Working from the Known to the Unknown

“Working from the known to the unknown” is advice often given to beginning genealogists. The premise is that it is best to begin family history research with the individuals about whom you know something, using what is known about those individuals to connect them to earlier people in their family. It’s a valid piece of advise and generally is a successful approach.

But there’s another way in which that phrase is applicable to genealogical research as well.

If you are trying to read script in a foreign language, don’t start with something in 1600. Use records in that language in a much later time period. The script will be easier to read. The records may have column headings to help you become familiar with the words and the handwriting. As your skill level increases, work your way back in time–researching earlier families. The handwriting will become more difficult to read, the column headings won’t be in the records, and you’ll have to up your skill level. But having a grounding in the basics, by using those later records, will make it easier to transition to earlier records. Of course the handwriting will change, the words may be different, and the structure of the records may be a little less organized. But you’ll be better equipped to handle.

The same can be send for those who want to read 17th century Virginia land patents. Transcribe later records, even if this involves records on families you “already know have been done.” Reading 17th Virginia land patents is difficult if you’ve never read a deed from the 18th century or even the early 19th century. Build your skill level.

The same is true for understanding the basics of DNA. If you have matches from families that are well documented, review those matches. See who they share and who they don’t. Review those matches and the shared segments of DNA they have. Try and map the chromosomes as best you can–on those families that you “already know.” You may discover that you don’t know everything you think you do, but at the very least your understanding of DNA analysis and research will be improved. And that will help you to analyze those matches where you don’t know any of the underlying family structure from paper records.

Working from the known to the unknown doesn’t just apply to the people you research.

It also applies to how you research.


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