Big changes have come to — all content is now read-only, and member subscriptions and the Shop have been discontinued.
Learn more
New? Start Here
Genealogy How-To
 Getting Started
 Getting Organized
 Developing Your Research Skills
 Sharing Your Family's Story
 Reference Guide
 Biography Assistant
Free Genealogy Classes
 Beginning Genealogy
 Internet Genealogy
 Tracing Immigrant Origins

Family Finder
First Name:

The Bigger Picture

by Donna Przecha
Print this article
Printer-friendly version
Why You Should Look Outside Your Family for Answers
Sometimes you'll learn about your direct ancestors by researching siblings, church groups, ethnic groups, and neighbors. Learn why this is true and follow along on a research journey.

Genealogy means different things to genealogists. Some people want to collect every person of a single surname from all over the world. Other people want to collect all the known descendants of a single person, usually an immigrant ancestor. Still others are only interested in their direct ancestors and not all the siblings and cousins.

While I tend to be an "ancestor only" genealogist, I find I often have to look at "The Bigger Picture." This means expanding my research to siblings, cousins, fellow church members, co-workers, shipmates, and even an entire village. By looking at "The Bigger Picture" you can often learn many details about a specific ancestor.

If you want to know anything about your ancestors' personal lives, you have to include siblings. You will never have an understanding of how they lived if you are looking at generations of "only" children. If you realize that your ancestress was the oldest in a family of 12, you already know a bit about her life. If she was from a middle class or poor family, you can bet she worked long and hard looking after her younger siblings from the very beginning.

Siblings can be very important when there seems to be little or no information about your ancestor. He may have died at a fairly young age and left little impact on the community. He may also have died before that state started keeping vital records. However, he may have had a brother who lived to age 80 and was a pillar of his community. The brother may have had a lengthy biography in the county history which tells of his parents and grandparents. Even if this is not the case, he may have a death certificate which gives his parents' names. If a sibling left a will, it may tell you information about your own family if they were remembered in the will.

Man as a Social Animal

In genealogy, you also often have to look at non-relatives to find information on your own ancestors. Any time you find people in a group, you need to look at all of them. They may be together for a reason. For example, people often emigrated together. Perhaps you can find nothing on your German ancestor, but there were ten other German families in the same community. It is very possible they came from the same area in Germany. Read county histories and family genealogies about the other families. It may lead you to your own relatives.

In the Delaware County History it said John Livingston (my ancestor), plus Thomas McMeekin, Hugh Clarke, John McKenzie and Thomas Shearer settled at the same time. When checking Scottish records I found a John Livingston who was born in the right year in the village of Kilsyth, Scotland. Livingston isn't an unusual Scottish name so I checked for the others who settled at the same time. In the same small village I found a baptism record for a Thomas Shearer who was born 10 years later and would have been of an age to emigrate at the same time. This is not conclusive information, but Shearer is not a common name, so it provides encouraging circumstantial evidence.

If you can't find your ancestor on a ship's passengers' index, look for the names of other people who arrived at the same time. They may have come on the same ship and will appear in the index while your ancestor's name may have been misspelled or overlooked. If you do find your ancestor on a list, see who is listed with him or her or if there are others on the same ship from the same area. They may be relatives.

By the same token, if you are stuck on immigration problems and your ancestor lived in a rural area, look at the neighbors in the census. They may have come from the same place or may be related.

Military Groups
During the time of the Revolution, men selected their own officers and enlisted under men they knew and trusted. They would stay together as a group. British officers were often frustrated with the American Loyalist volunteers who insisted they came as a group and were not about to be sent off just to fill in where they were needed. After the defeat of the British, these soldiers were awarded land in Canada. It was allotted according to the unit with which they served. Not everyone settled according to these guidelines, but men who served under the same officer tended to settle in the same townships. In finding their origins it becomes important to study their neighbors and where they came from. It is also important to look at the muster rolls and see who was serving together and to study the biographies of their officers. You will find much more information on an officer than you will on an enlisted man so looking at the big picture is definitely the way to proceed.

Church Groups
People from the same church often emigrated together, either because of persecution or just the desire for companionship. They knew they could rely on their fellow congregants and that they shared similar beliefs and ideals. In some cases, an entire congregation might pick up and move as a body to a new area. The huge emigration of the members of the Mormon church in the 19th century is an excellent example of migration based on religion.

Organizing Groups of Records

Land and Census Records
Organizing a large group of people may seem like a big job, but sometimes it is the only way to find an answer. One researcher had to find out exactly where a person was living in a particular county to establish his identity. The problem was that, although he was in the census, he was not a landowner so he couldn't be placed on a plot map. Working with land records, the researcher was able to establish on a map who owned which property. In most cases the owner also lived on the land. By taking the census and following the order in which the names were entered, it was possible to recreate the routing of the census taker. In this way it could be determined which property he was occupying as a renter. It was a big project, but in the end it provided the answer that was needed.

Parish Records
Parish records, where for centuries baptisms, marriages and burials were recorded, are very important for genealogists. However, sometimes there are so many people with the same surname and even the same given name, that it is difficult to figure out who belongs where. In a case like this, it can be easier in the long run to copy down every event for the one surname and arrange all the families with that name. In most cases you will be able to place most of the people with that surname.

This may sound like a huge job, but most European village parishes were fairly small as the people usually walked to church. You will probably have to cover 150-200 years at the most because the records will only extend that far or your ancestor will move or a woman will change her name by marrying. If you come up with 100 entries, this could cover only about 35 people since theoretically one person would probably generate three events in a lifetime — birth, marriage and death. With large families, 35 people may represent only five families. It is never quite that neat and simple, but it does make the project seem less daunting.

This works best in a computer program where you can sort events chronologically and by individual name as well as by father's name. If you can sort records by "all men named John" and then "all children whose father was named John," it becomes much easier. It is quite amazing how families seem to arrange themselves when you are able to sort them in this way.

Once this is done, it is a lot easier to figure out what other records are relevant. If your ancestor is Robert Jones and there are four of them in the parish, when you find a document with this name, you can easily refer to the information on the four men and see if the event fits with the known facts. You may find that one had died by then and another was too young for that particular event. You might see that one is your ancestor's uncle and if you have found a will, it could contain relevant information.

An Example of Sorting Parish Records
Say that you know from family records that your ancestor Charles Bates Moore was born in 1770 and his parents were John and Ann Moore. John died in 1817 at age 71 (which would mean he was born in 1746). You go to the parish records and you find the birth of Charles in 1770, son of John. (Many parish records list only the baptism date which usually was within a few days of birth. Some recorded both the birth and baptism). You start looking for his father John and find John, son of Walter, baptized 1746. Because the names and time period are right, you might assume that you have found your ancestor Charles, his father John, and his grandfather Walter and quit there. However, the wise researcher knows better than to stop looking because there may be a lot more to the story. For one thing, there may have been another person of the same name born around the same time. And, you always need to check the death records to be sure the person didn't die before adulthood, because if he did, then of course he didn't have children and wouldn't be your ancestor.

A little bit more searching turns up the following:

  • John (1), son of Walter, buried 1750 (He didn't live long enough to become a father.)
  • John (2), son of Samuel, baptized 1748 (Could be a father in 1770 if he lived that long.)
  • John (3), son of William, baptized 1744 (Also a good candidate.)

(The parentheses with numbers are added here for clarity in the article, but these identities would not be apparent when first finding the parish entry.)

This is getting a bit complicated. You now have two possible candidates as the father of Charles. So, next you check the marriage records and here you find the following:

  • John (2), son of Samuel married Ann Smith in 1769. His age noted as 23 (therefore born in 1746).
  • John (3), son of William, married Jane Hill in 1764. They had several children, all shown in the records between 1764 and 1780 as children of John and Jane. (You know that your Charles was born in 1770, which falls in the time period when this couple was producing children. However, you also know that your Charles's mother was named Ann, not Jane, so this John wouldn't be the father. This eliminates John 3.)
  • John (4), son of George, married Ann Jones in 1758. There's no baptism record for him so you don't know his age, although your John would have been too young to marry at this time if his age at death is anywhere near correct. (This is the 4th John Moore in the parish record and his wife is named Ann. This adds a fourth dimension just when you had narrowed it down to one.)
  • John (5), widower, married Elizabeth Smith, widow, in 1761.

Looking in the baptisms again, on Nov. 28, 1759, you find the birth of William, son of John (4) and Ann. Then on the following day, you find the death of Ann Moore, wife of John. In 1761 there is a marriage of John (5) to Elizabeth Smith so it is apparent that John (4) and John (5) are the same person. Then follows the birth of several children to John and Elizabeth from 1762 to 1776. Again, you know that your Charles was born in 1770, which falls in the time period when this couple was producing children. However, you also know that your Charles's mother was named Ann, not Elizabeth, so this John wouldn't be the father. This eliminates John 4/5.

You end up with four families:

  • Walter, 2) John (b. 1740; d. 1750)
  • Samuel 2) John (b. 1748), m. Ann Smith 1769, 3) Charles [Bates] Moore b. 1770
  • William, 2) John (b. 1744) m. Jane Hill (1764)
  • George 2) John m. Ann Jones (1758) and Elizabeth Smith (1761)

After you examine all the families, you quickly can eliminate the first one, because he died before the birth of Charles in 1770. You can also eliminate the third one because his wife's name isn't correct. The fourth one is eliminated when you find that his first wife, Ann, died before the birth of Charles in 1770. When you examine the second family, you find John is the right age and his wife has the correct name. Further research in the parish records reveals that John's mother's maiden name was Bates. All of this leads you to conclude that this is the right person. The age is two years off, but that is not unusual for records of this time period.

Only by examining all of these records could you come to this conclusion. If you had stopped with the first one, you would have been terribly incorrect. With so many records relating to people named John Moore, you have to take the time to match all of them in order to follow the correct lineage. Once you have all this information, you may as well enter it into your database. You have now become the expert on the Moore family in that village and will probably be able to place any Moore information you come across for that parish in the future.

Back to Census Records

The results of several censuses can be as confusing as parish records. You only get a snapshot of a family every ten years. A nine-year-old in one census may have left home by the second one. There may be three Williams as children in separate households in one census, then two as heads of household in the next. From just the census information it is difficult to determine which William came from which family. If you can work in conjunction with parish or vital records, you can often figure out who went where. Again it is one of those situations where you almost have to sit down and diagram everyone to be sure you are matching up the right people. The census gives you a real head start by putting people in families. It helps to put each family into your computer program, linking them as you go if you can. If not, put them in as they are grouped and merge two records when you are able to determine where they fit. You might want to do this in a separate database and move them into your family database as you are able to link them.

Don't hesitate to take on "The Bigger Picture." With computers to help us we can sort and organize much quicker than used to be possible. While it may take a while to make sense out of a large number of records, it saves time in the long run. Once you have the framework, almost all future records you will find can be fit in.

Learn More
• Discuss this topic with other researchers
•Find new leads on your ancestors. Get a FREE Trial Membership.
• Have questions about researching your family history? Browse through our expert tips archives for answers.
How-To Article: Local Histories — Finding and Evaluating
Expert Tips: Branching Out Beyond Direct Ancestors
Online Lesson: Reconstructing Your Ancestral Family

Home | Help | About Us | Terms of Service | PRIVACY
© 2011