Tracing Family History

by : Joseph Yakel

People who decide to trace their family histories seem to fall into of two groups: A) they know next to nothing about their family, and need to begin researching from scratch, or B) they already have a good knowledge about their family, but need to document it properly and fill in some blanks. In both instances, the records review will be about the same, albeit it more intense for people in situation A.

Researchers rely on numerous public and private resources and records to confirm family connections. I fit these into a couple of categories as well: Primary and Secondary, or Supplementary resources. Both categories of resources are important and fulfill their own purposes in developing the family history. In fact, they share a mutually complimentary effect with one another that should not be overlooked by the diligent researcher, and will be explained hereafter.

Primary sources are the biggies, such as civil and church records describing births, baptisms, confirmations, marriage, and deaths, census data, naturalization records, newspaper articles, family bibles, and grave markers. All of these records contain hard facts, with names, dates and family relationship landmarks, and serve as the foundation and structure for the family members you are researching.

The Secondary or Supplementary resources provide filler information. You may think of these resources as the ones that add details to bind and hold the structure and foundation together. In other words, they round out the histories of the family members you are discovering. These resources include city directories, tax rolls, voter registrations, property indentures, letters, local history books, photographs, and oral history. Don’t discount these resources! They provide excellent details and can be crucial as you progress through your research work.

If you are starting your research from scratch, many people find that the best way to begin the tracing process is to start with yourself and work your way backward. You should consider the important facts, events and dates related to your own life, and what you know about any siblings, and your parents. It’s best to keep a notebook handy to jot things down as you begin your investigation. I also recommend using a reputable genealogy software program to input your research data and notes. After recording details about yourself, your siblings and parents, move back to your grandparents, being careful to document your reference sources as you regress. This lays out the basic foundation for your family tree. Continue your research in this methodical manner.

I liken the research process to that of an ebb tide. It is a back and forth flow of information, with highs and lows related to the amount of information available during particular periods in our history. You may actually find it harder to research family history in the 20th century than it is in the 19th century. Why? Well, one reason is the federal census, or lack thereof. Census information can only be released to the public after 72 years. The 1930 Federal census, released in 2002, is the most recent federal census available. Access to other recent public records, such as birth certificates, can also be much more difficult to come by. I have found that records from the mid-to-late 1800’s through the early 1900’s seem to be most plentiful. As one regresses in time prior to the mid-1800’s, public records become increasingly more difficult to find.

Consequently, one of the major problems with regressive research is that it becomes increasingly difficult to verify family ties. Older records may be missing first names, surnames, list only initials, or be so poorly written that they lack sufficient or specific details to bind a connection (such as linking a child to parents in a birth record, or linking a woman to her parents in a marriage record). Another ‘show stopper’ problem is that, eventually, the researcher will 'hit the wall' with the regressive research, and reach a point where there simply aren’t any written records left to review. Generally, as one regresses further and further in time, the more difficult it becomes to verify family relations.

These problems are more often the rule, rather than the exception, for 'common folk'. Researching families of stature or royalty is often less onerous (up to a point), because these people have well documented historical references. With an abundance of additional documentation and history to rely on, royals and families of status can be traced back, in some cases, hundreds of years further than common stock families. Rest assured, however, that one will eventually hit the wall no matter who is being researched. For common people, the wall is usually reached sooner, which translates into the verified lineage with a smaller number of generations than that of royalty.

However, all is not lost if royal blood does not course through your veins and leaves of stature do not fill the branches of your family tree. It may be possible to extend your reach, and bridge ‘the wall’ for a period of time. For starters, your research must be exceedingly thorough and balanced in approach. If it is, and the conditions are right, you may be able to use a deductive reasoning technique in your research processes to bridge the wall.

What do I mean by this? First let me tell you what deductive reason is not. It is no guessing game, a stab in the dark, or a linkage of names simply because you have found someone else with a family tree with the same surnames as yours.

Deductive reasoning involves using a foundation of known information, and analyzing it in such a way as to make valid, objective, educated arguments for a family ancestral connection. Making such a case requires multiple pieces of information, oftentimes with supplementary resources, that logically tie personal circumstances together, consider facts that would otherwise exclude or negate the relationships in question from being established (in other words, it would take into account known details that would clearly contradict the relationship that the researcher merely 'wants' to make), and at the same time, having met those prior conditions, methodically and logically seems to 'fit' in with the known family history. The more pieces of complimentary facts and information that can be considered, obviously, the stronger the case becomes. Depending upon the particulars, there may not be enough additional supplementary resources to make a deductive reasoning insofar as establishing an additional family tie.

In my own case, I was able to apply the deductive reasoning approach with great success. My family lineage stopped six generations back. However, I had strong suspicions of linkage between my 6th generation ancestor and those who I believed were his 7th generation parents. No single piece of information explicitly showed this relationship. Partial names on birth certificates, marriage records, etc., prevented a definitive family tie from being established. However, additional details, like birth dates, Godparents names on baptismal records, names of marriage witnesses, references to known siblings, and other supplementary details were enough to bridge this wall, and conclude that a direct family tie existed between the 6th generation male and the 7th generation parents.

Once I made this connection, I was able to follow the 7th generation father back another two generations. So, it was the deductive reasoning technique that bridged the research wall, and gave me three full generations of lineage to claim as my own. I hit the next wall when I determined the 9th generation father. This wall was reached when my research records ran out. This time frame was about the 1600’s, when the first written church records began in the Rhine area where my ancestors once lived. With no earlier records to review, I do not have enough secondary resources to deduce further ties earlier than the 9th generation family. However, I continue to research, and if I come across additional resources, I may, yet again, be able to bridge the genealogy wall.

Reviewing my case, I was reasonably sure that the family tie I deduced, based upon all of the evidence I had collected, validated and objectively compared, and not being contradictory to anything already relevant to my known ancestors, was enough to confirm this 6th-7th generation relationship.

As it so happens, about a year after I had used my deductive reasoning technique to determine this linkage, a friend from Germany sent me some very old records he had obtained. Included therein was proof positive that the father-son link I had deduced was, in fact, correct. Obviously this proof pleased me, but it went further, confirming my own objective, meticulous genealogical research processes. That confirmation was quite satisfying.

Deductive reasoning is not a technique that can be applied by everyone, but it is a possible solution to consider when you’ve hit the genealogy wallHealth Fitness Articles, and are looking for a way to break through it.

Best of luck as you trace your history!