19 February 2015

Why Research Associates?

A recent Genealogy Tip of the Day mentioned searching newspapers for ancestral associates. It caused a reader to ask why researching associates was important. That's a good question.

Some of are fortunate enough that a significant amount of their genealogy can be traced relatively easily without researching all the individuals with whom their ancestors were associated. Some people do leave behind enough detailed records that accurately uncovering their parents, spouse(s), children, and vital events is not overly difficult. Personally it was easy for me to trace back to my great-great-grandparents without doing a whole lot of work.

Then it got more difficult. My relatives were on the frontier in states that did not keep vital records. They moved frequently. Not all of them owned land or left records that detailed their existence. Some left very few records at all.

In those cases searching the individuals with whom they associated became even more important as those individuals who appear on other documents with my ancestor may not have been random people who had absolutely no connection to my ancestor.

  • The witness on a deed may have been a brother-in-law, the brother of the man selling the property
  • The witness on a will may have been a step-brother of the man who wrote the will.
  • The men who serve as bondsmen when the widow is appointed administrator of an estate may have been her brother. 
  • The man who signed a marriage bond for a bride may have been her uncle or brother of her first husband. 
  • The man who makes an affidavit in a widow's pension where he states that he knew she was married to the soldier fifty years ago may have actually been her brother, her cousin, or former neighbor "back east."
  • The man from whom your ancestor bought their first property after heading west may have been your ancestor's cousin or other relative.
Is everyone with whom your ancestor interacted a relative? No, of course not. 

But those people with whom your ancestor interacted in various Bourbon County, Kentucky, records in the 1810s may have been former neighbors of his in Amherst County, Virginia, in the 1790s. And if you can't trace your ancestor out of Bourbon County, Kentucky--maybe you'll be able to trace his associates out of Bourbon County into Amherst and find your actual relative hanging out there as well.

Do you have to completely research every person with whom your ancestor associated in order to document his vital events and parentage? No. I have quite a few ancestors that were relatively easy to research without going to "all that work."

However, there are some for whom looking at the associates is crucial--for those associates may have left better records that help me track the actual ancestor and may either mention my ancestor or give me enough information on the associate that it helps me research my ancestor. Your ancestor usually doesn't interact with complete random strangers on legal documents. Witnesses, bondsmen, and others are typically people they knew before the document was drawn up. 

But there's more.

Those associates may have left journals, diaries or other materials that while they don't mention my ancestor do help me get a better picture of "what life was like" for my ancestor--giving me additional insight into his life. 

And even if your ancestor did leave behind adequate records that allow you to trace them, learning something about the associates may allow you to paint a more detailed accurate picture of your ancestor's life--and get beyond the vitals, names of parents, and children.

There's other reasons besides these to search associates...the key is to remember that unless your ancestor was a Hoover, they didn't live in a vacuum.