Context is Key: Understanding the Record within the Record Collection

Records don’t exist in a vacuum. (For the purposes of this post, I am referring to microfilmed images of records we have located online). It’s important to understand the record in terms of the collection it’s found in. Once we’ve located a record, we need to ask ourselves questions about the record and the collection. Questions such as:

Who created this collection?
Does my record fit in this collection?
Is there anything unusual about my record that other records in the collection don’t have?
Is something missing that should be there?
Is the record an original or a copy?
Are there gaps in this collection?
Does the collection have an index and if it does, was the index created at the same time as the record?

We can answer those questions in two ways:

First, by studying our record image and the images that come before it and after it on the microfilm. We can compare handwriting – is it all the same in the collection (indicating perhaps a clerk copied the information from elsewhere)? Have we gone to the beginning of the film (or the beginning of the Item number on the film) and studied any images that may appear of the book cover that our record comes from? As we do so, we gather information which helps us place our record in context.

Second, we can study the collection description, which is what this post focuses on.

Where to find collection descriptions?

A quick example using Ancestry

One of the results in a search for Patty Dawley, born about 1771 in Vermont, is a death record.

Context 1

The top red arrow in the image above points to the title of the collection that the record is found in. In this example, the record is in Ancestry’s collection titled, ‘Vermont, Vital Records, 1720-1908’. The red arrow in the middle gives us further source information on the collection, including where the original data came from and which repository was responsible for first compiling the collection.

The red arrow toward the bottom points to the description of the collection and this is where Ancestry does a decent job of describing the collection further. Click on the Learn more… in the blue circle and a page will appear with a search box at the top, allowing you to search only within this collection. But page down, past the Source Information we just saw on the previous page. Here we are given more information (see image below) about the collection, including a brief history of when vital records were kept in Vermont, when the law came into being which dictated the keeping of those vital records and the availability of the records. Any known gaps in the records are also given. All of this information helps us to place into context our specific record. Perhaps even more than that, the description of the collection allows us to determine whether a record we are seeking exists in this particular collection.

Context 2

Another example using FamilySearch

Familysearch.org offers excellent descriptions of its record collections. Begin here at the Category: FamilySearch Historical Records Published Collections. This is an alphabetical listing of all the FamilySearch historical record collections (only the published ones). Find the collection you are interested in and click on the link provided. We’ll use the Arizona Marriages collection as an example:

Context 3
Image showing Category: FamilySearch Historical Records Published Collections

 

Context 4
Image showing Arizona Marriages collection description within the FamilySearch Historical Records Collection

There is a wealth of information on the individual collection page. The red arrow above points to the Contents of the page.  Of great importance is the general collection description which states that this is an index only collection so we will not find images of the actual marriage documents here. There is a coverage table and map showing which counties are covered by this index. There is information on what to do if you are unable to find your ancestor in the collection. The blue arrow points to the ability to access and search the collection from this page.

When we understand the record collection, we are better able to understand our specific record. Genealogists consider the weight of evidence in each document they use. Understanding why and how that document was created aids in being able to effectively weigh the evidence the document provides.

As important as it is to understand the collection our record is in, it is equally important to understand the laws at the time the record was created. Next week’s post will focus on how the laws of the time influenced the records created by our ancestors.

Locating Original Records for ‘Text Only’ Indexes on Ancestry

We’ve all seen them. Those Ancestry search results that pop up with a few details but without an image attached. They provide tantalizing bits of information but thorough researchers know that they need to find the original record, if at all possible.

Index
Image from Ancestry.com

These ‘Text-only’ collections can often be used as a finding aid to the original record. I was surprised to learn how many people don’t realize that there is another, more important, step to take.  The clue is in the FHL film number given.

Index arrow

This is where we head over to Familysearch.org and using the top menu, hover our cursor over Search. A drop-down menu appears, and we select Catalog. A search page appears with various search options. We want to search by Film/Fiche Number.

Index Catalog
Image from Familysearch.org

Click on Film/Fiche Number and enter the FHL film number which you located on the Ancestry ‘Text-only’ record. Familysearch.org displays a list of the microfilm/s with that number and which contain the original records.

Index Films

The information we found on the ‘Text-only’ record tell us that the birth date of the Craft child in question was 17 October 1883. We can see in the image above that the first film covers birth registers for the years 1880-1913, and this is where we will find the original record. Once we click on that film, we are given a screen which displays the Film/Digital Notes.

Index film notes

The second entry shows us it is for the Register of births, no. 1-2 1880-1900 and we are in luck, as a small camera icon is displayed. This means that the film is available to browse online. Clicking on that camera icon will take you to the original microfilmed images and it is a matter of navigating through the film to 17 October 1883 to find the entry for the child. Always take note of the Item number/s on the film (in this case, Items 2-3) as they will guide you to where those records begin.

Tip: You may be tempted to click on the magnifying glass icon shown in the image above as this indicates a link to a Familysearch index. But be warned, if you do so, you will find yourself looking at the indexed entry again with no image.

Index May

Having the original record in our hands, we might think we have completed our research with this film. But here is another tip … if the film also contains an index to the registers, it is always worth searching it! Going back to those film notes, we can see that this film does contain images of the original Indexes to the Register of Births.

Index film notes green

This is how I discovered a previously unknown child. By searching the microfilmed indexes under C for Craft (and knowing that this family remained in the same place for several years), I was able to confirm all the births of the known children. However, I found one more entry in that Index to Register of Births  for a child that I had no knowledge of.

Index Unknown

By going back to the film and navigating to entry 2501 in Book 1, page 192 as was shown on the Index to the Register of Births, I was able to find a male child (unnamed at the time) born 8 January 1894. This child must have died as an infant as he does not appear in any further records for this family.

Index Craft child

My tips:

  • Sound genealogical research means we should always try to locate the original record from an indexed entry.
  • If searching on Ancestry.com (or anywhere else) and you find a FHL (Family History Library) film number, head to Familysearch.org and locate that film. If you are lucky, it will be available to view online.
  • Always check the Index to a Register, if filmed, for the name you are researching.

 

RootsTech 2019: Over 30 Classes on DNA!

DNA

RootsTech is always on the cutting edge of what’s new in genealogy. Look back at RootsTech 2018 and see the emphasis on DNA from Angie Bush’s presentation “You’ve Taken a DNA test, Now What?” to Diane Southard and Lisa Louise Cooke’s, “A DNA Match with No Tree? No Problem!”. DNA is a hot topic these days and RootsTech never fails to keep up by  providing a rich variety of classes and labs focused on using DNA in our research.

RootsTech 2019 offers over 30 classes/labs on DNA!

I took a look at the 2019 conference schedule found here (it’s a tentative schedule so subject to change) and used the search box on the left of the page to only look for sessions or labs on DNA. There are over 30 different classes or labs on some aspect of DNA! That’s an incredible resource for anyone looking to learn more about how to use their DNA results. There are classes tailored to all levels of difficulty from beginners to advanced.  There are classes on which DNA tests are available and which ones to use depending on your goals, classes on using third-party tools like GEDMatch and DNAPainter, classes and labs on techniques such as using your shared matches, visual phasing, chromosome mapping, and creating a DNA triangulation table. There are classes on analyzing Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA and classes dealing with endogamy. Whichever aspect of DNA you are interested in, there is likely a class or lab at RootsTech 2019 that will address that!

Why the emphasis on DNA?

On 28 October 2018, the Board for Certification of Genealogists came out with new standards regarding the use of DNA as another form of evidence in our research. More information can be found here. DNA results go hand in hand with other evidence in the forming of any conclusions we make. You may not be a professional genealogist or hold a credential but thorough researchers know that good, in-depth research means you look everywhere and you use everything that may help in providing an answer to your research question.  DNA evidence can be part of that reasonably exhaustive search.

RootsTech 2019 will be a great way to gain more education on exactly when and how to use DNA, in conjunction with documentary evidence, to answer that stubborn research question you may have.

*Don’t forget to visit the Expo Hall in between all your DNA classes to take advantage of the special prices on DNA kits. Every year that I’ve attended RootsTech (this will be my 5th year!) there have been great specials on DNA kits, I expect 2019 will be the same.

Hope to see you February 27 – March 2, 2019 at RootsTech!

 

 

 

Is it really a brick wall?

brick-wall

Recently, I’ve noticed quite a few posts in various genealogy groups where people are asking for help. That’s not new, of course. What seems to be new, or perhaps I’ve just noticed it more, is that the request for help is preceded by a sentence like this, “I’ve hit a brick wall! I’ve been looking all over Ancestry for my grandfather’s birth certificate for a few weeks now and I can’t find it.”  Or something like this, “Please help with my brick wall. I’ve looked everywhere for a month now and can’t find the marriage certificate of my great grandparents who were married in 1870.”

I started thinking about that term ‘brick wall’ as it’s used in genealogy. Have we really hit a brick wall after searching for a few weeks? Have we hit a brick wall if we are only searching online for information? The answer is no. What those pleas for help show is a common misconception that all genealogical material is online and secondly, they show a lack of understanding of one of the main tenants of the Genealogical Proof Standard (the GPS). The first step in accurate research (the GPS has five steps in all), is that our searches should be reasonably exhaustive. Can you truly have exhausted all avenues of research if you are only researching online or if you’ve done it for a few weeks and given up in frustration? A reasonably exhaustive search would imply we have a) educated ourselves as to which records are available that may help our search and b) we have searched for those records, both online and in brick and mortar repositories either ourselves or by asking (and sometimes paying) others to do so for us. I have had some of my best success in locating records previously searched for and not found, by reaching out to local historical and genealogical societies, and to libraries and archives (librarians and archivists are a genealogist’s best friend!).

So how do you define your brick wall? Is it a time issue? You’ve been searching for over 5 years, 10 years, longer with nothing to show for it? (A person could say though that you have negative evidence then so really you do have something to show for it).  Is it an issue of record availability, in that, the records do not exist and no other record sources have helped in solving the problem (think burned U.S. counties here, or the 1890 census, or the loss of records in the fire in the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1922)? Although again, there are substitute record sets that may help. Is your brick wall an adoption or other NPE (Non-Paternity Event) that DNA has not been able to solve (yet)? I have a couple of brick walls that fall into those categories, one of which is the search for the death of my great-grandfather Harry Joshua Davis. I’ve been searching for his date and place of death for over 15 years now. You can read more about him here.

frustratedmanBrick wall research can be frustrating so it’s good to break from it and work on other lines and go back every now and then to see if fresh eyes can bring a different perspective. It’s always good advice to educate yourself on the history of the area and what records may be available – no sense searching for a birth certificate in North Carolina in 1883 when they didn’t start recording birth information until 1913. Know the history, know the records is a mantra I often find myself repeating and one I wrote more about here.

 

While some hobbyists may not be too worried about employing a reasonably exhaustive search, serious family historians and genealogy professionals know the importance of being confident that we have conducted a reasonably exhaustive search before we make any conclusions. And even then, we know that new evidence may turn up that could overturn those conclusions. Brick walls don’t exist when we have only searched online or when we have only been searching for a short time and don’t really know where else to search. Those are bumps in the research road…. they may well lead to a brick wall in the future but without reasonably exhaustive research they are still just a bump in the genealogical road.