Connecting Generations: The why and how of it

Connecting recent generations can be relatively easy but many family historians find that as they reach further back in time it gets much more difficult. Records are not where we’d like them to be, relationships we thought were correct suddenly vanish into thin air, and people just up and disappear. Add to that the difficulty of the maiden name changing to a married name and you have a connection problem.

At first the going is usually smooth, as we reach back in time, due to available birth and death certificates, census records, wills and probate or land records. The work is relatively easy until about 1840 when census records list only the name of the head of household, and most of them being males, with no family members listed. Then it becomes a bit more challenging. If we’re lucky enough to find good church records or be in the New England area and find town records when our research reaches this point, then we’ll probably be OK. However, as you’ve likely found, if you move your search out of New England and to the frontier, everything becomes more difficult to prove. This is the point where some give up entirely and just chalk it up to a brick wall. Others, however, do something else entirely. It’s at this point that they really start to have fun.

One might ask: What’s the big deal? So what if you can’t go back any further? It is a big deal. All brick walls are a big deal. Think of all the wonderful ancestors and stories that you’re missing if you don’t add that next generation! Past of your ancestral story will be missing.

Connecting generations is such an important piece of the puzzle but it’s often overlooked. Take a moment now and go look at your own tree. Check each generation and find that document that links one generation to the next. How far back can you go on an ancestral line before you are missing the document that links the two generations? Sometimes it’s shockingly recent on the tree!

I’ve worked on lineage society applications for quite a while now and this is the single greatest weakness of many applications that prevents an applicant from becoming a member. It’s worth paying attention to on our own trees even if we’re not applying to a lineage society.

To properly document a connection between parents and daughter or son, you need records of some sort. As we’ve all found out the availability of these items varies by time and place. So let’s explore that for a while.

Step 1: where are you looking, where did they live?

This is critical! When reading about the search for Irish immigrant ancestors the first item of business is to find out where they came from in Ireland. It’s like that for all of the ancestors we hunt for. The biggest challenge is when they move from one place to another. Sometimes we get lucky and a family member such as the grandma goes too so we can track her to find the family we seek. Occasionally, a published or unpublished family history gives the answer. Other times we look to migration patterns for the general population and go digging. In one of my own ancestral lines a whole group of families moved about 1810 to 1830 from Western Maryland to Ohio to take advantage of available military lots. Once we knew where they moved to, we are ready to go on.

Step 2: what records are available online?

Here’s the thing: instead of jumping right in and searching on Ancestry or other large site, get an overview of all of the records available there during the years you think your ancestor was alive. I like to use the FamilySearch Wiki to get more familiar with places I’ve not previously researched. The FS Wiki will get you off to a good start. You’ll find the history of the place, changing boundaries, when records became available, and so much more. Links to record sets are also provided. It’s a one-stop-shop. When my ancestral line landed in Knox County, Ohio they left quite a paper trail.

There are excellent state guides out there too, such as this Pennsylvania State Research Guide from Ancestry. Here’s another from the National Genealogical Society. And there are others. Just Google the place name and “genealogy” and you’re off and running

Before you dig into a location take some time to get a quick overview of it’s history and see what’s available there. You’ll be better equipped to search in a purposeful manner and the work will go faster.

Step 3: go local.

Find out what resources are only available on the local level in the geographic area you’re looking at. Do a quick search for “genealogy” and the place name, as above only this time looking for local institutions, archives and societies.

Most archives and genealogical libraries now have their holdings online so you can search the card catalogue. If you find the book you seek, call the librarian and ask very politely if she could take a moment and look at the index for the name or info you seek. If she finds something, ask again if she could check that page. Most are happy to help and will forge ahead leading the way. Of course they won’t do major research for you but might be able to recommend someone who will, for a fee.

Courthouses still hold many records of desire for us, and plenty are not online. I’ve called a court clerk and asked how I might get copies of a probate file and what I was looking for. He did it just then and emailed a scan to me within the half-hour. Nice guy.

Historical societies are often helpful in the same way. Start by asking for their advice on how to find the records you seek. These knowledgeable folks are a wealth of information. If they don’t have what you’re looking for they’ll usually be happy to point you to the next place to look.

Step 4: what to do when one document isn’t enough to prove the connection?

Sometimes one direct piece of evidence just isn’t available. In that case think about stringing together multiple records to make a case for the relationship.

Take away:

  1. Documenting the connection between generations is just as important as documenting the birth date or location.
  2. The first question to answer is where was the son or daughter born. Then look for any document that proves that the parents were there as well.
  3. When you have a location, get an overview of the genealogical resources available as well as historical facts that might influence your hunt. Try FamilySearch Wiki.
  4. Other times that can influence the way you search are the location of the death of the parents. In this case, look for probate records and land documents.

Next time: More about when one document isn’t enough.


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