Thursday, March 9, 2023

Research Goals and Best Laid Plans


I've been reading a book lately—okay, so it's taken me nearly six months just to get to page 136—and ran across a quote worth considering while I'm stuck here on my latest research goal. Yeah, I thought it would be far easier to set family history research goals spaced one month apart—the better to fall down rabbit holes and emerge relatively unscathed—but there was one element I hadn't taken into account.

Here's the quote, to get started. It's from author James Clear's book, Atomic Habits, which I would never have found, if it hadn't been mentioned in Luke Burgis' book, Wanting, the volume I'm still working—and thinking—my way through.

We don't rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems.

Luke Burgis continues the thought with his own explanation: "Our goals are the product of our systems." Or rather, as I'm discovering, our ability to attain our goals is limited by our systems.

Granted, his concept is far broader than what it seems in this tiny snippet of Burgis' work, and I certainly invite you to explore his book's expanded explanation (that's where page 136 comes in). But just for today, let's extract that one thought and apply it to my system of selecting my Twelve Most Wanted for any given research year.

The problem is that while I select a target ancestor for whom an entire month's latitude seems ample to explore his or her life's story, I have not taken into account a corollary system: that of time periods and available resources. It is all quite fine to take one month to explore great-great-grandmother's life and times in mid-western America in the 1890s, when newspaper printing presses were humming and government agencies were ramping up the record-keeping prowess of an emerging empire's every activity. When we move to the edges of civilization, though—whether time-wise or by location—a month may not be adequate when we factor in other restrictions.

In the case of researching my fourth great-grandfather, Peleg Tilson, system restrictions stretch to include record accessibility. Sure, there may be microfilms capturing original tax records for Peleg's Washington County, Virginia, obligations, but if I, researching today in California, cannot access those files without traveling to the location of my ancestor, one month may not be enough time for me to make any progress on my goal. The systems working against me need to be factored into my goal-setting equation.

True, there are ways around this dilemma, as well as plenty of time to resolve any impasses. has ample digitized resources for Washington County, requiring only that I present myself at the appropriate physical site to access them. As it turns out, stuck where I am today without any access to such repositories, I can find alternate resources. The Library of Virginia has some online items available, such as this web page, "Best Sources for Virginia Research by Time Period." And the Virginia Museum of History and Culture offers up this checklist of helpful resources.

It is always better to access original documents than to take transcriptions at face value. Having found resources such as the ones I just mentioned, I decided to look for the records mentioned in the Gordon Aronhime papers I had reviewed the other day. Alas, what I found was disappointing. Regarding the tract of land near that of Elisha Dungan, dated by Aronhime as 1796, his identification of grantees as Peleg Tilson and Lemuel Tilson looked more, in the handwritten copy, like Samuel Tilson and—worse—Peter Tilson, not Peleg.

Admittedly, when looking at the digitized document itself, the handwriting stirs up questions in its own right. Look closely at the "S" in Samuel, then down a line to the "L" in "land" and the difference in the two letters is nearly imperceptible. Could that actually be "Lamuel"? After all, the same name entered again at the bottom of the document looks more like Semuel than Samuel. And if that is the case with Samuel instead of Lemuel, what about the entry read by Aronhime as Levi? Was that really supposed to be Sevi? 

Granted, even that pristine digitized copy could be a transcription of a 225-plus year old document. But that possibility, again, would take time to thoroughly research—plus require time to access people knowledgeable in the maintenance of such government records. Once again, the point stands which James Clear made about the necessity of taking into account the systems we need to work with. If there is no system at hand with which to find what we are researching, no amount of goal-setting will solve the problem.

That said, I'm still convinced there is a way to connect my Peleg Tilson with his forebears. After all, there are other writers from previous centuries who were convinced of his connection. The trick is being able to find the resources they used to document that ancestral path.

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