Tag Archives: research

Are Your Ancestors the Average of 5 Records?

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“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” ~~Jim Rohn

Jeff Goins included this quote in a recent newsletter and it got me thinking. If we are shaped by the people whom we surround ourselves, what about our ancestors? No doubt that they were influenced by other family members and the neighbors.

But what about our perception of our ancestors? What shapes that “sense of identity” that we form about them? Since we can’t speak directly to most of them, we have to rely on the records they left behind.

The question we need to consider is “What records are we surrounding them with?”

The 5 Records

There are 5 basic records that we look for and tend to be the ones we spend the most time with:

  1. Birth record
  2. Marriage record
  3. Death record
  4. Census
  5. Either an obituary or a tombstone

These can be great records. We need to look for them! (I won’t go into why we need to look for our ancestors in every census; I’ll leave that soapbox for another time!) The problem is when we stop with these records.

The Problem With Averages

Averages don’t give a complete picture. They don’t reflect the high points and low points. They don’t show the oddities. They only show the middle ground.

The 5 basic records put together a framework — an average — of that person. But there are so many more records that can fill in the highs and the lows, the everyday facts and the outlier events.

Military. Probate. Church. Court. Newspapers. Diaries. Land. Tax. School. Guardianship. Pension. Institutional. Organization. Business. License. Letters. Each of these — and many more — will add something new to the equation and can change that “average” view that you have.

It’s easy to fall into a rut with your research. Don’t feel bad — it happens to all of us! Take a look around and ask yourself if you’re letting your ancestors be the average of just 5 records. Then ask yourself what will be record #6 and beyond.

Are your ancestors the average of 5 records

Instead of Failing, Read the Instructions

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“When all else fails, read the instructions.”

How often have we heard that adage? How about reading the instructions before — and instead of — failing? It’s a strategy we should use in our genealogy.

It’s easy to be lured into searching a new website or a new database because its title seems to include everything. When we don’t find what we’re looking for, we go away thinking that our ancestor wasn’t <fill in the blank> — wasn’t born in that place during that time, wasn’t married in that state, wasn’t buried in that cemetery.

The problem with that conclusion is that it could be totally and completely wrong. Fortunately, there is a way to get around this.

read-instructionsRead the instructions.

A friend of mine on Facebook shared that FamilySearch has updated its collection of Ohio death records: Ohio, County Death Records, 1840-2001. Death records for Ohio through 2001?! Awesome!

There’s just one drawback. It doesn’t cover every county for all of those years. From the description of this database:

Index and images of death records from county courthouses. In some instances we did not have rights to publish images of records included in the index. Most of the records in this collection are death registers created before statewide death certificates in 1908. Death certificates issued by the state are published in the collection called Ohio Deaths, 1908-1953.1)FamilySearch, Ohio, County Death Records, 1840-2001. Accessed 13 January 2015.

This is our clue that this doesn’t have all of the death records for the entire state of Ohio from 1840-2001. Unfortunately, there’s no direct link to tell what is included. For that, we can browse the collection and look at what is included for individual counties. Belmont County has death certificates ranging from 1940 through 1982 (for some letters). Athens County has Death Records, 1867-1908 and Soldiers burial records, 1898-1912. Delaware County only has Death Records, 1867-1907.

Let’s say I’m looking for someone who I think died in Ohio in 1960. If he died in Belmont County, I might find them in this collection. If he died in Delaware County, I won’t. It isn’t that he didn’t die in Ohio. He just died in a county in a time that isn’t included in this collection. That’s a big difference than “he didn’t die in Ohio.”

It’s Everywhere

My example is from FamilySearch, but it could be any website – commercial or non-profit. Ideally, there’s a page (or at least a paragraph!) describing what is in that database and where it came from. Look for links that say “Learn more” or “About this collection.”

Archives have followed this pattern for years. It’s common practice to name a collection with the date of the earliest record and the date of the newest record that it contains. “Smith family papers, 1830-1912.” Sometimes they will add to the title “[bulk 1861-1895]” to indicate that most of the records are in this time span. (Yes, the Smith family papers has something dated 1830 and 1912, but most of the papers are from 1861-1895.) However, sometimes it’s in the collection’s description and not the title.

Yes, Even Books

You would think that a book that’s titled Franklin County, Ohio, cemeteries, vol. 2 Madison Township2)Franklin County Genealogical Society. Franklin County, Ohio, cemeteries, vol. 2 Madison Township. Columbus: by the society, 1980. would contain readings from all of the legible tombstones in those cemeteries. So you turn to the back of the book for the index, look for your ancestor and don’t find them. Well, they must not be buried in Madison Township (or maybe they have an illegible stone); either way, there’s no tombstone to find. Right? Wrong.

In the section for Union Grove Cemetery is this notice:

“Stones with death dates through 1920 were included in this reading.”

If your ancestor might be buried in Union Grove. But if he died after 1920, he’s not in this book.

Explore Before You Search

So often, we see a website or a new database whose title tantalizes us and brings visions of finding that Brick Wall Ancestor. We dive right in, doing search after search. Sometimes we find what we’re looking for, but often we walk away without any new information. What’s worse is that we leave thinking that our ancestor wasn’t part of whatever that collection was about.

It’s normal to be excited about a new database or a new book. But don’t set yourself up for failure. Take a minute or two and explore what that database or book is all about. You’ll have much more success this way.

References   [ + ]

1. FamilySearch, Ohio, County Death Records, 1840-2001. Accessed 13 January 2015.
2. Franklin County Genealogical Society. Franklin County, Ohio, cemeteries, vol. 2 Madison Township. Columbus: by the society, 1980.