Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Surviving "Shopping"

No, not the dreaded Black Friday kind of shopping. Just shopping for our Thanksgiving dinner.

I thought I'd play it smart and slip into the grocery store early on Monday. Surely that was a recipe for avoiding the crowds.

Did I ever get that wrong. Adding to the mix was the fact that, just a few weeks ago, our local supermarket decided it would be a great idea to scramble the locations for all the usual staples of the season's big feast. The store actually had to station extra employees out on the floor to personally escort lost shoppers to the new location for flour for their pie crust, or cream for their coffee. The only constant in the layout was the place where we picked up our turkey; thankfully, the meat department was tethered to a part of the building built specifically for the butcher's duties, making it near-impossible to acquiesce to any redecorating whims.

I understand the psychology behind mixing things up in such familiar territory as a food market. After all, we eat something every day, and likely go to the store to pick up such essential items at least once a week (more frequently, if you are like our family). We probably don't even give it much thought that we have actually memorized the location of every item we purchase regularly. The store's layout seems to make sense to us, only because of the repeated patterns we've worn in the floor, zooming in and out as quickly as possible with our routine purchases. The store manager's hope is, by shifting locations, to induce those programmed shoppers, in their sudden confusion, to take a look around and realize what else is there to buy, as well. A sort of forced browsing. A way to put on the brakes, and in the meantime, reap a bit more profit from impulse buys.

I don't suppose anyone has ever considered the practice of working on a pedigree chart to be roughly akin to shopping for ancestors. And yet, we have developed a routine of rushing in to all our accustomed best places where we can, most predictably, snag a census enumeration, or a marriage record, or a will, and quickly be on our genealogical way. We know where to look for all the best family history bargains, and which documents will give us the most bang for our research buck. When we encounter an ancestor whose personal circumstances don't yield us any trace in all our favorite searching places, we are tempted to put up a howl of protest.

And yet, the manager's device to scramble all the go-to sources can pay off. It does, after all, make us take a look around—in confusion at first, yes, but perhaps that, too, can awaken the long-forgotten skill of opening our eyes and taking a look around.

Not that there is a "manager" trying to redecorate the family history resources we've come to rely upon the most. But occasionally, we encounter the same effect when we bump up against a "brick wall" ancestor. Take the immigrant family who arrived on American shores just after the 1880 census—and settled in a place where no state census was taken in the interim between that last available federal census of the 1800s and the first one of the 1900s. A lot can happen in a family in twenty years; those howls of protest over that missing 1890 census can be real for some researchers.

I'm going through those same howls in trying to track down my Rinehart family from Greene County, Pennsylvania. Perhaps owing to Simon Rinehart's penchant for moving to other states—first to Kentucky, then back to Pennsylvania before heading west to Ohio—he skipped town just when the usual documentation was being created for the benefit of us family historians two hundred years later. No store manager orchestrated that scrambled personal history, but I'm feeling that same sense of frustration, nonetheless.

The frustration, thankfully, prompts me to learn where else to look for all the usual traces of this family. If everything progressed exactly according to routine, I wouldn't have felt the need to learn how to look elsewhere.

If ever I've seen an excellent example of such resourcefulness, it would be among those researching their Irish ancestry. It is well known that the "store manager" exercising influence over the genealogical records layout of that nation had an unseen hand in destroying many of the most genealogically pertinent records of the early 1900s and half of the preceding century. What to do in a case like that?

Thankfully, the innate compulsion to know where we came from has superseded any external circumstances blocking research progress for those with Irish roots. The Irish have become wonderfully inventive in finding alternate resources for piecing together their family history. Though I first learned about such resourcefulness years ago, I still marvel at discovering that our Irish counterparts have learned to glean significant information, for example, from dog license applications. Could this really be true that a snippet from this document combined with a snatch from another could eventually add up to an accurate snapshot of an ancestor's place in history? That is how resourceful researchers learn to look around and combine the substitute records they've found when the customary sources aren't where they were accustomed to finding them.

It's true that we sometimes need a "store employee" to guide us directly to the new location for information we seek, and in this online era, we have assistants in abundance. Besides the blogs of major genealogy corporations, we have hundreds of volunteer genea-bloggers (and a few professionals who offer their commentary as a public service). We have digitizing services which post hundred-year-old genealogy books online for us to not only consult, but search with the convenience of a mouse click or touch screen. We have the crowdsourcing prowess of experienced peers who can be found at thousands of online forums, mailing lists, and even Facebook groups. Local genealogical societies are pondering ways to get into the act by adding digitized local resources to their own websites, either behind firewalls for members only, or on their main site for public access.

As it turns out, what was immediately inconvenient—whether at the grocery store yesterday or in my family history research last week—eventually gives way to the eye-opening experience of realizing there are other ways to achieve our purposes, whether in purchasing all the right ingredients for a Thanksgiving feast, or in locating records that will lead to the right answers about our ancestors. It's all there—somewhere—just not where we thought we'd find it.  


  1. You are a real searcher and I applaud your efforts, you never give up! :)

    1. Thank you, Far Side. That persistence comes with knowing that the answer will find me eventually. It may take a wait of ten or twenty years, but the answer does show up at some point for those who are patient about it.


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