What an Experienced Researcher Would Expect to be Relevant

My post on “Writing A Proof: Another Take” contained the phrase “Conduct a complete search of all relevant records that an experienced researcher would expect.”

I’ve been thinking about that phrase, what it really means, and what I meant by it.

The Genealogy Proof Standard (from the Board for Certification of Genealogists’ Genealogical Standards Manual) uses the phrase “exhaustive search” when it discusses the research process and what types of records are searched in answer to a specific research problem. Exhaustive search does not mean a tiring one. The phrase one uses is not what really matters. Too many people get bogged down in semantics when they should be getting bogged down in actual research (at least until they can see through the fog).

What matters is that a search be thorough–whether you say it is “complete” or “exhaustive” is a matter of debate.

What matters is that all relevant records to the problem be searched. It is difficult to define “relevant” exactly and precisely–it depends upon the problem. What is relevant depends upon the context. The key here is “all.” Not just those records that are easy to access and not just those that the researcher has used enough times to be comfortable with, but any record that may address the issue at hand. Any.

And this is where experience also comes in to play.

When I had only researched a few of my families in one location, I simply didn’t have enough experience to solve some of my other more difficult problems. That’s why researching the families of others helps to make our own research better. Researching families outside our own (hopefully) gets us outside our comfort zone, outside our cultural and ethnic biases, and outside our “tried and true” assumptions.  Reading how others have solved similar problems in similar locations can help us get outside our own immediate zone as well. In fact, seeing how others have solved problems, what records they have used and how they have used them is an excellent tool in developing our analytical skills.

And that helps us when we go back to our own research.

So when you are trying to solve that problem, think “what are all the sources that an experienced researcher would use to answer this problem?” Be honest with yourself when using the word “experienced.” to described your research skills.

I didn’t use the word “expert” and I didn’t use the word “professional.” I used the word “experienced.”

That was on purpose. Anyone can style themselves an expert or a professional.

But experience in using the appropriate records is what matters in solving most problems.

Most–not all.

You can also strengthen your research by reading the Board for Certification of Genealogists’ Genealogical Standards Manual

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Writing a Proof–Another Take

Personally I think too many people “stress” about writing a proof argument. And I think that there are a number of people who want others to think that they have discovered the “magic” formula. There is no magic formula and it’s not as difficult as one thinks. It takes practice and more practice and little “magic.”

Here is my take:

Conduct a complete search of all relevant records that an experienced researcher would expect

  • to provide a direct, specific answer to the question
  • to provide information, that when combined with a knowledge of the law, culture, and other records, would suggest an answer to the question.

Adequately and completely cite each source used.


Adequately and completely discuss your research procedure if a record that should be found cannot be found. Just “I didn’t find it” is not enough–what records were searched (online, microfilm, courthouse, etc.) and how they were searched (what names, search terms, etc.) needs to be a part of this “can’t find it” discussion.


Consider all possibilities–not just the one that “fits your notion.”


Clearly discuss why certain possibilities are not supported by the records. If there are other conjectures about the persons involved that run counter to your conjecture, clearly state (with supported reasons) and analysis, why those other conjectures are not supported by currently available information. Do not simply discount them and do not simply ignore them. Doing so may indicate to others that you’ve not adequately researched the problem. 


Clearly state your assumptions. If you use a marriage record as evidence that someone was at least a certain age when they married, make certain you know what the statute in effect at the time said about the age of marriage.


Do all that and you are well on your way.

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Dutch Naming Myths

Tamara Jones’ article on “Dutch Naming Myths” is a good, short, to-the-point read.

Those whose ancestry is pretty much English speaking with a dash of Dutch thrown in for good measure (typically because the person has 17th or 18th century ancestry in what is now the United States) would do well to read it because Dutch naming practices are different from English language ones.

As one who is half-Ostfriesen, with family living in that area until the mid-to-late 19th century, I noticed many aspects of Jones’ conversation that are applicable to that area as well. One practice some Ostfriesens had, particularly in the mid-to-late 19th century was to have a first name, a second name that was a patronym, and a last name that was a surname.

But as a reminder to those who had families from other of Europe–practices elsewhere may be different. Ostfriesland today is in Germany. My German ancestors from other areas of Germany did not practice these naming patterns. And Ostfriesland did not practice some of the naming tendencies that other areas of Germany did.

It is always worth remembering that what today is one country may be made up of many different ethnic or cultural regions and those different regions may have different practices.

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Too Much to Do and Don’t Care!

There are several reasons why errors appear in records.

Have you ever thought while filling out a form:

I have too much to do and I really don’t care information I put on this form.

A “they really don’t need to know this” may be added for effect.

The older I get and the more paperwork I complete for various things, the more I think this explains a significant number of discrepancies and errors in records.

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Thoughts on a 1943 Farm Ledger

The ledger of my Grandfather Neill’s farm expenses only covers a few years in the early 1940s. Aside from the initial novelty of World War II era prices, it’s an interesting insight into his life.

Transcribing it when I get to that point will be a slight challenge. However I do have some advantages. I won’t be transcribing this based solely on the handwriting. There are some advantages that I have.

I can read cursive.

I know something about farm life. No matter how neat the handwriting in a document may be, having a working knowledge of the occupation and time period in which the document was created helps to understand that document. I know the mash is to feed the chickens and that what may look like a “shirt” is actually a “shoat.”

The time period is not all that far from my own existence. Twenty-five years later I came into existence. The ledger does not pre-date my lifespan by all that much.

I’m familiar with the area. My grandparents lived one-half a mile from where I lived until I was in my early twenties. I know the names of all the little towns in the area. Many of the businesses Grandpa mentioned were will around when I was growing up. My own parents farmed as well and frequented some of the same businesses. Some of the individuals referenced were still living when I was a child and their names were ones that I heard. That knowledge helps when transcribing.

“Locker rent and dues.” That certainly is not a locker at any sort of fitness center. It’s likely a reference to the “locker plat” that was in Carthage, Illinois, and that was referenced as in the planning stages in a March 1939 article in the Warsaw Bulletin. The article stated that the rent at the Carthage facility would be between $10 and $14 a year. Grandpa indicated that in 1943 he paid $14.51 in “rent and dues.”

Of course not everyone can have this knowledge and I certainly don’t have that same level of knowledge when transcribing a document from Massachusetts in the 1750s. That’s something I have to remember when transcribing something created in a time period and a place with which I am unfamiliar. There is a learning curve. Google can help, but it only helps so much.

And the abbreviations. Those can be an entirely separate challenge all by themselves. The best advice is to wait until you have transcribed the entire to determine the ones that do not immediately come to you. Later references may make their intent a little more clear.

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Avoiding that “Go-to” Problem Solution

It can be easy to get stuck in a rut even when one is solving problems, finding answers, and making progress. One approach will not guarantee a solution to every problem.

One of my go-to solutions when a person seems to appear from the sky in a new location is to consider that they’ve been there for a while but hiding under a last name–often a last name of a step-father whose identity is unknown. That scenario was the one that found my ancestor Ira Sargent. Ira’s father died when Ira was around seven. His mother married again a few years later and Ira was known by that last name until he married in 1870. That’s why it looked like he just “appeared.”

Because that approach worked for me on a brick wall that was near and dear to my heart, it tends to be one that I think of first. But it’s not the only thing situation that could result in someone appearing to drop from the sky.

Always consider all the options when you are brainstorming scenarios to help you try and find records and answers. That “brick wall” may be a worse brick wall because you are stuck on one approach.

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A Private Tree for My DNA Results

Regular readers know that my family tree is full of relatives who are related to me in multiple ways and with relatives with whom I share relatives through connections they have with each other but do not have with me.

It’s confusing when a significant proportion of your tree came from a handful of areas and settled in one area and have lived there for nearly one hundred and fifty years. It makes the DNA matches and shared matches a twisted and tangled knot that makes seems like an infinite number of Mobius strips intertwined with each other.

To help deal with that, I have a working “tree” where that includes my known ancestors and as many of their descendants as I can reasonably locate. For some of those descendants, I have traced their “other ancestors,” ones that they do not share with me. Depending upon how the match and I are related to them, I may have traced that tree rather extensively. There may be errors in that portion of the tree and most of these families have not been researched extensively or exhaustively and some of this research has been somewhat superficial–at the risk of being perfectly honest.

Keep in mind that these people who have been researched in a somewhat superficial manner have no real bearing on my ancestry at all. These are great-great-grandparents of my third cousin on the “other side” of the family (the mother’s side who came from New England when I’m related to the father’s side from Maryland). They’ve only been traced to potentially help me with some of the shared DNA matches. Their connection to the ancestors and families I am working on is extremely tangential. These are not associates of my ancestors. These are people who lived hundreds of miles from my relatives and whose great-granddaughter eventually married a relative of mine.

That tree with all those extraneous names to use my own DNA analysis is kept private. It is not shared. It is not posted online. Why? Because I have not “worked it up” as well as I do the tree on my ancestors and their own family networks. It’s just for my own analytical work.

And because of that I keep it private–I don’t want to reproduce any errors.

But I need it because it helps me to analyze all the crazy multiple relationships in my tree.

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A Piece of Paper from my Cousin…

Years ago, early in my research I was having difficulty interpreting a phrase in an old document and was corresponding via regular mail with a distant relative about it.

They told me what the phrase meant and included a phototopy of a page from a typewritten list of legal phrases and their meanings as their “source.” There was no indication of the book from which the page was taken. There was no page number to suggest it had even been copied from a book, and frankly the page looked like it had been typed on a early 20th century typewriter and what I had was an umpteenth generation photocopy of that page.

The explanation of the phrase didn’t make complete sense to me and I asked my correspondent where they got it. Another relative had sent it to her, just like she had sent it to me.

I decided I needed a better reference.

Reference materials written by individuals with significant experience in the field and edited by others with just as much experience abound in genealogy. Don’t rely on unsourced sets of definition whose authorship is unknown or questionable.

You’d want to know the source of great-great-grandpa’s will. Find out the source of those definitions you are using to interpret what it says as well.

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Proving a Birth in 1850s Illinois

One is not always this fortunate. This record is from the guardianship of Francis and Louise Bieger, daughters of Peter Bieger. This wonderful document gave me the dates of birth for Francis and her sister.

The only drawback for the family was that the father had to die for the record to be created. How he died is another story altogether.

Peter died in 1855 in Warsaw, Hancock County, Illinois. He is my 3rd great-grandfather. This image came from a digital copy I made from the Family History’s microfilm of the county records.

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Where Did They Get That?

It can be a good problem-solving approach: asking yourself “where did they get that?”

The “that” can be anything.

It can be a piece of information. It can be a piece of family history ephemera. It can be a genealogical record. Sometimes the “where” can be on multiple levels, depending up on the item and what it contains.

How did the census record image get to your computer screen and how did the image get in the record in the first place? How did the information get in the newspaper obituary and how did that newspaper obituary get to you?

That letter you have from your grandfather to your grandmother? How did you end up with it?

All of these are things we need to think about as we analyze sources and the information they contain. Nothing simply “lands in your genealogical lap.” It arrived there somehow. Even if you make a fortunate, lucky discovery the information that record contained got there somehow. It didn’t all magically float to you.

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