Sunday, January 15, 2012

SDGS Seminar Review - Four Thomas W. Jones Presentations

It was a beautiful day in San Diego yesterday - noted genealogist Thomas W. Jones said he thought he was in Hawaii when he got off the airplane on Friday.  Rather than enjoy the summer-like weather, about two hundred genealogists gathered at the Handlery Hotel in San Diego for an all-day seminar sponsored by the San Diego Genealigical Society.  In my opinion, it was terrific!

I was fortunate to be caught having a conversation with Tom before the meeting by my colleague, J. Paul Hawthorne:

Thank you, Paul, for sharing the photo!

Tom Jones  made four presentations during the day:

1)  Planning "Reasonably Exhaustive Search"

He noted that this was most practical and the driest of his four talks.  I found it intriguing and very useful.  He discussed the six stages of research planning that he recommends.  By using his own research examples, he went through framing a focused research question, assessing the reliability of the information you already have, identifying relevant sources that you haven't consulted, draft a plan for beginning the research task, expanding and revising your plan as the research progresses, and avoiding the common errors in planning this effort.

The idea of Tom's that I found most intriguing was that an index is not really a source to be cited, whether it's in the back of a book, or in an online searchable database with names, dates and places.  Researchers should use the index as a finding aid and obtain the original source record, since indexes are derivative sources with secondary information.  I loved how Tom used small tables to correlate information found for the research problem - an assessment table listed the source, the type of source (original or derivative), whether it provided primary information, and whether it was an independent source or relied on earlier information.

2)  Five Proven Techniques for Finding Your Ancestor's European Origins

Tom identified three challenges for researchers trying to find an ancestral place of origin in Europe:

*  Finding American records naming the specific place of origin
*  Locating European records for that place of origin
*  Identifying the American immigrant in the European records.

He covered the typical identity problems, the research steps that must be taken to solve the identity problems in both American and European records, and offered six techniques to learn your ancestor's European origins.    Tom used a research example to demonstrate these steps - the known information of an Irish immigrant in the 1840s, finding relatives in American records, tracing their descendants forward, and eventually finding the European ancestral town in a family history manuscript written by a niece of the subject in the 1920s.  He had several more examples also.

Tom's advice was to "cast a wide net" for family members, and to follow every clue.  He noted that the number one mistake that many genealogists make is to focus too much on the immigrant ancestor and not on the extended family members.

3)  The Jones Jinx: Tracing Common Surnames

In this talk, Tom summarized the common barriers to searching common surnames (e.g., name variations, migration, incorrect information, etc.) and the helpful strategies that should be used to overcome the barriers (e.g., start with facts about known ancestors; focus on identities, not just names; reconstruct families, etc.).

An ancestor's identity consists of names (which were easy to change), event dates and locations, relationships (with relatives, neighbors and associates), characteristics (literacy, occupation, social status) and activities (church, community, military, etc.).  He noted that it was easier for a person to change his name than to change the characteristics or activities.

The research example discussed was his own family line - the parents of his great-grandfather, Charles Robert Jones.  He started with the family stories about the man, then found records for the son which provided his father's name, a family Bible for the man's wife which listed his birth date.  Church and gravestone records confirmed the name and date.  His death certificate listed his parents names and a birthplace.  Tom worked backwards with census records to try to find the families in the known localities, found a Civil War pension record in Alabama records that provided a service summary and a birth place, and found a candidate family in that county in the 1850 census.  There were discrepancies in all the records, and it seemed that the one family was not the right one after all.  After ten years later, another record was found that made all of the information fall into place (a year was added by a descendant, and was wrong) and Tom resolved all of the conflicting information.

This talk was an example of research persistence - reviewing many records in several localities, following every clue, and corroborating all the points of evidence.  Every researcher should take hope that common names can be researched.

4)  Strategies for Finding "Unfindable" Ancestors

"The good news is that seemingly unfindable ancestors can be found ... the bad news is that it can be expensive and time-consuming."  -- Thomas W. Jones

After describing eight reasons why ancestors may be "unfindable," Tom provided seven methodologies for locating them.  He spent most of the time discussing how to work on the earliest known ancestor (not the "unfindable" one) by gathering information about the known ancestor's full identity; verifying facts and assumptions; documenting every fact and conclusion, expanding the search into resources not normally used by researchers, correlating evidence to reveal patterns and relationships; putting the known ancestor in their social, religious, religious, legal and historical contexts; and apply the scientific method (form hypotheses and test them, then re-evaluate).  The other methodologies are to extend research to the known ancestors siblings, descendants, other relatives, associates and neighbors; reconstruct the known ancestor's community, etc.

Tom used four case studies from articles in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly Journal

5)  In summary, this was a very full day full of great ideas and methodologies for solving difficult research problems.  The audience was very receptive to Tom's presentations mainly because, I think, they could visualize ways to address their own research challenges in the case studies presented.  Tom's speaking style is so friendly and positive, the presentations are logical, illustrative and helpful, and the handout captured and expanded on the key points made during the talks.  It was an excellent genealogy day!

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Copyright (c) Randall J. Seaver, 2012


Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

Sounds like you had a very productive day learning outstanding research methods. I really enjoyed your review notes; was reminded where I often fail and how, perhaps, to fix that. Thank you, so much, for sharing! ;-)

David Newton said...

"The idea I found most intriguing was that an index is not really a source to be cited, whether it's in the back of a book, or an online searchable database with names, dates and places. Researchers should use the index as a finding aid and obtain the original source record since indexes are derivative sources with secondary information."

That a false choice. Indexes to books are not sources to be cited because the book in question is available automatically. Indexes to things like birth registers and the like can be sources to be cited legitimately because the registers themselves might not be available or only available after the payment of more money etc.

If I had not cited the GRO in England and Wales' BMD indexes as a source for my family tree I would have not known where I got an awful lot of information. I do not have the certificates so I cannot cite them and the registers themselves are not open to public inspection so I cannot cite them. In the 20th century these indexes alone can sometimes be used to reconstruct significant proportions of the trees of unusual names as they contain mother's maiden name information for births and spouse's surname information for marriages.

They are not a perfect source, but at the moment they are the only one I have for significant proportions of my tree. Just because they are derivative sources with secondary information does not mean that they should not be cited where access to the source they are derived from is not possible/has not taken place yet.

Cousin Russ said...


In the Planning "Reasonably Exhaustive Search" presentation, did he use the term Inferential Genealogy? He has a video on that in Was wondering what the difference might have been.

Thank you,