Widen Your Search

Look for possible genealogy records that may not be as obvious


When you start to investigate your family's history, you are really going on a voyage of discovery. Just like the early European explorers, you may only have a few sketchy reports about your family to carry with you into the unknown. Some of these stories may turn out to be factual, some may be pure fantasy. What is certain is that the real stories will be more remarkable than any you could have imagined.


One of the tragedies of those who strike out on their own voyage of discovery is that they fail to leave home. They are satisfied with a drive around the block and miss all the wonders they might have seen had they been more adventurous. I was recently helping a patron at the Brigham Young University Library who was just starting out on her own discoveries. Within a few minutes of searching online, I found a wonderful story about an aunt's experiences in Germany during World War II. The patron was completely unaware of this story and we learned that the aunt may be still living only a few miles away from Provo. In fact, the story was included in an entire book of such stories by a prominent BYU professor.


Here is the question. Have you found similar stories about your own ancestors? Have you looked, or have you just assumed that such stories do not exist? The important detail in my example is the fact that this great-aunt was not a direct-line ancestor but this was the story, that involved all the family members, that had been preserved. Perhaps, you would not have guessed that this particular book was pertinent to your family or even to genealogy at all.


I am frequently amazed to find whole categories of genealogically valuable information of which I was previously unaware. For example, I was recently contacted by a researcher who is investigating Arizona National Guard Veterans who participated in World War I. In the course of her research, she has found a previously unknown and very valuable collection of letters and postcards written during the Mexican Border Campaign from 1910 to 1918 prior to World War I. As this research notes, most of the volunteers during that Campaign came from places other than Arizona. She wonders if their descendants would know to look for their ancestors in Arizona cemeteries and for records of the Border Campaign. My grandfather served in the Border Campaign and I have very little information about his actual service, other than a few photos.


This situation with research about the Border Campaign points up a very valuable lesson about doing genealogical research: the most valuable documents about your ancestors may be extremely obscure and difficult to find. In addition, the documents may turn up while you are researching something only very distantly related to the information you find.


Here is another example. My great-grandfather, Henry Martin Tanner, left very little personal, autobiographical information. However, his next-door neighbor, John Bushman, kept a detailed personal diary of his daily activities. Portions and extracts from that diary have been published in book format. See Bushman, John, and Derryfield N. Smith. John Bushman: Utah-Arizona Pioneer, 1843-1926. Provo, Utah: John Bushman Family Association, 1975. However, the cataloging information about this book and the other library holdings of various libraries, contain no reference to my great-grandfather. Notwithstanding this lack of references, I found a copy of the complete, original, hand-written diary in the Kline Library at Northern Arizona University. The diary has dozens (perhaps hundreds) of references to my great-grandfather. Without looking at the original diary, I would never have known.


Some sources are difficult to find because they are not obviously related to your ancestors and there are no superficial indications that the records may contain valuable information. In the case of the Border Campaign Veterans, some of these men had come to Arizona for relief from respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis and may not have left any record of their move to Arizona from other parts of the country and descendants may have no clues that the man served in the Arizona National Guard.


The basic principle here is to keep looking and widen your search. Stop looking for names and look for information about the family, the area where they lived and the country they lived in. It also helps to look in a variety of repositories: libraries, museums, historical societies, governmental agencies and many others. You just may have to reconstruct the history of an entire county to find your one or more elusive ancestors. Do not rely solely on online sources. You may have to get in the car and drive to where your ancestors were supposed to live and start talking to everyone you can find who might know about the area.


You never know what you might find when you start really looking and not just driving around the block.


Written by James L. Tanner. Used with permission.


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