Michael John Neill -- 3/22/2006
Have you considered how the letters might appear on the page of the original document? This is especially a concern when using indexes and other finding aids. If the word starts with a fancy "T" was it read as an "F?" Can the writer's "u" and "n" be easily confused? These and a myriad of other handwriting issues may cause the genealogist to have difficulty locating the record. Think "how it might look"instead of "how it should look."
How your ancestor pronounced his name impacts how it gets spelled, particularly if your relative is illiterate or is not asked how to spell the name himself. Southern drawls, Irish brogues, and Eastern European accents can easily make a name be heard such that a creative spelling approach is used. Taliaferro may be said in a way that sounds like "Tolliver,"Gibson like "Gepson,"and Goldenstein like "Goldstein."
Are you using a handwritten index compiled by the records office? Then typographical errors are not so likely. Are you using an index (either printed or online) that was created by keying the information? Then typographical errors are possible and must be considered when searching. If you are searching an online database, are you able to perform Soundex and wildcard searches? Have you considered all reasonable spelling variants and determined what Soundex and wildcard searches are necessary in order to catch all variant spellings?
Did your ancestor fib about his age to the census taker or records clerk? Perhaps that is why he eludes your searches. If you are using an online database (such as a census index) consider not including any age information in your search or using a wider range of dates. Your ancestor could have easily lied about his name as well. Or perhaps a neighbor provided the information in your ancestor's census enumeration, a neighbor who had little first-hand knowledge of your relative.
Do you really know where your ancestor lived for the time period you are searching? Are you positive it was not in the next town up the road or down the river? Have you considered adjacent counties and nearby towns, perhaps where a job was easier to get?
If I don't understand the records being searched, I may spend hours fruitlessly searching. As an example, the Bureau of Land Management has an excellent site for land patents in federal land states. Yet there is little chance that a 1870s era immigrant to Chicago appears in this database, even though Illinois is a federal land state. Why? Because the Bureau of Land Management site indexes federal land patents, those "first deeds"where ownership was transferred from the federal government to private hands. There is little chance of this happening in the Chicago area in the 1870s.
We all have to make assumptions to begin our research. The problem comes when we forget our assumptions are assumptions and treat them as facts. Some examples might be:
- that a man and wife are both the parents of all the children in their household in the 1850 census;
- that a couple married near where their first child was born;
- or that a female was in her late teens or early twenties at the time of her first marriage.
Is our ancestor difficult to find because he was constantly running one step ahead of the law? Did a family members' alcoholism or depression cause the family to remain in turmoil for decades? Some of our ancestors had personal issues, many of which cannot be documented. And yet these problems may explain why it is difficult to find our ancestors or explain their unusual behavior.
Are you trying a variety of data organization techniques to help you in your search? Chronologies, timelines, and relationship charts are excellent ways to see the information in a different way that may make something "click."Placing locations on a map in chronological order and considering nearby geographic features and political boundaries may also result in realizations. Words and text alone are not always sufficient. I once had a geometry student who absolutely refused to draw a diagram or picture throughout the entire class, despite being advised numerous times that even crude renderings could be helpful. Her performance suffered. There are also times in genealogy where even a crude chart is extremely helpful.
Are you holding on to some dear family tradition? It may be time to let go. My ancestor supposedly "sold sandwiches."It turned out that she actually ran a tavern. Another relative was said to have died by "drowning,"when he accidentally shot himself. Tradition may have to be put aside in order to get past that brick wall in your research.
Learn, keep an open mind, and keep looking. This is general advice to be certain, but still worth heeding.
Things will be changing over the next few months as we change our format. Join us as we continue to explore our past and share ways to help you in your own search for more of your family history. You can follow my writings at: