Identifying Where Genealogy Records Are Located

Guidelines for identifying a jurisdiction where your ancestor's records are located

In Utah and Arizona, drivers licenses are issued by the state. In genealogical terms, the state of Utah or Arizona has the jurisdiction to issue drivers licenses. In another example, land and property records in the United States are usually kept at the county level. Using this jargon, the county has jurisdiction over land and property records.

Any event in an ancestor's life occurs at a specific place and time. Those entities with jurisdiction at that specific place and time, may make a record of the event. As a person goes through life, there is a cloud (large or small) of records created about that life's events. There are several rules that result from adopting this view of record creation. Here are some of those rules.

Rule #1: When the baby was born, the mother was there.

Rule #2: Identifying records concerning any event in the past requires an exact determination of the place where the event occurred and the entities having jurisdiction over the event. This means that if I want to determine if there is a birth record for my ancestor, I need to know the entities that existed at the time the birth occurred and the possibility that those entities kept a record of the birth. For example, today, we might search for a birth record in the state where the ancestor was born because states normally keep birth records. However, at some point in the past, the states either did not exist or did not keep birth records. In that case, we need to identify the entities that may have kept birth records at the time the ancestor was born.

The term "entity" may be confusing. This is the most inclusive term I can think of. It includes everything from nations to local churches and schools. Any organization that keeps records is included in my use of the term. Obviously the terms used to describe these entities change from country to country and also over time.

Perhaps you can see that identifying the place where an event occurred is crucial in locating records about that event. After a record is created, that record can also physically move from one location to another. County boundaries change. Countries change boundaries and go in and out of existence. The job of the genealogy researcher is to identify a record that may have existed at the time of the event and then find out where that record is available to be reviewed.

I often say that jurisdictions pile up like pancakes. The point here is that records can be kept by different entities depending on which entity had the ability, right or duty to create the record. So a military record may also be a record of a person's birth date. A death certificate may also contain a birth date. This is where the issue of finding appropriate records becomes really complicated. Some records, such as military, census and tax records, are kept at a national level, some records such as births and deaths are kept at the state level, some records such as land and property and marriage records are kept at the county level and other records are kept in cities, towns and other municipalities. Some records are kept by individuals themselves such as journals, diaries and letters. As I have already pointed out, as you search across the face of the earth, the organization and labels for these different jurisdictional levels change. They also change over time.

During the past few weeks, I have worked with several people who have been looking for a specific ancestor for a long time without success. In all of these cases, we have made progress by focusing on the places involved rather than the names of the individuals. By locating the places where events occurred, we have found the records they have been looking for, sometimes for years. The key was that they were looking in the wrong place, i.e. the wrong jurisdiction. This type of error most commonly comes from assuming that a statement by the ancestor or other relative is correct. One example I hear frequently is that the ancestor was born in or came from "Kentucky." What I have learned is that the use of this "place" was a generalized term for early settlements on the west of the mountains; the Alleghenies, the Cumberlands, the Blue Ridge Mountains or other ranges. Commonly, the researchers assume that the ancestor came from the State of Kentucky. Another such term was "the Ohio" which is also an undefined area and not always the state. One of the most confusing such references is to "Germany." This reference to Germany is often included in U.S. census records when the ancestor could have come from any of the countries then existing in Europe.

This process of identify the place where an event occurred in an ancestor's life become the major focus of an initial, accurate inquiry into his or her life. This process become especially difficult when the ancestor shares a common name with many others in the same area. The investigation may come down to identifying the particular house or farm where the family lived. Anything less than this degree of accuracy invites choosing the wrong person as an ancestor. Any reference to an event without adequate locational, i.e. jurisdictional, information is useless and probably wrong. I spent many years looking for the birthplace of an ancestor from Northern Ireland, where his own daughter had recorded the wrong place name. In addition, the wrong place name had been widely copied by his descendants. I finally found the actual name of the place and that cleared up the reason why no substantiating records had been found. This brings us to the next rule:

Rule #3: Always start with verifying the places.

Now, I have mentioned that the names and boundaries of various jurisdictions can change over time. In the last two weeks, I have spent almost ten hours sitting with a patron at the Brigham Young University Family History Library sorting out the parish name changes in Denmark and identifying the different small places where certain events occurred. The results is that we have finally connected the family to the right parish registers. In my own research, I have been focusing on a family in England and had to go through the same process. It turned out that the three small towns or villages mentioned in the records, although closely situated, were in three different parishes. It is really easy to find a "John Smith" or a "Jens Jensen" that matches your ancestor's dates if you don't know a specific location. Next rule:

Rule #4: Place identification is much more important than names.

One last comment, I usually end up asking the researcher if they know what church their ancestor belonged to. You might be surprised at how many researchers do not know and have never thought to find out. This moves us away from geographic jurisdictions into the area of social jurisdictions. These include churches, fraternal organizations, commercial enterprises and other such entities. Your ancestors may have belonged to the local church or they may have traveled many miles to attend a different one. How do you know if you don't ask the question?

I think after thirty plus years of looking at genealogical records, I am finally beginning to understand some of the basic principles. Too bad I didn't start this process earlier.

Written by James L. Tanner. Used with permission.

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