we need to clean our house. There is the entry showing the family:
This is a very simple example. Cleaning up this family by adding in all the available records should resolve this issue immediately. In this case, the lost person will probably be found by merging him with the duplicate. Meanwhile, adding in all of the available records will clarify and verify each of the family members providing a basis for continuing research into their descendants.
Remember to clean your house before you search.