Genealogy means different things to genealogists. Some people want to
collect every person of a single surname from all over the world. Other
people want to collect all the known descendants of a single person, usually
an immigrant ancestor. Still others are only interested in their direct
ancestors and not all the siblings and cousins.
While I tend to be an "ancestor only" genealogist, I find I often have
to look at "The Bigger Picture." This means expanding my research to siblings,
cousins, fellow church members, co-workers, shipmates, and even an entire
village. By looking at "The Bigger Picture" you can often learn many details
about a specific ancestor.
If you want to know anything about your ancestors' personal lives, you
have to include siblings. You will never have an understanding of how
they lived if you are looking at generations of "only" children. If you
realize that your ancestress was the oldest in a family of 12, you already
know a bit about her life. If she was from a middle class or poor family,
you can bet she worked long and hard looking after her younger siblings
from the very beginning.
Siblings can be very important when there seems to be little or no information
about your ancestor. He may have died at a fairly young age and left little
impact on the community. He may also have died before that state started
keeping vital records. However, he may have had a brother who lived to
age 80 and was a pillar of his community. The brother may have had a lengthy
biography in the county history which tells of his parents and grandparents.
Even if this is not the case, he may have a death certificate which gives
his parents' names. If a sibling left a will, it may tell you information
about your own family if they were remembered in the will.
Man as a Social Animal
In genealogy, you also often have to look at non-relatives to find information
on your own ancestors. Any time you find people in a group, you need to
look at all of them. They may be together for a reason. For example, people
often emigrated together. Perhaps you can find nothing on your German
ancestor, but there were ten other German families in the same community.
It is very possible they came from the same area in Germany. Read county
histories and family genealogies about the other families. It may lead
you to your own relatives.
In the Delaware County History it said John Livingston (my ancestor),
plus Thomas McMeekin, Hugh Clarke, John McKenzie and Thomas Shearer settled
at the same time. When checking Scottish records I found a John Livingston
who was born in the right year in the village of Kilsyth, Scotland. Livingston
isn't an unusual Scottish name so I checked for the others who settled
at the same time. In the same small village I found a baptism record for
a Thomas Shearer who was born 10 years later and would have been of an
age to emigrate at the same time. This is not conclusive information,
but Shearer is not a common name, so it provides encouraging circumstantial
If you can't find your ancestor on a ship's passengers' index, look for
the names of other people who arrived at the same time. They may have
come on the same ship and will appear in the index while your ancestor's
name may have been misspelled or overlooked. If you do find your ancestor
on a list, see who is listed with him or her or if there are others on
the same ship from the same area. They may be relatives.
By the same token, if you are stuck on immigration problems and your
ancestor lived in a rural area, look at the neighbors in the census. They
may have come from the same place or may be related.
During the time of the Revolution, men selected their own officers and
enlisted under men they knew and trusted. They would stay together as
a group. British officers were often frustrated with the American Loyalist
volunteers who insisted they came as a group and were not about to be
sent off just to fill in where they were needed. After the defeat of the
British, these soldiers were awarded land in Canada. It was allotted according
to the unit with which they served. Not everyone settled according to
these guidelines, but men who served under the same officer tended to
settle in the same townships. In finding their origins it becomes important
to study their neighbors and where they came from. It is also important
to look at the muster rolls and see who was serving together and to study
the biographies of their officers. You will find much more information
on an officer than you will on an enlisted man so looking at the big picture
is definitely the way to proceed.
People from the same church often emigrated together, either because of
persecution or just the desire for companionship. They knew they could
rely on their fellow congregants and that they shared similar beliefs
and ideals. In some cases, an entire congregation might pick up and move
as a body to a new area. The huge emigration of the members of the Mormon
church in the 19th century is an excellent example of migration based
Organizing Groups of Records
Land and Census Records
Organizing a large group of people may seem like a big job, but sometimes
it is the only way to find an answer. One researcher had to find out exactly
where a person was living in a particular county to establish his identity.
The problem was that, although he was in the census, he was not a landowner
so he couldn't be placed on a plot map. Working with land records, the
researcher was able to establish on a map who owned which property. In
most cases the owner also lived on the land. By taking the census and
following the order in which the names were entered, it was possible to
recreate the routing of the census taker. In this way it could be determined
which property he was occupying as a renter. It was a big project, but
in the end it provided the answer that was needed.
Parish records, where for centuries baptisms, marriages and burials were
recorded, are very important for genealogists. However, sometimes there
are so many people with the same surname and even the same given name,
that it is difficult to figure out who belongs where. In a case like this,
it can be easier in the long run to copy down every event for the one
surname and arrange all the families with that name. In most cases you
will be able to place most of the people with that surname.
This may sound like a huge job, but most European village parishes were
fairly small as the people usually walked to church. You will probably
have to cover 150-200 years at the most because the records will only
extend that far or your ancestor will move or a woman will change her
name by marrying. If you come up with 100 entries, this could cover only
about 35 people since theoretically one person would probably generate
three events in a lifetime birth, marriage and death. With large
families, 35 people may represent only five families. It is never quite
that neat and simple, but it does make the project seem less daunting.
This works best in a computer program where you can sort events chronologically
and by individual name as well as by father's name. If you can sort records
by "all men named John" and then "all children whose father was named
John," it becomes much easier. It is quite amazing how families seem to
arrange themselves when you are able to sort them in this way.
Once this is done, it is a lot easier to figure out what other records
are relevant. If your ancestor is Robert Jones and there are four of them
in the parish, when you find a document with this name, you can easily
refer to the information on the four men and see if the event fits with
the known facts. You may find that one had died by then and another was
too young for that particular event. You might see that one is your ancestor's
uncle and if you have found a will, it could contain relevant information.
An Example of Sorting Parish Records
Say that you know from family records that your ancestor Charles Bates
Moore was born in 1770 and his parents were John and Ann Moore. John died
in 1817 at age 71 (which would mean he was born in 1746). You go to the
parish records and you find the birth of Charles in 1770, son of John.
(Many parish records list only the baptism date which usually was within
a few days of birth. Some recorded both the birth and baptism). You start
looking for his father John and find John, son of Walter, baptized 1746.
Because the names and time period are right, you might assume that you
have found your ancestor Charles, his father John, and his grandfather
Walter and quit there. However, the wise researcher knows better than
to stop looking because there may be a lot more to the story. For one
thing, there may have been another person of the same name born around
the same time. And, you always need to check the death records to be sure
the person didn't die before adulthood, because if he did, then of course
he didn't have children and wouldn't be your ancestor.
A little bit more searching turns up the following:
- John (1), son of Walter, buried 1750 (He didn't live long enough
to become a father.)
- John (2), son of Samuel, baptized 1748 (Could be a father in 1770
if he lived that long.)
- John (3), son of William, baptized 1744 (Also a good candidate.)
(The parentheses with numbers are added here for clarity in the article,
but these identities would not be apparent when first finding the parish
This is getting a bit complicated. You now have two possible candidates
as the father of Charles. So, next you check the marriage records and
here you find the following:
- John (2), son of Samuel married Ann Smith in 1769. His age noted
as 23 (therefore born in 1746).
- John (3), son of William, married Jane Hill in 1764. They had several
children, all shown in the records between 1764 and 1780 as children
of John and Jane. (You know that your Charles was born in 1770, which
falls in the time period when this couple was producing children. However,
you also know that your Charles's mother was named Ann, not Jane, so
this John wouldn't be the father. This eliminates John 3.)
- John (4), son of George, married Ann Jones in 1758. There's no baptism
record for him so you don't know his age, although your John would have
been too young to marry at this time if his age at death is anywhere
near correct. (This is the 4th John Moore in the parish record and his
wife is named Ann. This adds a fourth dimension just when you had narrowed
it down to one.)
- John (5), widower, married Elizabeth Smith, widow, in 1761.
Looking in the baptisms again, on Nov. 28, 1759, you find the birth of
William, son of John (4) and Ann. Then on the following day, you find
the death of Ann Moore, wife of John. In 1761 there is a marriage of John
(5) to Elizabeth Smith so it is apparent that John (4) and John (5) are
the same person. Then follows the birth of several children to John and
Elizabeth from 1762 to 1776. Again, you know that your Charles was born
in 1770, which falls in the time period when this couple was producing
children. However, you also know that your Charles's mother was named
Ann, not Elizabeth, so this John wouldn't be the father. This eliminates
You end up with four families:
- Walter, 2) John (b. 1740; d. 1750)
- Samuel 2) John (b. 1748), m. Ann Smith 1769, 3) Charles [Bates] Moore
- William, 2) John (b. 1744) m. Jane Hill (1764)
- George 2) John m. Ann Jones (1758) and Elizabeth Smith (1761)
After you examine all the families, you quickly can eliminate the first
one, because he died before the birth of Charles in 1770. You can also
eliminate the third one because his wife's name isn't correct. The fourth
one is eliminated when you find that his first wife, Ann, died before
the birth of Charles in 1770. When you examine the second family, you
find John is the right age and his wife has the correct name. Further
research in the parish records reveals that John's mother's maiden name
was Bates. All of this leads you to conclude that this is the right person.
The age is two years off, but that is not unusual for records of this
Only by examining all of these records could you come to this conclusion.
If you had stopped with the first one, you would have been terribly incorrect.
With so many records relating to people named John Moore, you have to
take the time to match all of them in order to follow the correct lineage.
Once you have all this information, you may as well enter it into your
database. You have now become the expert on the Moore family in that village
and will probably be able to place any Moore information you come across
for that parish in the future.
Back to Census Records
The results of several censuses can be as confusing as parish records.
You only get a snapshot of a family every ten years. A nine-year-old in
one census may have left home by the second one. There may be three Williams
as children in separate households in one census, then two as heads of
household in the next. From just the census information it is difficult
to determine which William came from which family. If you can work in
conjunction with parish or vital records, you can often figure out who
went where. Again it is one of those situations where you almost have
to sit down and diagram everyone to be sure you are matching up the right
people. The census gives you a real head start by putting people in families.
It helps to put each family into your computer program, linking them as
you go if you can. If not, put them in as they are grouped and merge two
records when you are able to determine where they fit. You might want
to do this in a separate database and move them into your family database
as you are able to link them.
Don't hesitate to take on "The Bigger Picture." With computers to help
us we can sort and organize much quicker than used to be possible. While
it may take a while to make sense out of a large number of records, it
saves time in the long run. Once you have the framework, almost all future
records you will find can be fit in.