HOW to find WHICH records should be searched in an ancestor’s DISTANT LOCALITY
The original DearMYRTLE blog entry titled A variety of questions - Part 1 includes comments from an overwhelmed researcher who states:
"I need to figure out how to find ancestry in places like Pennsylvania [...]. I also have Qs about how to find records in different lands whether for Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Germany, Switzerland, and perhaps other countries as well once I clear up all the conundrums I'm still experiencing in tracing all the branches of my family in America. Last but not least, I know that some of the original records of my family were destroyed due to fires, like the Great Earthquake & Fire of San Francisco, California in 1905, or the US Federal Census of 1890, or home fires where important correspondence and other documentation were stored from the 1880s onward. How do I recreate these wheels from just a scrap of a letter [circa] 1900 to find the records that were gathered and lost in the fire?"
To this Ol' Myrt here replies:
What seems like a lost cause isn’t – you just haven’t uncovered a solution YET.
THERE IS NO “WHOLE EARTH CATALOG” OF ALL BIRTH, MARRIAGE & DEATH RECORDS
Researchers must acknowledge several common misconceptions:
- You can find anything you want on the web. (It isn’t all there yet.)
- The Family History Library has filmed everything. (It hasn’t.)
- The Library of Congress owns a copy of every book that was ever printed in the US. (It doesn’t.)
One great exception to this “whole” approach is a project of benefit to researchers with ancestors in Scotland. The government of Scotland made a decision to provide indexes and scanned images of the following records, mostly on a pay-per view basis:
Scotland census (1841-1901), church (1553-1854 births, baptisms, banns and marriages), vital records (birth 1855-1906, marriages 1855-1931, deaths 1855-1956), wills and testaments (1513-1901 free) www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk
CHALLENGES WHEN LOCATING RECORDS
The rules are different there. Researchers are most likely familiar with the court system and vital records offices in their own localities, but rules vary from place to place. One cannot assume that because the state of Washington keeps older records in regional records centers that the same will be true when looking for earlier generations in the state of Montana or the Dakotas.
Each state in the US has different record groups, based on requirements imposed by the state legislature, the court system, and the division of jurisdiction. For instance, New England states have counties, but detailed birth, marriage & death records are typically kept on the town level. Virginia has several cities including Alexandria that are not part of a county. Instead of counties, Louisiana has parishes.
Diversity among record collections is further complicated by the passage of time, the requirements of the governing body and definitions of words at the time the record was created. There were the original 13 colonies before they became states. So-called western states were territories before they became states. Territorial records proved useful when researching my Caucasian British & Danish immigrant ancestors in Utah, but many territorial records in Oklahoma concern Native Americans.
Laws change over time. Immigration law has changed through the years, permitting wives to be automatically naturalized with their husbands, and later requiring them to file separately. In this case, even the name of the federal agency governing immigration has changed from the once familiar Immigration & Naturalization Service to the US Citizenship & Immigration Services. For a synopsis, see the USCIS' Legislation from 1790-1900, a 5-page .pdf document.
In the US, federal law enacted by Congress granted certain rights to war veterans, and later to widows. An ancestor may have served in the War of 1812, but legislation providing pension benefits for one of my friend Barb’s ancestors wasn’t brought about until 1878.
Errors in deductive reasoning cloud research, particularly when using a heretofore unfamiliar record group for the first time. A newbie researcher Ol' Myrt worked with was discouraged when he did not find an ancestor in War of 1812 pension files despite a strong family tradition of service. Further study proved the matter quite simply reflects the fact that the gentleman in question died before pension benefits were provided. Pension files are not comprehensive lists of all who served, but merely those who survived and chose to make application.
Church records pre-date the keeping of public vital records in most localities throughout the world. Some churches were great record keepers, others were not. Survival of old parish records from tiny towns in Lincolnshire, England depended on freedom from natural disasters and financial resources to fix leaky roofs and the like. For some of my research I’ve had to rely on the secondary records known as BTS or Bishop’s Transcripts which were the annual reports that were hand-copied and submitted by the local priest. These have survived quite simply because they were housed in the distant diocese office.
I have also made mistakes in church record research, being unaware of the variety of churches from various denominations in the area at the time my ancestor was living. While it seemed logical to search Church of England and Society of Friends records, I didn’t make progress until I looked at Methodist records that included the following sub-groups in my research: Primitive Methodist, Wesleyan Methodist, Methodist New Connexion and United Methodist Church. Also in the area in 1847 was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Who knew? Well, Ol' Myrt sure should have known and I do now. If you wish to make progress climbing your family tree, YOU will become an expert on the area where your ancestor once lived.
RESOURCES TO BRING YOU UP TO SPEED on what is available in that distant locality. Basically, study the work of expert researchers in guidelines printed at the state archive or library,
FamilySearch.org’s Research Outlines (One for each US State, US Military, Tracing Immigrant Ancestors, each Canadian province, Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Germany, France and virtually all major countries throughout the world. Includes the best advice from experienced researchers for the locality where your ancestor lived, mentioning essential record collections even if the Family History Library doesn't own it.)
Family History Library Catalog (Search by place, surname, keyword, etc. & borrow microfilm/fiche through your local LDS Family History Center, or find clickable links to the item in digital format viewable on the internet. They don't have everything, but it is a start. Of particular interest are inventories of registers and catalogs describing record collections available in a specific place. )
Cyndi's List (scroll down to the locality in question -- She doesn't have everything, but it is a start.)
WorldCat (Search over 1 billion items in more than 10,000 libraries worldwide, available in multiple language formats.)
Google Search (Use the advanced mode to include & exclude text to narrow your search.)
USGenWeb & WorldGenWeb (Experienced local coordinators typically list resources on and off the web.)
To become effective, genealogy researchers must become experts on the history and culture of the time and place where an ancestor lived, taking care to systematically broaden understanding of the variety of government, church, public & private records that have survived.
Happy family tree climbing!
Your friend in genealogy.
(c) 2007 Pat Richley All Rights Reserved.