Saturday, February 3, 2024

The Problem With Good Advice that it doesn't always work in every situation.

Take the advice given to those of us who are just starting out on the adventure of discovering our family history: start with yourself, then move backwards through the generations, step by step. Granted, that is good advice, a solid recommendation. It works great in this age of decennial census records, birth and death records linked to names and birthplaces of parents.

When we slip past that era of government obsession with records built to identify people, things begin to change for the family researcher. Precious few documents before 1850 are there to identify the names of an ancestor's previous generation. Baptismal records might help, if one's ancestors were of the church-going type whose denomination believed in baptizing infants—and keeping written records of such sacraments. Other than that, before the 1850 census, the world of records research becomes a very different place.

There are still resources, of course. Wills come to mind as an excellent way to reconstruct an ancestor's family constellation—but in this case, it is far harder to find a son in an unknown father's will than it is to verify the names of children in the will of a known father. Most wills I've seen were drawn up by a parent seeking to bestow support upon those left behind—children and grandchildren for the most part, seldom siblings or members of any previous generation.

This suggests to me the idea that, when working on research problems pre-dating 1850 in American genealogy, it would be far easier to start with the founding immigrant ancestor, then take the long slide forward to the present—a "descendants of" approach—exactly the opposite of the "ancestors of" advice given to beginners today. And yet, if we don't know an ancestor's father's name, how are we to find that ancestor in his father's will?

Thankfully, those organizations which specialize in digitizing centuries-old records for online access have finally gotten the clue that indexing a will to make searchable all the names mentioned in the document would be the immense help that it is. The problem is that not all microfilmed wills are yet indexed—set up in such a way as to be all-names searchable—and those that are microfilmed represent the subset that hadn't yet been lost to extreme age, courthouse fires, or rampages of nature or other approaching enemies.

As it turns out, some of the courthouse records for Spotsylvania County, Virginia, home of the Carter family I researched last month and the Chew family I'm beginning work on this month, may have suffered such a fate. A move of the courthouse in 1839 resulted in many missing loose papers prior to that date. Of the wills still available, the torn-and-taped condition of brittle pages plus the cross-hatched effect of ink bleeding through pages from the opposite side yield nearly illegible text, as we saw in the search for John Carter's will last month.

Transcriptions—or even abstracts—can help quicken the pace of discovery, and I've lately been doing searches through such more recently-published finding aids. Once I locate a reference to a possible ancestor—or part of that person's family—I can quickly review the entire constellation of family names to see whether it is worthwhile to locate a scan of the original will. It spares my eyes as well as speeding up the process. But better yet is that such a process offers the ability to short-circuit that oft-repeated advice to start with yourself and move backwards, by jumping ahead to the unknown generation and examining the forward-looking list of the deceased's progeny, which includes the names I do know.

While it is true that old genealogy books published in the last century may also serve as capable research guides, it is also possible that the text contains mistakes. Better to check out that information ourselves. Using a volume of abstracted court documents—if searchable online—can surely speed up that process for those counties in which the records are still not available in a searchable format. As we go through the books on the Chew and Beverley lines this month, I'll also be exploring what can be found by some alternate resources online.

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