July 11, 2002
Have you ever wished you could by a fly on the wall when events were taking place of your ancestors? I know I have. I think often of the day when a time travel machine is built and people go back in time. Imagine what genealogical research would be like then. In some instances it would make things a lot easier. Of course, there would still be the matter of locating an ancestor who has disappeared from the records. Where did they go?
While few of us are fortunate enough to have someone famous hanging from the family tree, and thus to be able to find an entire book on our ancestor, we often find tidbits of a biography in other records, including county histories. However, the more I read some of these biographical sketches the more misinformation I often discover.
One of the things that it is important to keep in mind when working with any published or recorded biographical information is the reason it is being published. If your ancestor is one of the few to appear in a county history, it is possible that the information has been cleaned up to make the illustrious individual look better.
Sometimes it is more the result of just not knowing than anything else. A favorite line of mine in George Burns' loving tribute to his deceased wife, Gracie, A Love Story is "I never knew how old Gracie was." Now my husband knows how old I am, and likes to remind me of it from time to time, but I felt this line indicative of the problems we genealogists are often faced with. Many people did not know information, whether it was for a published biography or as informant of the death certificate.
When my grandfather passed away, my husband took care of most of the items that needed to be done, including the filling out of the death certificate. Actually, he is listed as the informant, but I supplied the information. Perhaps after years of listening to me go on about genealogy had left a little impression on him. Since he did not know the information for the death certificate he told the funeral home he was going to bring it home to get the information, which is exactly what he did. The interesting part of all this was that because of my genealogy, I actually knew more about my grandfather's birth than my mother did. Had she been the one to fill out the death certificate there would have been the potential for misinformation.
Where to Turn?
Whenever you find that your ancestor is not showing up in the records where he or she should, based on the information that you already have, you need to question the information you already have. There are steps to take when branching out from what is known. After all, you can go eight states away and twenty years and say that is your ancestor. But there is some expansion of your hypothesis that can be done.
If you have been told that your ancestor was born in a certain year and you are trying to find him or her in the census, either as an adult or a child, then you need to allow for the potential of error on the enumeration or on your prior research when it comes to the age of the individual. I have seen ages differ as much as ten years. So how do you prove that this is the correct individual? You must have other identifying items, such as names of siblings or spouse or children that help you to prove that although the information isn't quite exact with your prior research, that you feel the case is strong enough that the individual you have found is the correct individual.
Such a case often requires that you do some research on the siblings. So often we concentrate only on the direct line. Whenever you lose a trail, it becomes necessary to look at all of the individuals connected with a given person to pick up the trail or to put the two pieces that before didn't look like they connected together.
One Branch at a Time
When you find that you must branch out, it is best to do so one variable at a time. Don'tlook for someone who is ten years older and lives in another state and expect to make an instant connection. Instead, begin by widening your net where the age of the individual is concerned. If that doesn't work, then look in surrounding counties or the next door state.
As you widen the net though, don't stop with your first find. When you find someone who fits your hypothesis, don't stop looking. You must exhaust the entire index or that entire record to see if there are any others that also fit the hypothesis. If there are, you must record them and then begin to eliminate them.
Sound like it takes some time? In some instances it can. In others it won't. Of course, there are other variables that will either help or hinder such expansion searches, the biggest being the name in question. If the surname is unusual, then it is much easier to make a case when that is only family in the entire state, or five state area. If the surname is not unusual, then you hope for an unusual given name. Otherwise, you must have some good information on others in the family to help you in proving that you have indeed located the correct individual. This often requires the use of other records, many of which are not online or searchable electronically.
Whether it is a published biography on a person or just the information supplied by a grieving widow, or a son-in-law helping a grieving daughter, the information supplied is only as good as the person supplying it. As a result when things are not coming together, we need to take a moment and ask where we took a wrong turn. Invariably we will discover it was the result of something in our past research upon which we were building the entire family tree house.The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at email@example.com.
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