The Analysis of the Genealogical Problem

—Larry L. Piatt

A talent of the genealogist requiring diligent effort and study to develop is his power of analysis of genealogical problems. Analysis consists of the breaking down or separation mentally of the data (records, documents) into their component parts or elements in order to discover their relation to the whole and to one another (problem, objective) whereby the solution of a problem, attainment of an objective, or future direction of research can be determined.

The analytical aspect of the genealogist’s work has been somewhat neglected in the past and such is still the case. Yet imporper or shallow analysis is probably the greatest cause of failure to solve genealogical problems effeciently, whether simple or complex. The largest proportion of the time of most practicing “genealogists” in past times has been spent in searches, often laborious and time consuming, of vital, land, census, probate, tax and other records.

A major continuing trend over the next decades will involve the genealogist spending a greater proportion of his time in analysis of data or facts obtained from record searches rather than in time spent in the actual process of searching the records.

A primary reason for this is the profusion of recently developed finding tools available to the genealogist, particularly in the United States. Indexes of census, court, probate, land and other records are examples of the proliferation of such tools. By the end of 1977, it is probable that all decennial U.S. federal censuses from 1790 through 1850 will have been compiled into statewide indexes. The availability of these indexes will usually make it unnecessary to undertake extended census searches. The appearance of complete indexes of other types of records will negate the need for laborious extended searches in those records.

The greater the emphasis placed on analysis the greater the academic preparation and training required of the genealogist to fulfill his analytical responsibility, but in the future this burden will become even more pronounced. Put another way, the delineation between the genealogist and the record searcher in practice will come into even clearer focus.

A prerequisite to analysis by the genealogist is his knowledge of the available record sources of the geographic area, time period, or phase of he expertise. The dynamism of certain aspects of genealogy must be recognized. The almost constant discovery of new local sources useful to the genealogist, particularly church, census, tax, institutional, and private records, is an example.

What are the goals of the genealogist in analysis? What are the aspects of analysis as applied to genealogy? What are the responsibilities of the genealogist in the realm of analysis?

A primary goal of the genealogist in the analytical process is to derive the maximum benefit from each record which bears on the objective or problem considered. To realize the maximum form each record requires, in addition to common sense, a knowledge and understanding of the social, economic, political, religious, and legal history of the area or jurisdiction of the problem. A deep feel for the social customs, developed from wide reading of local and regional history, diaries, and journals, is essential. Relatively insignificant elements or bits of information may provide the solution to the problem.

In the analysis of an individual record, among the questions which should be asked by the genealogist are:

Is the record what it purports to be?
What is the law or reason for the making of the record?
What is the content of the record?
When was it made? Is it a contemporary or near contemporary record? In the United States it was often the practice in the late 1800’s for vital records, then kept under county jurisdiction, to be accumulated and recorded at the end of the year. Under this system it is not surprising that omissions and errors were common.
What parts of the record are most likely factual and can be accepted with most confidence? What parts are hearsay? In general, the most likely factual elements of a death record are the date and place of death and name of the decedent. Other elements of the record have a lesser probability of being factual.
Is the record or document a self-serving document? Elements of such documents as applications for pensions or other benefits ought to be carefully evaluated in this light. A healthy suspicious attitude is a useful trait for the genealogist to maintain.
And finally, does the record mesh with major known historical events and local customs of the time period and area?

It is the responsibility of the genealogist to have knowledge of the laws relating to taxation, testate and intestate proceedings, land ownership, marriage or any other laws related to record keeping. This knowledge may provide the key to the solution of an otherwise seemingly insoluble problem.

Questions similar to those that follow need to be asked when doing research in the U.S. South. Some of these questions are applicable to research in other jurisdictions as well.

Did a person have to be an adult to buy land, witness a will or deed, sell land, make a will, serve as an executor or administrator?
What does the inventory of an estate include?
Can there be a final division of an estate as long as any heir is a minor?
At what age can a child choose his own guardian?
Was a woman taxable as a person?
Under what circumstances does a widow appear on a tax list?
At what age did males become taxable?
Did law require an inventory to be made of the estate of each decedent?
Did the law require an inventory to be signed by (1) the executor or administrator, (2) the greatest creditor, (3) the next of kin?
Did the oldest son have to be mentioned in the will?
What was the legal method or local social custom governing the descent of real property?
What were the laws governing marriage?

These are examples of the type of questions the genealogist needs to have asked himself. His knowledge of the answers to pertinent questions of a similar nature in his area of expertise may allow him to make a proper analysis of the problem and to arrive at a correct solution or at least one as valid as is possible.

— 16 July 1976