Thursday, November 5, 2009

Always a Blank Page

My children love to watch re-runs of the children's show Lamb Chop. If you've ever seen the show, one of the things you probably remember the most from it was the ending song, "The Song That Never Ends." Well, with genealogy, it's more like "This is the work that never ends. Yes, it goes on and on my friend." I apologize if that song is now going to be stuck in your head for the rest of your day. However, it illustrates perfectly the approach we need to take with genealogy research. Our family history work is a never-ending mystery, a trail of clues, but we never definitively have a solution. It's like history or science - a new piece of evidence is discovered and the over-arching picture can change dramatically.

There are two points I'm trying to get across here, particularly to beginning or less-seasoned researchers. The first is that there are no comprehensive and final lists of sources to use in your research. The sources available are as plentiful as your imagination allows them to be. Secondly, the big picture of who your ancestors were and what their lives were like is never complete -- a previously undiscovered source of information can change everything you think you know.

In regards to possible sources of genealogical information, there is truly no limit. It's a matter of using clues and looking in places that you might not initially think to look. For example, you can find a birth date on a birth certificate, obituary announcement, military draft card, social security application, or family Bible. You can also, however, find a birth date in a job application, a passport application, a club's membership roster, etc. You can discover new information on a census sheet, in a county land record, or even in an old shoebox tucked away with your grandmother's things. The more information you find and the more sources you attempt to use, the more complete the research picture will become. One piece of information might lead you on to the next. Just think of it is a puzzle that will never have all of the pieces, but each new piece adds to the picture, allowing you to see it just a little more clearly.

However, keep in mind, the picture can change. As my aunt was going through my grandmother's things a few months after she passed away, she found a baby birth announcement. The announcement had been addressed to my grandmother's grandmother and mailed to her, as evidenced by the postmark. Obviously, at some point, it found it's way back into my grandmother's own things. The birthdate on the announcement matched that of my grandmother, Dolores Mae Binney, May 1930. However, the name printed on the announcement was not Dolores Mae, but Willa Binney. All of a sudden, there were new possibilities and new questions. A family rumor had floated around among a few family members for years: that my grandmother had a twin who was given up for adoption at birth because her parents couldn't afford two babies at the height of the Great Depression. Another theory is that my grandmother's mother picked one name, sent out announcements, and then decided she didn't like it as well as another name she had chosen. At this point, we're still making conjectures about the reason behind the baby announcement with the name we don't recognize, but it certainly changed what we thought was very straightforward information about my grandmother's birth.

With an infinite number of source possibilities and genealogy work that is never truly complete, the most important tip I can offer is to be creative and keep an open mind. You never know what obscure piece of information you might find in an unusual place, or what one piece of new data can do when you add it to the research you've already collected. In this regard, genealogy is always a blank page, or at least a page that requires having lots of white-out on hand.

No comments: