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

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Expanded Commentary on the Rules of Genealogy: Rule Six

I have slowly been going back to the list of the Rules of Genealogy and writing about each individual rule. There are presently 12 Rules. Here is the current list from my blog post of 19 July 2019.
  • Rule One: When the baby was born, the mother was there.
  • Rule Two: Absence of an obituary or death record does not mean the person is still alive.
  • Rule Three: Every person who ever lived has a unique birth order and a unique set of biological parents.
  • Rule Four: There are always more records.
  • Rule Five: You cannot get blood out of a turnip. 
  • Rule Six: Records move. 
  • Rule Seven: Water and genealogical information flow downhill
  • Rule Eight: Everything in genealogy is connected (butterfly)
  • Rule Nine: There are patterns everywhere
  • Rule Ten: Read the fine print
  • Rule Eleven: Even a perfect fit can be wrong
  • Rule Twelve: The end is always there
In this post, I am expanding on Rule Six: Records move.

Upon reflection, it is quite easy for even experienced genealogical researchers to find themselves in a situation where they ignore and are trapped by one of these rules. One of the common situations where this rule applies in the United States involves the so-called "burned counties." See "Burned Counties Research." As the Research Wiki article points out, "The phrase "burned counties" was first used for research in Virginia where many county records were destroyed in courthouse fires, or during the Civil War."

It is indisputable that records are destroyed by fires and other causes. What is meant by Rule Six is a simple fact, the records you are searching for may have been kept in some other location rather than the particular building, usually a courthouse, that burned down. Record loss is a real problem but it is not an excuse for failing to do systematic and careful research. In almost every case where someone has told me that their ancestors' records were lost in a courthouse fire, the person making this statement has not verified what, if any, records are still available. There is a statement on the FamilySearch Research Wiki page that summarizes what our reaction should be to "burned counties" in particular. The quote is "This is not magic. We cannot make missing records re-appear, but we CAN learn to make progress without them."

Another interpretation of Rule Six refers to the simple fact that records can be moved from their original location and could be found far away and even in a country different than that of their origin. I am writing here about "paper" records. The actual, physical recording of events. This commonly occurs when records are gathered to a "centralized" repository or when people immigrate from country to country or place to place. A good example of this rule is the entire United States Archives and Records Administration. This federal agency has vast warehouses of records parodied in the movie starring Harrison Ford called Raiders of the Lost Ark. Where is the warehouse and how do you gain access to the records?

Jurisdictional boundaries change, people move from place to place, governments rise and fall, all of these and many more conditions can cause specific records to be physically stored in places far removed from their original location. Genealogical research is part art and part science. Finding where records are located is more than simply looking online or referring to an excellent source such as the FamilySearch Research Wiki. Another example. Let's suppose you are looking for an ancestor that worked for a railroad in the United States. Where would you go to find his or her records? The Research Wiki has over 1,500 listings for railroad records. Where are all these records located? They are certainly not all in the same place. How many places do you think you might have to search?

It is true that records move and this rule is one that needs to be taught and emphasized continually.

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