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Guide 2 Genealogy   >   How Far Can You Go?

 

How Far Can You Go?


Tracing your ancestry is a bit like putting together a large jigsaw puzzle. With a puzzle, you must sift through a pile of shapes and locate those straight-edged pieces that form the border similarly, in genealogy, your research will also begin with pieces that fit easily, what is called "genealogical clues" within the family. You will start from bits of information gleaned from interviewing relatives and friends, and by sifting through photographs, letters, and memorabilia gathered over many years of family life.

Your success in tracing ancestral history may be directly proportional to skills developed during the initial research within the family. Combing sources at home and interviewing relatives will not only teach you much about evidence, but it will also stimulate your desire to continue searching in public archives and libraries.

Most families have collective memories that extend three to five generations. Thus, you can obtain basic information on your own generation and those of your parents and grandparents from interviewing relatives and searching family records. However, going further back will probably require much more serious research.

The acid test, and perhaps the key to your entire genealogical success, lies in how much your family can tell you about your eight great-grandparents and sixteen great-great grandparents, who probably lived in the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century. The century from the American Revolution or slightly earlier to 1875 or so is unquestionably the most difficult in American genealogy.

Families often disappeared entirely from written records during this period of expansion and large-scale migration. A New England family from Connecticut might have lived in four or five places, ranging from southern Vermont, to western New York, to Ohio or Illinois, then to Missouri or Kansas, and finally to Oregon or California. Similarly, a Virginia family might have migrated through the Shenandoah Valley to Kentucky, then moved into the border states of Tennessee and Missouri, and finally settled in Arkansas, Louisiana, or Texas.

In the "pioneer states", official records such as land, probate, and court records were often poorly kept, or not even kept at all. After you have identified most of your ancestors who lived between the American Revolution and the Civil War, the remainder of your research should become easier. Of course, identifying these relatives in the first place may be no easy task!

You should begin your search for these elusive nineteenth-century forebears with living relatives. In some cases, you may find that their memory extends considerably beyond three generations. Listen to your relatives' stories and gossip, and note their comments and biases in your research log. You should also not be afraid to contact relatives who don't know you but may remember your parents or grandparents. Of course, when information is passed along orally, there is always a possibility for errors or biases to creep in, so as with all information passed along through generations, you should always look for corroborative evidence.


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