Keys to Finding Relevant Genealogical Sources

Some general rules on where to look for record sources


The key to finding any relevant genealogical sources depends, in part, on the researcher's understanding of where, how and when pertinent records were created that might contain information about the researcher's ancestors. If you analyze this statement, you must realize that knowing the geographic location of an event associated with an ancestor is the key element in beginning genealogical research. This brings us to the often repeated, Tanner's First General Rule of Genealogy:


When the baby was born, the mother was there.


It is amazing to me how few researchers keep this paramount principle of research in mind. The father could have been anywhere else, but the mother's participation in the birth process is crucial. After you have internalized the implications of Tanner's First General Rule of Genealogy, you can move on to the Second Rule which is substantially more complicated:


The most relevant genealogical source documents were created at or near the time and place of any specific event.


It is also important to understand that this rule is confined to the creation of the document. The current location of the original documents can be entirely arbitrary. Source documents may have been collected and stored many thousands of miles from their origin. Notwithstanding the fact that source documents can end up far from their origin, the search needs to begin at the site of origin. This brings up a procedural Rule:


Look for documents in every political jurisdiction pertaining to the event.


If you were looking for information about Pennsylvania in the late 1800s, you would need to search for sources in the town or village records, township records which could include more than one township, county records, state records and national records. Some records are kept at only a national level, think most military records, and each level of jurisdiction has its own set of unique records. Now, if you are asking yourself what this all has to do with the so-called genealogical brick walls, the fact that there is a question in your mind indicates that need to commit all of these rules to memory and repeat them each time you begin your research.


I estimate that the vast majority of brick wall issues involve cases where the researcher or researchers are looking in the wrong place. This brings up another procedural rule:


Begin your research in the geographic area that has been positively identified and associated with a genealogically significant event.


Too many researchers spend time looking for records of an ancestor that are vaguely identified as occurring in "Kentucky," "Ohio," or even "England" without further specification. Making such a search is like shooting a gun into a lake and hoping to hit a fish. You are using the wrong tool, with the wrong assumption and shooting for something that may not even be there.


Now it is time to apply some of these rules to a hypothetical situation. Let's suppose that you are researching back in your genealogy and you find a U.S. census record that says that your ancestor's parents were both born in North Carolina. Do you immediately start looking for the parents' birth records in North Carolina? If you do, you are likely wasting your time. The immediate search violates the rule above about beginning a search in a positively identified geographic area. It is really remarkable how many genealogical research projects start with such flimsy evidence. How do you know that the person who gave the information to the census enumerator was telling the truth or even knew the truth of the location of either parent's birth? At a minimum, you need at least two more positive sources indicating the birth location and the location itself needs to be more specifically identified.


Written by James L. Tanner. Used with permission.




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