Imagine with me, for a moment, a hypothetical instance one hundred years from now, in which a descendant who never had the pleasure of meeting you decides to try his or her hand at the genealogical inquiry of your grandparents' whereabouts. Think of all the twists and turns that this future researcher might encounter.
In the case of my own maternal grandparents, I know that if the only tool I had to track their whereabouts was the decennial census record, I would have had great doubts about what I was finding. That family would surface, once every ten years, in places as far flung as Maryland, Florida, Michigan, and Colorado—even though their address of record was, for over forty years, in Columbus, Ohio.
Of course, I know the reason why: a desperate father during the Depression, fighting to find a job adequate enough to support his family, went to great lengths to attend to his duties.
But I only know that because my mother told me so. What about those future researchers who never would have known my grandparents? Who might never have had the opportunity to hear the family stories? The shreds of documents available to them might only offer disjointed slivers of the big picture. How can these researchers put the story back together again?
If you've followed me as I retraced the possible route of distant branches of my ancestral line through Georgia to Kentucky and then Missouri, you might be realizing that my situation has not been much different than the hypothetical future researcher we've just been considering. Left with nothing more than the "road map" of census records—and even hampered in my research by "burned counties" destitute of even the documentation normally considered in such a pursuit of family history—I've been faced with a puzzle as to how family whose members typically headed in one direction would suddenly show up somewhere else.
As I've belabored the minutiae of old migratory patterns in the early United States this past week, you may have wondered, "Why go through all this trouble?" After all, the exercise didn't really help me break through any brick walls. I'm still as puzzled about the nexus between my "exact match" mtDNA cousin and my own branch of our mutual matrilineal line as ever.
The exercise, however, is one I would categorize as a research investment. It provided me the confirmation I needed to see that such a different route was plausible. And it gave me an idea which branch of the family might be the one yielding the most answers if I look at it more closely. After all, I'm pushing back, generation by generation, testing each female descendant to see which one is the possible link. Though the families did tend to intermarry—and repeat that tendency, generation after generation—I may well have a viable target to research with this Gilmer branch of the extended line.
Besides, the exercise broadens our understanding of what our ancestors went through, in their quest to find yet a better homeland. If family history seeks to broaden our understanding of what those ancestors peopling our genealogy once faced, knowing the routes they took and the reasons why they did so adds so much more to the story of our heritage.
I'm not alone in that assumption. In an informative blog post outlining several of the early American migratory pathways—and who was most likely to use each one—genealogist Amie Bowser Tennant concluded,
Learning about migration routes can help you overcome obstacles in your research, uncover previously untapped resources, and lead you to your ancestors’ homeland.
As for my own foray into the possible routes that led one branch of my extended family away from the deep South—and hopefully toward a connection with the line from which my mystery cousin descended—I'll use that as a springboard to examine who else might have traveled with the family of John Thornton Gilmer from Kentucky to Missouri. After all, if travel conditions to this wilderness called for the safety of numbers, there may have been other family members in the company. I need to examine those families, as well.
While it still means researching a sizeable number of possible relationships, at least it provides the focus to hone in on one family line. Tightening the parameters is certainly a welcomed option.