Generally speaking, genealogical research in the United States becomes more difficult as one’s work moves to before the Civil War era. There are exceptions. There are families who are difficult to trace after that time (particularly ones who are members of the lower socioeconomic classes) and there are families who are relatively easy to trace before that time (usually ones who are a little better off but not always). However, it seems the majority of my own “problems” and the ones I am asked about are before the United States Civil War.
The majority, not all. Most of them are outside New England where there are additional research challenges because there are fewer records in general (particularly in the South and on what qualified as the “frontier” at any given point in time). Those whose ancestors were slaves have the obvious challenges that tracing enslaved ancestors entails in addition to the problems associated with tracing slave descendants after the Civil War.
For the most part, it was relatively easy for me to trace my children’s ancestry to those ancestors born in the 1840-1850 era except for:
- A great-great-grandmother who was born in the early 1850s in Missouri or Iowa and who had the nerve to die or “go poof” in the early 1880s never to be heard from again.
- A great-grandfather who was born in Chicago in the 1880s, was apparently adopted twice, and who abandoned his family around the start of World War I never to be heard from again.
20th century vital records and other materials made it reasonably easy to trace the rest of them back to the 1840 or 1850 era. That was when it started to get more difficult in some cases.
I researched my own ancestry before I ever had my children’s family to research. And because my own families lived near to where I grew up, I could easily research them in local records. I was fortunate. I went through virtually everything there was in the courthouse on those people on whom I already “knew” the basics: land records, court records, probate records, vital records, etc. And I think that researching those families completely and extensively in those records (even when I had already “knew” their birth, marriage, and death dates and names of most of their parents) better equipped me to research their parents and grandparents in locations and time periods when there were not so many records.
It allowed me to learn about those records and to see how they fit together, how they were part of other legal processes and events in my ancestor’s lives, and to hone my research skills when the problems were not quite so difficult.
It was called, for lack of a better word, practice. It’s easier to improve your research skills when there are more records and those records are more detailed. And I’m glad now that I researched those families extensively even though I already “knew the answers.”
There’s an example I use in a metes and bounds class where the students are to plat out parcels and see how they fit together. The first problem is from a 1830 era settlement deed in Kentucky where parcels were allocated to the widow and five children. The pieces are supposed to fit together and they do fit together because they were surveyed at the same time. It’s a good way to start working those types of problems for someone unfamiliar with working them. Do I need to plat them out to “solve” this family? No. But if I wait to start platting until I have a complex problem, then I will be more confused than necessary. Starting with a lengthy example using land patents with incomplete descriptions only serves to confuse. Skills need to be built.
I suggest to people trying to read German church records that they start with entries from the 1850s or so first. In many churches during that point in time, records were written into preprinted books with column headings. That makes it easier to tell what is what. Then work backwards in time with that family, researching the entire family and reading their records, not just the direct line. This is for two reasons. One reason goes to methodology–researching the entire family is sound research practice. But that’s not all. The second reason is that it gives the researcher more practice in reading the records than if just entries on the “direct line” are read. And as the research slowly works back in time, the researcher’s skill level should improve (hopefully) because they are getting practice by reading more than just a handful of records and as they slowly work their way back in time the records slowly become more challenging to read (at least generally speaking). And that helps to prepare the researcher to read the earlier entries when the handwriting is more difficult to read and the entries are written in ledger form. Practice.
Going back and completely, exhaustively researching a family where you “already know everything” may help you on two fronts:
- you may discover some errors in those families where you “know everything.”
- you may find that your research skills have improved which may help you on those more difficult families
Sometimes you have to practice.
You can’t play the “Flight of the Bumblebee” until you’ve learned to play “Happy Birthday.”