Tuesday, March 23, 2021

About Documentation


Face it: when it comes to tracing a person's lineage, that simply cannot be done convincingly without the use of solid documentation. Documentation demonstrates legal connections—not just identifying who a person was, but how that person was connected to the generation beforehand. Whether through a demonstration of rights of inheritance via a marriage record or a will, or establishment and maintenance of property rights through deeds or property tax records, legal records—those documents we seek—help us trace our lineage back through the generations.

It may seem I'm picky, hearing my rants about lack of documentation linking my third great-grandmother, Delaney Townsend Charles, to her parents' generation. Why not simply grab onto the assertions written by countless others researching this same line? Surely someone knew what they were talking about.

While in the past, lineage societies such as the Daughters of the American Revolution may have accepted as "documentation" items which no longer are considered satisfactory demonstrations of relationship, today's standards may seem much more stringent. That, actually, is a good thing. That paper trail helps others check our work, establish that the reasoning is sound, and that our research has not led us down a mistaken line through faulty conclusions.

The degree of diligence in using documents to establish lines of relationship may seem overwhelming to some, until we get used to that way of thinking. It may, for instance, seem over the top to insist on discovering the year of publication of the family Bible into which all the Townsend dates of birth, marriage, or death were entered. But if that Bible had been printed after the fact of some of those dates, it would not be demonstrating that the record was created at the time of the actual occurrence, but at a later date.

Who's to say the scribe's memory was correct? Who's to say the date was not copied into the Bible incorrectly? While such errors may be made at the time of the event itself, as well, the point is that, when done at the time of the event, the entry is made for the purpose of memorializing the event—not for drawing up a list with the ulterior motive of qualifying oneself for a coveted designation.

The trouble with documentation is that some documents from the early 1800s—or before—may simply not survive the test of time. Some paperwork poorly tended simply disintegrates, given the ravages of time, weather, the gnawing of critters—not to mention the havoc of war, courthouse fires, or outright mismanagement of records (don't even get me started on jurisdictions which decide to simply toss the records outright).

While that may turn out to be the situation for the parents of Delaney Townsend, wife of Andrew J. Charles, the beauty of documentation is that sometimes, the lack of one type of record may possibly be substituted by a collection of other records. Missing a person in a census record? A collection of tax records may demonstrate that person's continued existence in a specific county, for instance.

At this point, the key documents missing from my search for Delaney are two-fold: not only do I still need some documentation demonstrating Delaney's link to her parents back in South Carolina, but I also need to find records demonstrating what became of her husband's property and the determination of who should care for her children after her death, upon Andrew Charles' passing.

To have not one but several documents missing—and in at least two different jurisdictions, as well—seems odd. But that strange coincidence may actually be pointing out one other factor: that we have come to rely all too heavily on the recent ease of computerized search efforts using digitized documents. 

As much as systems like Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org may make it seem, not everything is at our fingertips, and we are certainly far from having the entire world's historic documentation digitized. While we are not quite at the stage yet where it is possible to travel again to places where we can access records in person, a complete search may involve writing for records—something far more akin to what genealogical research used to look like before the convenience of computerized record retrieval.

And yet, this is the search we confront when we want to demonstrate a chain of events tying people together from different generations. Documents become a tangible way to display these connections, but they aren't the only way. There is one other demonstration we as genealogists may now use—the record sealed in the core essence of our being: DNA.


  1. Great post, Jacqi! And just because a record can't be found, that doesn't mean it isn't out there! When I get stuck, I just work up the rest of the family and sometimes the document needed will appear. Persevere!

    1. You are so right about that, Sandy: somehow, those documents do seem to appear, eventually. It keeps us revisiting those "stuck" spots on our tree--a good habit, in the long run.

      But I'm thinking I'm not patient enough to let this thing run its course. I'm considering reaching out, even during pandemic restrictions, to the local courts to inquire about those missing wills. The only way to definitely resolve the issue is to find a written record.


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