November 18th, 2011

Don’t Get Burned – 7 Questions to Ask When You Discover the Records You Need Were Lost

I was once hot on the trail of an ancestor, and had narrowed down my search to the Irish census reports. I was convinced I would soon have another confirmed relative in my family tree, when much to my dismay, I discovered that the census reports I was convinced I would find him in were destroyed by fire and explosion during the Irish Civil War in 1922. What was I to do? The first thing I did was panic –, then I got a bit angry – all that wasted research! When I finally calmed down I thought about all the time and effort I had put into tracking my ancestor and I decided I would not let it be wasted; at least not if I could help it. I would have to find another route to him, look in different sources, even different locations if I had to, and hope I could pick up the trail again. I eventually found my ancestor in some county records – a county history actually, but not before I had exhausted almost every resource I could think of. It was a long and arduous search, but on reflection I could have found my ancestor much faster had I asked myself a few of the following questions.

  1. What time period would my ancestor have been living in the area? For some reason (inexperience actually – I just hate to admit it!) I went hop-scotching across the decades hoping to get lucky with my search. Had I given some thought to this question, I could have narrowed down the time frame and accelerated my research.
  2. Have there been any boundary changes that could cause the records to be stored in a different location? Maybe your ancestors didn’t move – the boundary did! Disputed land claims, boundary changes – state, province, and township, county, even country (such as the case with Poland) could cause your ancestors to be listed under a different jurisdiction. This is one of the reasons it is important to have knowledge of the history of where your ancestors lived.
  3. Make sure the record you seek was actually stored in the repository you’re searching in. A good example of this situation would be regarding the tax records of counties in America in the mid to late nineteenth century. Some counties might have kept their records in a bank vault rather than the courthouse, and in some places court-house records were given to private entities for keeping when they ran out of space,
  4. Know the legal jurisdiction of the time period you are searching. Legal jurisdictions have changed over the years just as boundary changes have occurred, often in conjunction with them, and therefore the records may not only be in a different location, but with a different department than the former keepers. Jurisdictions may also change from ancestor one court to another, so if you can’t find your in one set of court records, check those of the other courts in that area.
  5. Did your ancestor live near a boundary? If the nearest courthouse was just across the boundary, your ancestor may have got his or her marriage licence in a neighbouring county rather than in their own. Be sure to check the records of neighbouring counties, those records may have escaped the fire!
  6. Are the records you seek absolutely necessary? This may seem like an odd question, of course they are you might think, otherwise I wouldn’t be looking for them, but take the following scenario for example. You have a family bible giving the birth dates of your ancestors, and you have confirmed that with census reports. Do you really need to unearth those probate records then? We all want to learn as much about our ancestors as possible, but sometimes we may have to accept that what we already have is all we’ll ever know.
  7. What do I hope these records will reveal? Sometimes we may have to settle for what we need to know, rather than what we want to know. Are you searching these records for vital information, or just curious about whether your ancestor paid his taxes or not? Sometimes the most important thing we can discover is the link that will get us out of a particular line of research.

All is not lost when records are. It is not guaranteed of course, but the records you’re looking for may have escaped whatever disaster destroyed the others. Be creative in your research, and try to stay optimistic and determined. I can’t guarantee that you’ll find what you’re looking for, but asking and answering the above questions should at least increase your chances.