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Searching For A Needle In An Ancestral Haystack

In searching for their ancestors, many beginners think all they have to do is use special software, go online and they'll be able to trace their lineage back many centuries.


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In searching for their ancestors, many beginners think all they have to do is use special software, go online and they'll be able to trace their lineage back many centuries. And while you can find information about your ancestors this way, you have to prove it. To do that, you need to search for documents that prove the ancestral links between people. For this, you often have to do some sleuthing.

Many beginners operate under the mistaken impression that all documents ever produced are on file somewhere, whether on paper or microfilm. Technology has made it so easy to store and keep track of documents that novice genealogists take it for granted. But what happens when you can't find a document to prove a birth, marriage, or death of an ancestor. It's become so easy for you that you think you only need to know which year the event happened and in which state. Unfortunately, it's not that simple.

Taking a cue from the CSI programs on television, you may need to not only search for the obvious but look for the not-so-obvious using deductive reasoning to uncover lost information. So instead of calling you a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI), perhaps you should take on the title of Genealogical Information Investigator (GII).

In some way or another, everyone leaves clues to their existence. And if you can't find the information you need through the Internet or government records, then you'll have to play detective. But even after obtaining leads, you'll have to research them and eventually prove that they're valid.

Though legal records have existed for perhaps two centuries or more in some parts of the U.S., especially along the East Coast, as you move further west you may find records have only been kept since the late nineteenth century. True, the federal government has been taking a census since the late eighteenth century, but, even then, some people weren't counted. Take women, for example. Under the law, they had no rights at that time, and even in marriage, the husband was the one recognized by law.

And while a marriage certificate became the legal document back East, as pioneers moved westward, self-proclaimed clerymen or even wagon train masters married couples. Sometimes, couples exchanged common law vows without the benefit of a clergyman. Even as settlements began to emerge in the wilderness, people were too busy surviving from day to day to concern themselves with keeping records of births, marriages, and death. However, without realizing it, they did keep records. For instance, on their way west, pioneers often scratched or carved messages on rocks for friends or others to see when they got to that point. Thousands of these exist along what was the Oregon Trail. State historical societies in states along the route have recorded these for posterity.

Pioneer women often kept journals of their ordeals. And though a woman's existence may not have been recorded legally, she left something that proved her existence and often gave an insight into her life.

For many, the family Bible also served as a record-keeping device. Women recorded births, marriages, and deaths in them. And though these family records weren't legal, they did note these facts for future generations. Unfortunately, these family Bibles survived only if the family did. In pioneer days, families were often wiped out by disease, Indian raids, or natural calamities. Bibles could be swept away in a flood or burned in a fire, and the family history would be lost forever.

As towns grew, so did local government. Those in charge kept a record of the comings and goings–births, marriages, and deaths–in ledgers. The idea was to keep a record of the town's growth, not individuals. But at the same time, clerks recorded the names of those involved.

For some, the only clue to their existence lies on their tombstone–that is if they even had one. As wagon trains moved westward cholera and other diseases killed many people, often within hours. After a hurried burial with perhaps a rock or wooden cross as a marker, the train moved on, for they had to get to the west coast before winter set in. If an entire family died, others took whatever they needed from their belongings, but even if the family had a Bible, it was of no use to anyone, so it remained in the pile along the trail. Thus, all record of these people disappeared forever.

To track down missing information, you need to start with what you know and work from there. Don't overlook even the smallest detail. It's a long arduous task, but a rewarding one when you can finally shed light on a long lost ancestor.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

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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