I get it. People want to look around the web and find the parents of their third great grandmother. They’ve had some luck with that before, finding convincing cases being made for certain family connections. Or maybe they’ve found poor documentation and used what they found as a clue for further research and study.
But you know you’ve become a real genealogist when it’s almost never about that anymore. When you know the places well enough to know where to start finding resources, and how to proceed. When “buried” and hard to use web records become second nature to you (like unindexed Massachusetts deeds on Familysearch.org). When you’ve gotten used to making it out to a repository or cemetery once in a while or, if geography doesn’t permit that, using interlibrary loan to get books, putting in formal requests for records, or renting microfilms from the Family History Library. Because actually, without a reasonably exhaustive search, you can’t make a sound judgment anyway.
I want to say one thing to all the web searchers out there: you’re better than that. I know that because at a certain point, even if you found something that seemed reliable, there would be a voice inside you telling you that you haven’t tried all reasonable avenues yet. So, that birth record for Nancy Jones in a reasonable year and in the same town she got married in MIGHT be the Nancy Jones you are seeking the parents for, so that’s great, but you have a long way to go before you know that. And even more to the point, the Nancy Jones touted in the 1888 family genealogy book – the book you were so happy to find – WON’T be the right Nancy Jones until you have done a reasonably exhaustive search of all other ways to know this fact.
Maybe it is already known
It’s possible someone has done documented research that might help you but you are not finding it. Genealogy or historical journals might contain well-researched information for the family you are seeking, or they might contain transcribed records or manuscript information for the location you are working with. But you will seldom find those in a web search – try local libraries with genealogy collections, or join some societies and receive some online journal access. For instance, membership in NEHGS offers an online search engine for a large number of genealogy journals. National Genealogy Society membership offers online access to back issues of the Quarterly.
In my opinion the best single source of help with your research plan comes from reading the footnotes in a genealogy article for the same place and time period. It’s an excellent way for us to learn from the pros.
Sometimes nobody knows
Or of course, there may be very little out there. There’s something here that it takes a while to understand – and once you do, you can’t go back: maybe, just maybe, NOBODY knows. No one on earth knows who the parents of Nancy Jones were, or has ever known since her family and friends passed away. It’s not precisely written down, and no one has reasoned it out yet, and therefore no web search, no index search, no queries left around the internet, no calling up of those names over and over in all kinds of searches of new and better online resources, nothing will ever bring it up.
Which means it’s up to you
People write to me sometimes after they’ve been searching for YEARS for something. Nancy Jones, Nancy Jones, Nancy Jones, over and over. They started with vital records and vital records failed them (or even worse, they accepted the one record they found as complete proof of something). They moved on to easily accessible old genealogy books, online records, and asking around. Maybe they called or visited a repository and asked who the parents of Nancy Jones were (wrong question, probably). And maybe they spent a decade doing that.
Every single genealogist in the world has, at some point, been that person (I suppose the really great ones only last a month or two in that phase). They looked in every index, it’s just not there. It must be a Brick Wall.
Earning your brick walls
I’m here to say, we as genealogists have to earn those brick walls. Chances are most of us have attended lectures, webinars, local meetings, or studied genealogy guides. And what was talked about – maps, military records, church records, ship records, baptisms, diaries, immigration, town meetings, pensions, probates, land grants, deeds, and compiled genealogies. And we think hey, sure, if Nancy Jones had kept a diary, that would be great, but we would have found it by now (and possibly that’s true); apparently she didn’t so diaries can’t help me. Mark that off the list.
And we would be wrong. Maybe the diary that would help us was kept by the wife next door, Patty Smith. Maybe Patty Smith mentioned that Nancy’s parents, Mr and Mrs. Jones, came for a nice long visit from their new home in Tiny Town, Illinois. With this giant clue, we should be able to find some deeds or probate from Tiny-Town and know a lot more about the parents, such as their names and (from deeds) their previous residence. We might have found out about the diary by talking to the local historical society about what documents exist from Nancy’s neighborhood and time period.
Or maybe we know that Nancy Jones’ husband, William Stillwell, might have served in a war, but there are few records of that, and he never requested a pension. But by not checking pension applications from others in the county, we missed the fact that Nancy’s husband was mentioned in Nancy’s brother’s application, an old man a few towns over by the name of Jones.
Possibly we have identified a few potential siblings for Nancy and poked around a bit for their stories. But have we learned enough about each state’s census records to know how to learn more about neighborhoods in other years besides federal census years? That may lead us to further evidence of a sibling, who just happens to have a clearer record of parentage. Have we explored every person that Nancy’s husband ever had a real estate transaction with, to rule them out as family?
Maybe we know that the Stillwell parents were Hiram and Elizabeth. And that Nancy and William Stillwell had five children: William, Hiram, Nancy, Abiel and Edward. We know where “William,” “Hiram” and “Nancy” came from. “Edward” might help if we can find an Edward Jones. But have we scoured the county for every instance of the odd name, Abiel?
Possibly, we knew that Nancy and her husband were buried in the town cemetery. We have a nice picture of that. But have we examined every other nearby burial, including unmarked graves? Have we tried every means to find any actual cemetery plot records, including using archive and manuscript indices, and checking with local genealogy societies and archives?
It’s not in an index
So I am saying, the knowledge may be findable with careful planning, exploration and reasoning and yet, never found in any index. In fact, finding a clear answer to any one of the questions posed above would still have to be weighed against many other questions and answers.
As we learn more, and have a little success with planned research strategies and reasonably exhaustive searches, we sometimes find that those brick walls come down. And when they don’t, we find ourselves learning more and more about the area, the occupations, the cultures, and the records, and we devise brand new strategies we could never have thought of at the beginning.
That’s when you know you’re doing your own research and boy, do those sketchy trees on the internet start to look weird at that point. And the most exciting part is that, in the end, YOU are the reason that there is now a reasoned case in existence for the parents of Nancy Smith.
Something which was lost became found because of you. I hope you find a way to publish your result, formally or informally.
In my next post, I’m going to review some strategies I might try for researching a brick wall in Rhode Island in the early 1800’s. Stay tuned!
- The Genealogical Proof Standard is carefully explained in Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case, 4th Edition Revised, by Christine Rose (San Jose, CA: CR Publications, 2014).
- The important work of weighing, comparing and recording evidence is expertly guided by Elizabeth Shown Mills in her many speaking engagements (not to be missed if you ever have the opportunity, perhaps even by purchase of a recorded conference session) and her helpful book Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, Third Edition (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2015) as well as the companion website.
The post you are reading is located at: https://onerhodeislandfamily.com/2015/09/10/searching-smarter/
– Photos from postcard collection of Diane Boumenot