Thursday, March 01, 2007

How far back?

How many times have you revealed your interest in family history and gotten the inevitable question: how far back you have traced your lineage? It seems to be the unstated goal, in many people's minds, to drill a straight line back as far as possible – witness the poseurs who claim descent from Charlemagne or some other imposing historic – even mythical -- figure.

But there are other goals – and other claimants. I have read about researchers bragging that they have many thousands of names in their databases – one wonders how much serious work was done to confirm these connections. Are they really related, or just relatives of relatives? My sister-in-law's daughter-in-law is not really related to me, now is she? Grandpa's step-brother's biological father may not have anything to do with my own line. That is not to say these tenuous connections must be dismissed, of course. The faintest links may be fascinating to uncover. But what is the real aim here?

For a while I was so stymied in trying to move back another ancestral generation that I just put that quest aside and began to look for more descendents of my most distant ancestor. This can be quite edifying, while at the same time overwhelming. That project is ongoing, but now I am back trying to trace a particular forebear's birthplace and parentage. And the two kinds of research link together, as a matter of fact.

Perhaps this will give you some ideas for working around those seemingly insurmountable brick walls.

I had traced an ancestor, Frederick Howard, back to Kentucky, by finding a grandson's Civil War papers that stated he was from Montgomery County, Indiana. Working backward from this clue, searching census and land records, I discovered that Frederick Howard said he was born about 1793 in Pennsylvania. He was in Bath County Kentucky soon after it was formed in 1811, married there and eventually bought land in the aforementioned Indiana county, where he remained for the rest of his life.

But I did not have enough data to locate Frederick's family in Pennsylvania. Surely he did not travel alone to Kentucky. How early did he show up, and with whom? Perhaps learning more about these possibilities will give me a clue to his origins.

This search is just getting underway, but I have hopes – my list of possible leads includes finding all the Howards in that region of Kentucky in that period, one of whom might be a parent or sibling, looking again at Bureau of Land Management records for Kentucky Howards purchasing land in Indiana and following them to the census year when they give their birthplace, finding possible descendents of these other Howards and tracking them to the 1880 census to find any whose grandparents were born in PA. Once you start thinking about all the possibilities (instead of the impossibilities), new ideas come.

Finding a sibling could help with possible given names of a Pennsylvania parent. (Frederick apparently named his only son after an itinerant preacher who happened to be in the Blue Grass region at the time -- not much help there.)

Another important step is to learn more about Pennsylvania at the turn of the 18th / 19th century, who was migrating south, the routes available to them, and why they might have chosen to go. It is easy to overlook this background reading, but it really is vital to understanding, and eventually tracing one's own ancestors.


A Postscript: I will be away for most of March, on a non-genealogical trip, but plan to resume my postings here by early April.

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