What to do when the records run out

It’s al­most in­evitable that you’ll come across brick walls in your re­search as records thin out. He­len Os­born teaches you how to over­come th­ese ob­sta­cles

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - MASTERCLASS -

The re­ally solid brick walls that many fam­ily his­to­ri­ans en­counter are nearly al­ways as­so­ci­ated with a lack of records. This af­fects most of us, par­tic­u­larly as sur­viv­ing records thin out the fur­ther back we progress and there were less rea­sons for peo­ple’s lives to be doc­u­mented.

For those with Ir­ish an­ces­tors, the brick wall can ap­pear much sooner than ex­pected, mainly due to the lack of sur­viv­ing census records in the 19th cen­tury. How­ever, all is not lost. There are two types of re­search ob­sta­cles here: a brick wall that arises when there re­ally are no records avail­able, and one where there are in fact records that could help, but you haven’t dis­cov­ered them or don’t know what ex­ists. The lat­ter is luck­ily far more com­mon, at least for re­search in Bri­tain.

In­dex dis­crep­an­cies

If you are find­ing that on­line searches are in­creas­ingly com­ing up with neg­a­tive re­sults, there could be a num­ber of rea­sons. It might just mean that you need to try search­ing across sev­eral dif­fer­ent web­sites to re­duce the pos­si­bil­ity that in­dex­ing dis­crep­an­cies are caus­ing your prob­lems.

Some­times I find my­self with Find­my­past, Ances­try, Fam­i­lySearch, FreeBMD and The Na­tional Ar­chives Dis­cov­ery web­sites all open at once, as I sur­vey re­sults from a broad range of records. But, if you have al­ready tried more than one in­dex to the same set of records, and ev­ery­thing else on­line th hat you can think of, it al­most al­way ys means that you need to go off­line and search among orig­i­nal records in the ar­chives.

We can­not rely on fam­ily his­tory web­sites to al­ways give con­sis­tent in­for­ma­tion about their col­lec­tions. They con­tain many in­com­plete in­dexes an nd se­ries of records.

Make cer­tain you know about any gaps, and where the orig­i­nals are held. When the records ap­pear to run out, that’s when you need to get down to some real de­tec­tive work.

There may be other fac­tors to take into con­sid­er­a­tion. Dou­ble-check you are look­ing in the right place. Is the parish where the fam­ily are liv­ing near a county bound­ary? Has the bound­ary changed or could they have moved from the ad­ja­cent county? What dio­cese is that in? Have you checked for wills and ad­min­is­tra­tions for the dio­cese be­fore 1858? Do any mano­rial records sur­vive for the parish? Do you knoww where they are held? Diid any of the men in thhe fam­ily serve in the mmili­tia, or join the army?

If you hit a brick wall ffrom 1793-1815, then mmil­i­tary ser­vice dur­ing the NNapoleonic Wars is a pos­si­bil­ity that you should fol­loww up. Don’t for­get that many fam­i­lies may have had a pe­riod of non­con­for­mity, when they didn’t at­tend the es­tab­lished church. This can mean a whole fam­ily is miss­ing from parish reg­is­ters. Do you know whether the area you are con­cen­trat­ing on had chapels or places of non­con­formist wor­ship, and do any records sur­vive? Was there a non­con­formist burial ground there, or were all lo­cal non­con­formists buried by the es­tab­lished church? Th­ese are the types of ques­tion you need to ask your­self.

Miss­ing records

If there truly are miss­ing records – for ex­am­ple, only later reg­is­ters sur­vive for some parishes – then put all of your ef­forts into dis­cov­er­ing about all pos­si­ble records that do ex­ist for the parish and dio­cese, as well as those cre­ated at the county level for the time pe­riod you need. You will need to make a sur­vey of those records, and build your sur­vey into a re­search plan, and per­haps do the same for sur­round­ing parishes.

Don’t be put off if you find there are orig­i­nal doc­u­ments you haven’t seen, but they are not in­dexed, or are poorly de­scribed in cat­a­logues. Some­times the only an­swer is to look at the orig­i­nal and have a go. Look through each record source page by page, one

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