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Riddle Me This! What Did You Find, When You Didn't Find Anything?

The importance of documenting fruitless searches, and discerning their relevance

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Sandi Fraley
Word Count: 724 (approx.)
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Documenting the information we find regarding our ancestors, and citing the sources to prove our findings are invaluable—not only to us, but to those with whom we share our findings. But, what happens when you search particular documents, or in specific areas, and find nothing? Do you make a note of these "fruitless" searches and pass those along as well? I did not fully understand the importance of doing so until I began researching for clients. Much of the information I am given to work with has been accumulated over a number of years, by numerous descendants. In most cases, only the basic citation is included in the files. Therefore, I have searched documents and areas that previous descendants have already exhausted, to the consternation of my client, and me! It is just as important to keep detailed notes of those searches that do not net positive results for another reason. This seemingly fruitless search can be a valuable clue.

First, you must take into consideration whether certain documents exist. Fires, floods, theft, and ‘lost documents' often hinder the researcher's efforts to find or verify data. If, however, these circumstances do not apply, you must look at your findings—or lack of them—in a different light.

Your search begins in the area where you first know you ancestor to have resided. This information may come from marriage records, census or tax records, or other verified documents. When you search the deed books and do not find a deed recorded, does that necessarily mean that they did not own land? Many of the early deeds were never filed by the landowner—and land passed down from son to son often went unrecorded. Sometimes, a father-in-law would allot a specific piece of land for his daughter and son-in-law to farm, with the promise that the land would be passed on to them at his death. When you do not find a deed, check will books or court order books for a record of inherited land.

Searching marriage records can also be tricky. When you do not find a marriage recorded in the county where your ancestor resided and/or raised his family, the first consideration is to look in surrounding counties. The marriage often took place in the area where the bride's family lived. Keep in mind that the bride probably came from a family known to the groom's family and that her family may not reside nearby. This may even entail a search outside the state!

Census records have often caused a researcher to believe that their ancestor moved, perhaps to another state, or died. Although these are possibilities, the first thing to do is look in surrounding counties, the county and state of the bride's family, or in the home of a sibling or adult child. The early censuses, prior to 1850, only listed the name of the head of the household. You may find an adult child with an older couple residing with them—or you may find an "additional" adult couple living with siblings of either the husband or wife you are researching. Although this does not prove that the other couple is your ancestor, it is worth making note of and continuing your search in the same area.

Remember that Old Deceiver—the county line? When did your ancestor "disappear"? What changes were being made in state and county lines during that time? Could it be that your ancestor did not move or die, but was reassigned to another county? Did your ancestor disappear during a land rush, or gold rush? What was going on the country at that time that may have influenced your family to move?

You see how all of these dead ends may pull together to offer other clues or send you in the right direction. The important thing to remember is that you must record your findings, even when you find nothing. Keep your notes simple, but clear. Cite the repository, book number, dates included in the book, and so forth, but include the notation that nothing was found to show (marriage, land ownership, etc.) in this county. The next person who reads your file will not waste time looking for something that isn't there—and they may even be able to resolve your issue by locating information elsewhere. Thorough and concise notes can be the key to unlocking the riddle and breaking down another brick wall.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

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

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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