By Juliana Smith 13 December 2010
19 December 2010 The Weekly Discovery from Ancestry.com
Re-printed with Permission

If the answers to your family history dilemmas can’t be found in the descriptive materials for the collection, as we discussed in the previous article, here are some problem-solving strategies that can help.

1.) Look at External Factors
For the past week, our local weatherman has been warning us of the storm that began yesterday, and since I’m in charge of snow removal for our house and several neighbors who are unable to do it, last week I made sure that the snow blower had gas, and I had my gloves, hat and scarf at the ready. With the sophisticated weather predictions that are available now, it’s hard to imagine not knowing when bad weather might strike. Certainly, our ancestors learned to keep their eyes on the skies and noted certain weather indicators, but they couldn’t just flip on the Weather Channel and be informed as to when and where they should evacuate. The 1900 Galveston Hurricane is a tragic example of the catastrophic results that often came when unexpected weather events struck populated areas.

If your ancestors inexplicably picked up and moved, turn to local histories to see if you can determine the reason. Drought, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, pestilence, a brutally cold and snowy winter, or an unusually hot summer may have convinced your ancestor that this was not the place he wanted to raise his family and he may have moved on to greener pastures.

Check local histories and familiarize yourself with major events in the areas in which they lived. You may find it helpful to create a local history timeline that you can compare against the timelines of your ancestors.

2.) Widen Your Horizons
Just a decade ago, your chances of locating an ancestor with wanderlust were much slimmer than they are these days. With the ability to search the entire country–or even abroad–with the click of a mouse, it’s much easier to find ancestors who turn up in unexpected places. Try a search without including a residence, but instead including other factors that will narrow the search to your ancestor–things like age, birthplace, race, and in some cases, even the names of other household members.

In researching our Tobin family of hatters, I was missing my ancestor’s brother in 1870. The family had for the most part stayed in the New York City area, but George was eluding me that year. When I removed the residence of New York and searched for him using his name, age, and birthplace of Ireland, I was able to quickly locate him in Washington, D.C., where I had no inkling any of the family had lived. Without the nation-wide index to the census for 1870, I might not have thought to look for him there.

3.) Explore What’s Available
There are currently nearly 30,000 individual collections available on Ancestry.com, and some of them may hold the clues you need. But with so many options, it can be difficult to keep up. This past year, Ancestry.com created new place pages that give you a better look at what’s available for the places where your ancestors lived. To access the state pages, just click on the Search tab, and then select a location from the map in the lower left corner of the pages.

Sometimes it pays to revisit collections as well. New data may have been added or search functionality may have been tweaked and your ancestors may surface where they hadn’t before. You can see when a collection was last updated by locating it in the Card Catalog. Hover your mouse over the collection title and you’ll see a box appear a brief description along with the date the collection was originally published on Ancestry.com and the date it was last updated.

4.) Side-Step
Consider this–a spouse dies and in the next census you find that several young children are also missing. An epidemic, natural disaster, or perhaps some other family tragedy? Perhaps. But maybe they were sent to live with other family members because the single parent was unable to care for them while they were working to support the rest of the family. Check with other family members and see if you find them living with siblings, grandparents, or cousins. You may also find your ancestor’s parents living with his or her sibling. Be sure to conduct “whole family” research, gathering census records for even extended family and keep track of the addresses you find on records. You may find that the address your ancestor gave on his marriage record was the same as that of his aunt and uncle.

5.) Finding Holes in Your Research
Too often I’ve found that my brick-wall problems are of my own making. Usually they are based around some assumption that I’ve sub-consciously made. I learned early in my career writing about family history that if I ever want to find a hole in an area of my research, I should plan an article around that very topic. Never fails. As soon as I start writing about how I made this amazing discovery, I’ll find holes in my logic. But it’s a good way to keep my research on track. Try it. Write up a brief summary of the research steps you’ve taken and keep it with your research log. Not only does putting it in writing help you to better analyze your research, but years from now when you’re wondering how the heck you came to that conclusion, it will be right there for you.

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