Whether you’re a complete novice or a seasoned veteran at family history, you can’t pursue this historical detective adventure very long before you get stuck. Some name or record will elude you. You’ll run out of ideas for finding it, and you’ll start to wonder if the promised rewards of your chosen hobby are worth the trouble or, on a bad day, even possible. Rest assured: You’re not the first, and there is hope.
A Common Challenge
About 20 years ago I started looking for a marriage record for my great-great-great-grandparents, Benjamin James Morgan and Mary Fischer, who are believed to have married circa 1794 in Chester County, Pennsylvania. I didn’t choose this at random. I was looking for something Uncle Shirl, Aunt Gwen, and the other family genealogists had left undone.
I used computerized resources, which were rather sparse then, and paged through microfilmed Chester County records ordered through my local LDS Family History Library. I struck out.
I’m fortunate that I had to go back five generations to find a hole other researchers had left unfilled. But I was living in graduate student poverty at the time, so I could hardly hire a professional genealogist or mount a week-long expedition to the Philadelphia area in search of the record. I needed affordable alternatives. Come to think of it, two decades later, I still do.
It helps see apparent dead ends as something else entirely: forks in the road. When stuck happens, you have at least three options:
- Pursue the elusive record or relative with laser-like focus. This may lead to success, or it may lead to therapy.
- Slide this one to the back burner and turn your attention to some other aspect of your family history.
- Abandon family history in favor of another pastime, such as knitting, lacrosse, or watching reality television.
You’re on your own with the third option, but let’s look at the other two.
When the person or record you’re stuck on is especially important to you or your tree, you may prefer dogged pursuit. Pardon my changing metaphors, but, if a door you need won’t open, sometimes you can break it down, find another door, or even crawl in a window. Here are some ideas.
Try Fuzzy Thinking: Assume that spellings, locations, and dates may be a little off, and modify your searches accordingly. Perhaps my Mary Fischer is really Mary Fisher. I’ve seen one great-grandfather’s middle name spelled “Lavant” and “Levant,” and another’s “Alburn” and “Albern.” I’ve also seen people estimate the date of my missing marriage record across a 20-year range. Soundex and Double Metaphone searches can check for some (not all) spelling variations, but they’re like your spell-checker: You still have to use your brain. Be sure you try adjacent years and places, too. In my case, I eventually learned that weddings often take place in counties other than where they were licensed.
Try Several Record Types: I started by looking for county marriage records, but that didn’t work out. According to the Chester County Archives, the county didn’t keep marriage records then. So I looked through microfilms of church records, a logical second step. Finding nothing there — had I not back-burnered the quest — I could have checked area newspapers or even deed books. Obituaries and census records might be helpful, too. These aren’t primary sources, but they’re often much better than nothing.
Try Printed Records: Much genealogical data is available online these days; for example, subscribers to WorldVitalRecords have access to well over four billion names. That’s where I look first. But a lot of records haven’t yet been indexed for computer searching — especially handwritten records, which cannot readily be indexed by computer. They may have been digitized (scanned) and made available as images, either locally or online, or they may only exist as hard copies. If you cannot actually travel to a library or archive, someone there may be able to help you, for a small fee — or no fee, if you’re lucky. Or you may be able to obtain books from distant public and university libraries through interlibrary loan, again usually for a small fee.
Some books which are not available online are sold inexpensively on CD-ROM. And don’t forget Google Books; the older the book, the more likely it is that copyright law permits Google to give you the full text. (Global search results at WorldVitalRecords include hits from GoogleBooks, saving you a step or two.)
Try Asking Around: If the information you seek is recent enough, there may be someone alive in your family, or even among old neighbors, who remembers not only the person you’re researching, but the event you’re looking for. Not long ago, I mentioned a bit of elusive family history to my aunt, an event that occurred in the mid-twentieth century. She remembered it vividly and described it in detail.
Even if you’re looking for something older, such as a marriage record from 1794, you may find a grand-uncle or second cousin who has some very old family records tucked away in the attic, or who has already had better luck finding the same information. It pays to ask around. I didn’t go nearly this far in pursuit of that old marriage record — at least, I haven’t yet. After looking through a half-dozen microfilms, I put the task on the back burner, where, I confess, it has stayed to this day.
The Back Burner
In my door metaphor, if the doors and windows are locked down tight, putting something on the back burner is like lingering to mow the lawn or paint the fence. You’re not actively banging on the door, but you’re nearby, in case the owner comes home.
Putting something on the back burner may help you avoid expensive counseling in the short term, but it can also be productive in the long term, if you do a few things to differentiate the back burner from the dustbin. Essentially, you have to keep the heat turned on — low, but on. Here are some suggestions.
Lift the Lid Once in a While: Rerun some of those searches occasionally, to see if any new records have turned up. I recently did this with my elusive marriage record, and I found that someone new had entered the couple into an online tree with a possible marriage place in Delaware, not Pennsylvania (but with no solid documentation). This may be a good clue; I should look in Delaware. In any case, every month more records are digitized or indexed and posted on the web. It’s worth checking at least every few months.
Post Your Inquiry Online: There are various ways and places to do this, including your own web site, if it is crawled by search engines. The goal is to make it possible for others working on the same lines, or in the same place and time, to find you and know what you’re seeking. Even if it doesn’t lead to inquiries or answers right away, it may bear fruit months or years later. One way to create the necessary web presence is to build your family tree at MyHeritage.com and make it public.
Go to Those Family Reunions: You never know who or what will turn up at the family reunion. Last month, at the annual half-day reunion of one branch of my family, some interesting genealogical things happened. For example, one guy — yours truly — showed up with printed and electronic copies of a long-deceased family member’s autobiographical essays. One essay happened to contain some details about my maternal grandmother’s time in the American South, which were of particular interest to my nephew, her great-grandson, who lives there now.
Be Opportunistic: A certain cousin was missing from the reunion this year, but she sent a few pages of information documenting a connection through my maternal grandfather to Deacon Samuel Fuller, one of the Mayflower Pilgrims. I’m trying to verify the connection. It turns on whether a certain parent/child relationship in the 1600s is accurate.
In the process of investigating this, I was electronically thumbing through New England Families: Genealogical and Memorial at WorldVitalRecords. I ran into a couple of pages on the Shurtleff family. I have seen Shurtleffs in my own family tree, so there’s another connection to explore. I’m like almost everyone in this respect: I enjoy discovering that I’m related to someone consequential in history.
Be Patient: The very existence of a back burner suggestions the importance of patience. Keep the pot gently simmering, and eventually you may discover some newly-available data, think of another good place to look, or encounter someone who already has what you seek. Instant gratification is sometimes possible in family history, but if that’s what you really crave, you might be better off in another hobby, such as lawn-mowing or sampling fine chocolates. (Note to self: The sampling of fine chocolates might reasonably be combined with family history, thus improving the experience of both.)
When the Back Burners are Full
Sometimes you’ll have so many tidbits on the back burner that the pots threaten to overflow. I occasionally get a little burned out on names, dates, and places, and can’t bring myself to add any more for a while. But it’s still not time to find a new hobby. Here are some related things I do, which are connected to my ancestors but not directly a matter of gathering their vital records.
Read History: Pick up a book or two about a time, place, or event connected with your family tree. I’m currently reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower. Nick Bunker’s Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World is next. A little further down the stack, er, list, is a new, highly-regarded history of World War I’s Lost Battalion, which battalion included my maternal grandfather (though I already know the book doesn’t mention him).
Read Memoirs: Chances are, wherever and whenever your ancestor lived, some contemporary wrote a memoir which will give you a sense of what life was like. Some of my favorites involving the American West (which I admit having read for other reasons) are Ralph Moody’s Little Britches and its several sequels, which chronicle life in the Denver area and elsewhere in the early 1900s; John D. Fitzgerald’s Papa Married a Mormon, a captivating picture of a Catholic boy’s childhood in southern Utah among the Mormons in the same period; and Charles Osgood’s brief, charming memoir of a single year of his childhood in Baltimore during World War II, Defending Baltimore from Enemy Attack. (Yes, for some reason, I tend to read books about boys disproportionately.)
For that matter, some historical fiction excels at verisimilitude — that is, it gives a good sense of what life was like in the time it portrays. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and David Baldacci’s Wish You Well are personal favorites.
Pick any place and time inhabited by your ancestors. Most likely, someone has written about it.
Visit an Historical Site or Museum: There are large and small historical sites and museums around the world. Some of my favorites are the living museums, where one sees not just old things, but how they were used and, to a degree, how people lived. I’ve been to some of the famous ones in the United States and Russia, such as Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello, Mount Vernon, the Mormon Handcart Historic Site, and Yasnaya Polyana (Leo Tolstoy’s estate outside Moscow), but there are many others which are smaller and known only locally.
For example, when I was a youth in rural Idaho, there was an authentic pioneer village not three miles from my home. It was later purchased and moved to a Utah amusement park, where more people pay more money to see it. I’ve also seen working, old-fashioned farm museums in many places; whoever you are, many of your ancestors were probably farmers.
Write Some of Your Own History: We usually start our adventures in family history as consumers, but someone has to produce it, too. Why not you? When your research on others hits a brick wall, consider writing some history of your own. It doesn’t have to be long. It doesn’t have to be great writing. And it doesn’t have to be a sterile recitation of dates and places. (Seriously, who wants to read those, except, ahem, genealogists?)
Write a short essay on what it was like to milk a cow, to live without indoor plumbing, to use a manual typewriter, or to correspond when handwritten letters were the only kind of long-distance communication most folks could afford, and long-distance calls were for special occasions and crises.
Write about the family crowding around a black-and-white television screen in the evenings to watch . . . whatever you watched. In my childhood home, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, we used a 19-inch black-and-white television my father build from a kit. We repaired it periodically by pulling out the vacuum tubes which had stopped glowing, and putting in new ones. I remember happy evenings in my early years spent watching Dragnet, Gilligan’s Island, and Bonanza — all of which I can watch on demand now, mostly in color, and using no vacuum tubes whatsoever. (The memories of my sister having to watch Little House on the Prairie on our only television, when we should have been watching Monday Night Football, are less happy, but I’m mostly past that now.)
Write about that favorite family vacation or the good times you had living with your favorite uncle and aunt that summer. Write about the day you visited the White House or Buckingham Palace or the Kremlin, and, just for kicks, look up the sitting president’s, monarch’s, or general secretary’s daily journal entry from that day.
If writing actual history makes you nervous, write historical fiction. Several years ago, inspired by Charles Osgood, Alexander Herzen, and others, I wrote a novella in which I tried to recreate how the world looked and felt to me as a kindergarten boy in Boulder, Colorado, circa 1970 — a tempestuous period in a university town. I weaved a lot of memory in among the fictional threads, and I could probably give it to one of my children, with a few disclaimers, and say, “Read this; it’s close to my own experience as a child.”
A Final Thought
I don’t pretend that this is a complete list of good things to do when you’re stuck. But if it gets you thinking of your own possibilities, I’ll be pleased. Comments on this blog post would be a great place to tell the rest of us what works for you, when stuck happens.