For family history projects sitting squarely within the timeframe—in the United States, at least—of modern census and vital records documentation, the process of tracing one's family history becomes easier, the better we know those documents. When our modern record-keeping traditions fade from sight as we move deeper into the past, however, our research strategies need to change.
Now that I've pushed back in time on my mother-in-law's matriline—following her mother's mother's mother's maternal ancestors all the way to colonial times—I am now faced with having to discover who Elizabeth Howard's own ancestors might have been. That means finding the roots of my mother-in-law's fourth great-grandmother in mid-1700s Maryland.
As it turned out—and I nearly cringe when I say this—I found a shortcut. As we've already discussed, by virtue of Elizabeth's second marriage to John Whistler, I had found an unpublished Whistler family history which devoted a few paragraphs to Elizabeth's own origins. From the resources mentioned in that genealogy, a step-by-step research inquiry led me to a book, Anne Arundel Gentry, which seems a fairly reliable source of information.
While my overarching goal will be to locate documents which allow me to replicate—or reject—the details spelled out in the Howard family history, I realized there is one more step I need to take before I launch into the big document hunt: I need to map out the details found in the book in such a way as to move seamlessly from generation to generation.
Not only did the Anne Arundel Gentry book include an entry for Elizabeth Howard and her husband, William Ijams, but it systematically worked backwards through time on each of the families included in the book. Thus, for William Ijams' entry, there was an earlier entry for his parents. Likewise for Elizabeth's own line, I can look up her parents, then both sets of grandparents. In essence, the book promises to help me work my way back to the earliest settler ancestor in Maryland for each line preceding William and Elizabeth.
Rather than simply search through the book for each of those entries, I've decided to make notations of the names, dates, and locations the book provides as I systematically move from generation to generation. The most logical way for me to do that is to enter the tentative information into my genealogical database.
Yes, gasp, that means entering unproven information into my family tree, where others might (horrors!) copy and pass on as unsubstantiated information. However, if we use such tree-building programs as a tool for a work-in-progress, there is no way around such a risk. Anything we enter into our publicly-available trees could be a mistake. And yet, doing without such tools means making unnecessary work, so I've decided to let my ever-growing tree be what it is: a work in progress.
So, as I work my way backwards in time, I'm gleaning the details from the Gentry book and organizing it into my database. From that point, I'll begin searching for documents already referenced in the book—after all, my eyes want to see that we're not dealing with forgeries; we want real documentation. Beyond that, I'll do a third sweep through the proposed line of ascent by looking for documentation which wasn't specifically referenced in the book.
Having that plan in place eases my mind. Shuffling from page to page in the digitized book—thanks to Internet Archive—is a task for which I am grateful to have the resource, but simultaneously frustrated about for the seemingly disorganized layout of the book's sections. True, Elizabeth's family is but one small part of an overarching, and multiple-generational, genealogy. But I need a way to proceed through the bigger picture in a step-by-step fashion for my own purposes.
As I'm going through the pages, I'm finding the potential for some fascinating historical perspective. We'll look at those stories as we move through the generations, step by step, and connect the book's facts with outside resources. Keeping in mind one of my goals is to examine Elizabeth's own matriline—remember, I have a mitochondrial DNA test result with three potential matches to fit into this picture—I will focus on the female side of the family equation for as many generations as is possible.
That said, come this Monday, we'll begin examining what we can find from the clues offered in Harry Wright Newman's 1933 genealogy, Anne Arundel Gentry.