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Research in a Time Machine

Arming yourself with the necessary information to conduct a reasonable and fruitful research.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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As I prepare my notes for tomorrow's research trip to the archives, I step into my time machine and set the date and destination where I will begin. To prepare for the trip, I have reviewed the history of the period, the politics and social customs of the era, and studied the economic and social conditions of the population. I know how they make their living, the crops they grew, the extent of their educational system, and their political leaning.

The census records show me that there are several boarding houses in the town, but only one that accepts single ladies. The railway cuts through the edge of town, just beyond the stockyard, according to the Sanborn maps. Biographical Sketches of Kentucky tells me all I need to know about the "Who's Who" of the town, and a history of the county lists numerous churches of varied denominations.

I quickly check my notes for any epidemics in the area, and determine that I only need worry about some Indian skirmishes about 40 miles to the west. After reading through the information sent by my client, I have a mental image of the family I am researching, the time in which they lived, and the town where they raised their family. I make notes of the resource material that would be most useful in my quest, take a deep breath, and it's time to begin.

This may seem like an inordinate amount of preparation for visiting the archives, but you would be amazed at the time it saves by avoiding searches into records that are irrelevant. Just as you would be compelled to search Civil War service records for any adult male living in the 1860s, the presence of a railway would compel me to search the records of supporting industries.

In this case, my target family is found in the 1850-1880 censuses for this county, but is in another state by 1900. Kentucky's 1890 census was lost in a fire and has not been reconstructed, so I must find alternative means of documenting the movements of this family. Tax records and city directories have defined the approximate year of their departure from the area, but I need more information.

The family is supported by profits from running a dairy farm. One of the records available at the archives is the account books of a local boarding house for railway workers. A search of those records may show purchases from the dairy farmer, making it easier to determine when they left the county. Although the tax list provides an annual record, the account books should provide a weekly record. The railroad was a bustling industry in the19th and early 20th centuries. When a family relied on the railroad for the bulk of their income, the failure of that railway was incentive to move on to greener pastures.

A real plus to researching county histories and biographies is the possibility that you will find helpful clues within their pages. For instance, while reading a county history, you may find a brief genealogy of your ancestor. Another advantage that warrants the time spent in preparing to research is an obvious one—focus. Whether you are researching a client's family or your own, you are working on numerous surnames, time periods, counties, and even different states. It is necessary to begin each research with a clear concept of what you are looking for, without becoming confused.

If I am having an especially difficult time leaving the 21st century behind, I pop in a movie of the same time period. It may be fiction, but a good history-based movie can work wonders at setting the right mood. It is ironic that the advances in technology and the conveniences of the 21st Century allow me to step into the past with such ease.

An internet search on any historical event, specific time period, war, epidemic, or other relevant topic will net you several informative websites to aid your preparation. Many biographies have been published online, making it easier to search for specific information with the click of the mouse.

With each trip you make in your time machine, you will gather more information to use later. Preparation for subsequent "trips" becomes less and less time-consuming—and more fun. The best part is, your research is less strenuous, both mentally and physically, because you are armed with the necessary information to quickly locate appropriate resources and you are focused on your subject. What are you waiting for? Hop into that time machine and research like it was 1799!

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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