Monday, June 2, 2008

Breaking Through That Brick Wall

Have you been unable to find your great-great-great grandmother’s parents? Don’t know where your 19th century ancestors lived before settling in Kentucky? Don’t know where to look or what records might solve your problems?

I can’t promise that all of your mysteries will be solved, but if you do a little preparatory work, you might be able to break through that brick wall that is preventing you from really knowing your ancestors.

Here is what I do when I have this problem:

Define the problem. What do you want to know? Don’t try to solve all your questions at once; pick the one of highest priority and concentrate on it. When you have solved the first problem, go to the next one. You are less likely to become overwhelmed this way.

Where are you likely to find the information to solve that problem? If you want to know when your great grandparents married, where will you find that marriage record? Marriages are filed in the county clerks’ offices in Kentucky, but in what county are you likely to find it? Kentucky marriage licenses were good anywhere in the state, but were not legal in another state. If you don’t find the marriage record in the county in which the couple lived, try adjoining counties. If your ancestor lived along the Ohio River, take a look at the marriage records of the Illinois counties on the other side of the river. Western Kentuckians loved to cross the river to marry.

How can you access that all-important record? Do you need to personally visit the county courthouse or can you obtain the record by mail? If you find the marriage online, that’s great, but keep in mind that the actual courthouse record very likely will have additional information. An online list of marriages is no substitute for the original record.

Define your ancestor in history. What was going on in the county, state and country when your ancestor lived? How did those events affect your ancestor’s life? If he was a coal miner in Kentucky, but moved to southern Illinois, was it because a new coal mine had opened in Illinois? Or maybe he moved when a new state was created. Many, many Kentuckians moved to Illinois, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas shortly after those states gained statehood.

From the census records, you might know in which state your ancestor was born, but you have no idea which county. How can you find out? Read county histories to learn where others were born in that state. People tend to migrate in a group so if you find one family from a particular county, the chances are good you will find other families from the same county. If your ancestor is shown on a church membership list, check the names and origins of others on that list.

There are several things to keep in mind when doing research:

Not everything on internet is true, although it is getting better.

Do not expect to find your entire lineage online with complete source citations. Names and dates without sources are nothing more than clues.

If your ancestor lived in Kentucky during the Civil War, he did not necessarily serve in the Confederate army. Many men served in the Union army and others did not serve at all.

If you download or copy something you find online, please give credit to the person who put it online. Don’t take credit for work you did not do. On the other hand, you don't want mistakes in someone else's research attributed to you.

It is very easy to judge our ancestors for what they did or did not do. In most cases, they did the best they could do with what they had. Their primary concerns were keeping their family clothed, housed and fed. Aren’t those the same concerns we have today?

Finally, have fun with your research. Facing a brick wall should be considered a challenge and not an end to your genealogical journey.

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