Sound genealogical research requires an “exhaustive search” of the records available on the ancestor or family in question. Generally speaking, it means searching all materials that could reasonably answer the question. I’ve long been a fan of searching everything possible–especially in families pre-1900 in the United States and in other families where the costs of doing so are not prohibitive.
What qualifies as an exhaustive search is often contextual. How much research needs to be done and what types of records need to be analyzed depend on the time period, the location, the specific people people being researched, and how confusing the family structure is. And even when a researcher searches most materials and information is completely consistent, there is always the chance that one more record throws all those conclusions into question.
That is why a researcher should always completely cite everything that they’ve used so that another researcher can decide if, in their eyes, “exhaustive” has been met. They should also indicate the records they’ve searched where nothing has been located.
But this post really isn’t about that and it certainly is not about citation.
There’s another reason why an exhaustive search is important, especially for beginning and intermediate level researchers. That reason is simple: education.
My maternal families are fairly well documented during their time in the United States from the 1850s and on. Church records, vital records, census records, all are pretty much in agreement. Rarely do I locate “new” family members or relationships in land, court, or probate records–at least in these families. And yet I always searched all the courthouse records on these families–even when I didn’t think it would tell me anything.
Well–I’m nosy, and I know that I never know what I’ll find in a record until I look and I have made some interesting discoveries about their personal lives in these records. But another benefit is that I learned a great deal about land, court, probate and other records searching for families when I “knew” everything about the families ( at least the genealogical basics of birth, death, marriage, and parent/child relationships) . The “unexplained” things in the documents, the unstated relationships that sometimes made things more clear, were things I already knew. Researching land, court, and probate records on families where I knew quite a bit about the family helped me learn about the records. I could focus on the records and what they said–not trying use the records to determine the unstated relationships. Time in these records on families I had “figured out” helped me a great deal in learning about those records. Once in a while a realized a date or relationship was not quite what I had discovered in other records, but most of the time my work in the court, probate, land and other records on these families allowed me to really learn about the records.
And that’s helped me greatly when I’ve researched land, court, and probate records on other families where I did NOT have church records, vital records, census records, and other materials to explain things about the family. I had seen similar records before. I had seen terms before and I knew what they meant.
Exhaustive searches are necessary to make certain some vital clue has not been overlooked. But they also help the genealogist to learn about the records being used when the family is already “documented.” And learning is never a bad thing.