When you tell someone that you are working on your family tree, what's the first question you usually get? In my experience, that question often is: "How far have you gone?"
As if the quest to learn more about our roots is solely focused on taking a straight line into our family's distant past, people expect the answer to reflect the far reach of multiple centuries. Admittedly, a well-researched and documented tree reaching to the 1600s or beyond can be impressive—but often because it involves relationship to nobility, not just number of generations covered.
Those of us who struggle to push beyond the brick walls of immigrants in the 1800s, for instance, may be envious of such public admiration—you've got to admit, dropping a gem like "I'm related to Charlemagne" may be an impressive conversation starter at a dinner party—but there's one detail I've gleaned along the way that has made me change my tune. Instead of looking backward in time, peering into the far reaches of family history, when I get stuck, I look sideways.
Doing an end-run around my brick wall, I call it, but most genealogists know this tactic as working on collateral lines. What we may not be able to find while working on our great-great-great grandparents, for instance, may become details that are easily discoverable if we, instead, start researching their siblings.
Working on collateral lines has helped me answer many genealogical questions in the past. You could say when it comes to researching collateral lines, experience has made me a believer. That's why, in delving further into this month's research question—learning more about the family of John Stevens' second wife Eliza Murdock—the discovery this week of a sibling's will naming two more family members was truly a research gift. Knowing that the deceased man was unmarried and thus childless, it might have seemed hardly worth the effort—but it turned out to be a valuable discovery which otherwise would have been missed entirely.
Granted, with each step bringing us closer to collateral lines, we move another step farther from our direct line. Worse, when we begin such a search, we have no way of knowing whether the effort will be productive. But if the material is easily accessible—in this case, it was—and if we can always keep our eye on our end goal (in other words, not fall down a research rabbit hole), it can be well worth the time to see whether any further information materializes.
It will take me a few more days of constructing a quick family tree and attaching documentation to get my bearings on these two new lines associated with Eliza Murdock. My hope is that I will discover two additional details. One is to learn where and when Eliza's father died so I can obtain documentation on a previous generation in her direct line. The other is to have enough information to trace the Murdock family's immigration trail on their many stops between Ireland and Indiana.
Will I find that, simply by exploring what can be found about these two new sisters, Sarah and Ellen Murdock? Again, there is no guarantee. But I will never know unless I give it a reasonable try.
I base my faith in this process on prior experience. Collateral lines have been a great resource, based on my past forays into such diversions. Perhaps that is why I've never been rigid about "rabbit holes" and other detours. If based on reasonable assumptions and coupled with access to helpful documentation, these are not frivolous deviations from research goals. In fact, discoveries through exploration of collateral lines can augment our understanding of our family's history.