30 May 2012

Needle in a Haystack

My maiden name is Brown. 

Yep. In the 2000 Census of the United States, it was the fourth most common surname in the country, beat out by Smith, Johnson and Williams (Genealogy Data: Frequently Occurring Surnames from Census 2000. United States Census Bureau. Accessed 21 May 2012. http://www.census.gov/genealogy/www/data/2000surnames/index.html).

We all love the "needle in a haystack" analogy, right?

This is a common topic for genealogy bloggers, researchers and professionals alike. I've been reading tips for over a decade, trying to find what works and what doesn't. There are some basic tools that are used regularly, cluster research, for example. (Cluster research is looking at each individual in the family: how many John Brown's have a wife named Amanda and four daughters; Amy, Andrea, Alexis and Alyson? Of course, its not always that easy.) You can find great suggestions on various blogs, like Elyse's Genealogy Blog, by Elyse Doerflinger, and her post: 3 Tips for Researching Common Surnames (5 Jan 2011).

My question is this: what if you have the needle, but not the hay?

What happens when you have a theory you are trying to prove, but not enough evidence to prove or disprove? I have a few of these gems, and for me, they are as frustrating and difficult as the John Brown's of the world, surrounded by hay.

So this is more about what I do in either case. Often, the research techniques can be the same or at least similar.  Not everybody in my ancestral line gets the same treatment; some walls are just more important than others to destroy. Assume that up to this point, I have already conducted a fairly thorough search of the more common resources, both online and off. I've looked at B,M,D, I've reviewed my notes, I've gone back over all the documentation.

This is my brain obliterating
genealogy brick walls. Or, at least I
like to think so.
Creative Commons: www.ropeadope.com
My typical first step is to walk away. 5 minutes, 5 days, 5 months. Whatever it takes to clear my brain of any assumptions I have already drawn, to erase what I think I know about that person. At times, it leads me to research someone closely connected, which in turn leads to a new resource or possible break through (back to that whole cluster thing). There are people in my past who seem to be mocking me, however, and I just end up right back where I was when I walked away the first time.

Step 2 (though it doesn't always necessarily happen in this order): I draw a picture. It could be a hand written pedigree for the individual, with room for notes, it could be a giant word bubble, it could be a literal sketch of what I think that person looked like. Anything to get my creative juices flowing, the other side of my brain working. Once in a while, its enough of a boost to either motivate me to keep going or gain a new idea on a resource, an avenue of their lifespan I haven't explored yet.

Step 3. Start a new tree. Really. I take this one person, with only his vitals, and start a new tree in my software. That way, I can work on his life alone without influence from those around him. Yes, cluster research works very well, however, sometimes it helps to separate yourself and the subject from everything else. Isolate that person, and see what comes to your brain. If you find evidence that you conclude is correct, you can fairly easily merge the two files or transfer one piece of data at a time.

Always, along the way, talk. Talk out loud. Talk to your cat, the computer, a cup of coffee, a spouse, the tree outside the window. Anything. Just talk. It's the same concept as when you are writing a paper (or editing one!), and they tell you to read it to yourself. Then read it backwards. You find more errors, you are able to make corrections on flow and rhythm. The same theory applies here: if you talk, it forces your brain to process more. It makes you more aware of the possible date mistakes, the pieces of information you have yet to collect, the gaps in your timeline.

Lastly, tell their story. Blog it, journal it, put it in Word and let it sit in your computer. It's the same as talking; spelling it out and putting everything you know out there in some format will cause your brain cells to click into gear. It doesn't matter if you ever share it with anybody else. Just get it out.

I would love to hear about what you do. Hay, no hay, different colors of hay, hay in multiple places. Let the destruction begin! Please share your comments and thoughts.


  1. Your post demonstrates how creative genealogy is. Your excellent tips (talk out loud, start from a new angle, make a word bubble or picture or page diagram) are like the advice teachers give writers who are staring at an empty page, summoning the Muse. Genealogists have to "come up with" new theories/stories that help them find more data, and that's creative. Taking a break and returning with a new hypothesis--that's creative. Thanks for your ideas! Love the picture of the wrecking ball.

    1. Mariann, as always, thank you so much. You are too kind! I think that many of us get "stuck", not just in finding new hints for our research, but stuck in the same research routine and pattern. It's important to push the envelope, try different tactics in order to get different results.
      I too, very much, like the wrecking ball picture.
      Thanks for reading, and thanks for posting your comments! ~Jen

  2. Great post Jen. Walk away has always been effective for me. But fresh eyes on old evidence is where I usually get my breakthroughs. I get excited or the datapoints are falling in line quickly and then everything comes to a screeching halt. Usually because I've missed something important or misinterpreted some evidence.

    I recently had a client whose surname was Smith also with a common given name. The client had a mother's name but had assigned the wrong father. The breakthrough bit of info for that case was the issue state for the SSN. It led to a census with siblings and mother which led to older censes', and then on to marriage records.

    For my personal research, some of my strategies when a line gets stuck:

    Follow the wife's extended family. For my southern kin, multiple marriages between a core group of family names was common. Sometimes because of proximity, church or migration.

    City Directory surveys. I will try to run the families of individuals in a city directory with the same surname, particularly if they are in the same industry to find points of relation.

    Witnesses. I will try to run the families of sponsors/witnesses on marriages or baptismals. This has been a huge boon. I ran the sponsor of a McDonnell child named Aherd Paul. Long story short, I found McDonnells living with him on a census, him living in a known McDonnell address on a city directory, among other datapoints. Turns out his wife was an aunt to the sponsored child but because her name was variously misspelled she was missed.

    As a last resort, and I'm at that point on my maiden name, I will conduct a surname study for a particular geographic region. I try to learn how the various individuals of a particular surname are related to each other in hopes of finding where my ancestor fits.

    And, I Google. Every name combination and abbreviation I can think of. This does not work for the common surnames but for others it helps. For George Hume Cathcart, I got a court case hit for Geo. H Cathcart & Charleston, that did not come up under any other search strategy.

    I'm always on the look out for new strategies and ideas.

    1. Rorey, thank you so much! Great suggestions, and tools for all of us. I've used some of these methods myself, but have stopped short of a full surname study. Seems daunting, but I may have to do that for my Brown line. My sincere thanks for contributing so much content to my post.
      ~ Jen

  3. I love your ideas for these problem situations, Jen. I agree it helps to put the information in some other format just to look at things differently--a picture, a chart, a timeline, whatever--and brainstorm from there. I've never tried starting a one-person tree, but your reasoning makes a lot of sense. And as for the talking to myself, well, that comes naturally, much to my family's embarrassment!

    I like Rorey's suggestions, too. You can never have too many ideas for common surnames!

    1. Have to be honest, Shelley, the talking to myself part comes almost too quickly for me... I call it my genius voice, but I don't think my husband appreciates that so much sometimes! :-)
      Thanks for reading and commenting! Much appreciated.
      ~ Jen


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