The Smoking Document
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Another Way of Looking at Brick Walls
by Margaret Robe Summitt
It feels so good when I stop… banging my head against the brick wall. Brick Walls: they are the commonest things in genealogy, and the further back we go, the more of them we find. And the harder they are to break through.
There are brick walls… and then there are brick walls. There are brick walls that crumble upon application of the Claude Rains principle of arresting the usual suspects. Vital records, censuses, land and property, estate and probate… where these suspects are in abundance, the newbie researcher swings the wrecking ball and scores big. Among these suspects, one or more may prove to be the “smoking document” that states family relationships explicitly.
Then there are brick walls that do not yield. When you strike them, the bricks don’t smoke. These are the ones you bang your head against. They make you wonder:
Is the information I need out there, but I don't have enough information to find it?
Am I making wrong assumptions based on the information I have? Or is the information I have wrong in some point?
OR (shudder!) what if the document I’m seeking doesn’t exist, or never existed at all?
So when do you give up on a brick wall?
Examining one’s assumptions is probably the first step. Try looking “outside the box,” in adjacent locations, in surnames of different spellings, in different years than first assumed. By this method you may get lucky and discover the errors in the information you were working from.
acquaint yourself with the technical details of the information you
have. For instance, why were these particular land surveys
taken? What is the difference between a warrant, a patent, and a
survey? Who was eligible, in this time and place, to receive a
warrant or grant? Which names appear on a given tax list and
why? Why should a last will and testament name certain
individuals and not others?
Although in theory it is not impossible to search every existing record, it would take a great deal of effort, both in searching and in documenting your searches, to claim you have exhausted all sources available. And even then, you still want to believe the truth is out there, and so you keep watching the skies - or the catalogs - for something new to turn up on microfilm, on library shelves, online, or in manuscript collections.
Practically, we recognize that an exhaustive search is not possible, and therefore choose which sources look the most promising. We have limited pocketbooks and limited time. The same is true of people we might engage to do research onsite. When it begins to appear that the cost in time or money, or both, will be prohibitive, we want to aim that wrecking ball in the direction where we think the “smoking document” may be.
And, if it’s not found, we put the
wrecking ball back in the filing cabinet. We take our shag
tobacco from where we store it in the toe of the slipper, and, like
Sherlock Holmes, light another pipe while we ponder the problem.
But we don’t abandon research altogether. I doubt that Sherlock
Holmes, even after he retired to a life of beekeeping in Sussex,
abandoned detective work altogether. We keep our eyes open.
Something may turn up.
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