Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Beyond boundaries

Back from the Utah Genealogical Association Institute, and my head is spinning. Five days of lectures from some of genealogy’s best-known professionals, meeting with like-minded researchers, and having time to do research at the Family History Library.

The course I selected was “Advanced Methodology,” and it dealt with ways to look at and analyze information, to squeeze every bit of utility from it. In other words, HOW to examine data, rather than WHERE to find it. (Though there was some of that, too)

It is hard to single out the most important statement or concept --what meant most to me might not have been someone else’s favorite. But I did note down a few things.

“Ignore artificial boundaries,” one lecturer said, almost as an aside. That struck a chord. We all know about the importance of determining county boundaries at a given time in order to learn where the records are kept. But how often do we limit ourselves to just that county and its changing outlines? People went elsewhere to get married, buy land, and even to be buried. And they did not just cross into other counties. They also went across state lines when convenience and practicality dictated. If you can’t find Uncle Walter’s grave site in western Indiana, where the census-taker placed his family, could he have been interred in eastern Illinois?

I have people who went from Ohio to Indiana for their marriage licences, and others who claimed to own land in Maryland when the Delaware tax collector came around, and in Delaware when the Maryland guy showed up. There was much back and forth, and these folks would not have thought it at all unusual. A study of a region’s topography may show the most likely out-of-county or -state destination. Hills and valleys, streams, swamps, rivers -- all influenced even day-to-day travel patterns. (Migration, too, of course.)

As the lecturer said, the demarcations we think of as permanent and precise are, after all, artificial, and pretty much ignored by nearby residents.

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