Casefile Clues

15 December 2013

Is It Always Necessary to Start Over?

While giving final exams last week, I decided to would take "fresh stab" at locating information on my Benjamin Butler.

Benjamin has been located in three census records:

  • 1850 in St. Clair County, Michigan
  • 1870 in Union County, Iowa
  • 1880 in Vernon County, Missouri.
Additionally he is known to have spent part of the mid-1850s in St. Joseph County, Michigan, and married in the 1860s for the second time to Nancy Wolf. I'm not certain where he was born, who his parents are, when and where he married prior to Nancy Wolf, or where he spent the mid-1850s through 1870.

This post really is not about Benjamin. Instead it is about the whole concept of starting "from scratch." 

In an attempt to get past any assumptions and incorrect information, I started with nothing other than the census enumerations as listed above. I know that the children listed in his 1850 and 1870 households may not actually all be his biological children, but I still needed to research them. Together there were fifteen children who were either Benjamin's children or step-children. I descend from one of them. It is hoped that locating something on one or more of them will provide information on Benjamin.

I'll be honest, I used online trees at Ancestry.com and other sites as clues. There is no need to reinvent the wheel as others may have accurately researched various parts of the family, but any clues I obtained on these sites were used as leads and checked for reasonableness and accuracy. I did not merely copy the information into my materials without first viewing it myself. 

The online trees and some quick searches of census and other online records got me to about where I was originally when I compared my "fresh start" searches with what I already had.

While this was a good exercise, I think that I won't start entirely from "scratch" the next time. Finding the children I "already had" was pretty much a waste of time in this case--although trying to search them more thoroughly may not be a bad idea.. It would have been more effective to have reviewed the conclusions I had already made and tried to determine if something had been overlooked. 

Where I think starting from scratch is still a good idea, is with the children I cannot find anywhere other than the census records listed above. I need to go back on those children, consider how accurate the years of birth and places of birth are and decide if there are alternate names I should consider. The last name of Butler is a common one and limits the effectiveness of some search techniques that may work with last names that are less common. The 1870 census hints that the family was fairly migratory between 1850 and 1870 which only frustrate the search approach. I may even need to consider that the census places of birth for children born during this time are incorrect.

Reviewing information is good. Starting from scratch is sometimes good as well, but make certain that you don't spend too much time relocating material you already have. 

It's not always necessary to start from scratch.