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When is it luck or skill in genealogy research?

Even when the unexplained happens in genealogy, something there is that set the stage.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Alan Smith
Word Count: 658 (approx.)
Labels: Beginner's Guide 
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By luck we often mean "destiny not personally guided." Luck is only necessary amid a strong current of confusing factors. It is the hope that some uncontrolled chance will get on through. When a woodsman whacks away at a tree with an ax, is it luck that the tree fell after only forty four strikes of the blade, instead of the fifty three strikes he usually discovers it takes to fall a tree? Did he know the tree was a bit smaller than the last one? Did he use a bigger ax, or perhaps he sharpened the blade?

Genealogists also take whacks at family trees and often are amazed or bummed at the results of such efforts. Some sort of skill is needed to whack at the targeted tree. The woodsman will certainly not hack through a tree with a wooden handle. The same is true when a researcher who uses the wrong tool or does not use the tool long enough. Obviously, a chain saw would make quick work, and so would the use of census records over time than to search through every deed at random in a county courthouse. Working with a surname like Smith might be as tough as cutting through oak. So there is a certain amount of effort exerted in both endeavors. However, a woodsman may require more force than intelligence, while the researcher might require more persistence and intelligence than force. A woodsman must also know that a tree will not fall until he has hacked far enough through the trunk to dislodge the tree's balance. The same is true for a researcher who must use all the different spelling combinations of a name before he discovers the one he is looking for.

It was once said by one of baseball's great manager/owners, Branch Ricky, in 1950, "Luck is the residue of design." Hence the idea that people make their own luck. However, striking at that tree enough times with a handle made of wood will not result in a lucky chance of the tree having fallen.

I have many examples in researching genealogy where I felt myself very lucky to have found an obscure piece of information which linked far reaching connections between otherwise unconnected generations. Once I sent a letter to a library in Ohio, and the previously unknown librarian asked me why I wanted to know about her grandmother.

To be fair, there are sufficient holes in the paper trail which certainly decreases one's certainty of a valid connection. When the British burned the American capital in the war of 1812, they made it currently impossible for me to uncover my Owen ancestors in Virginia. Fortunately, by using different tools such as joining the Owen Association and the use of DNA testing, I was able to leap over, some what, a generation or two and find which Owen family in Virginia was mine. But, without the documents, I may never know the generation which lay in between.

The point I am trying to make is that one has a greater chance of discovering his or her family tree when versatile enough to use a wide range of tools and use each tool to its fullest application. The most common tools such as census records, courthouse documents, obituaries, directories and family bibles are only part of a researcher's tool box. Some times we have to work outside of the conventional tool box and try launching a press release or post an electronic bulletin. Maybe a researcher should consider using DNA testing and networking with other groups with the same surname. A different tool may help with a lead and establish a new direction to explore. Don't just use a wooden handle to whack at the family tree. There are many ways to fall that tree of information. The right piece of data could fall out of the branches if you just shake the tree a little.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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