MyCinnamonToastTM Genealogy

Genealogists--The Best Detectives In The World...they have to be.

by Albert Blackwell


Most novices think the extent of genealogy is searching for birth certificates, death certificates, Marriage licenses, Federal immigration records, and tax roles. They don't think in more in-depth terms until they looked straight into the sultry, secretive eyes of the genealogy demon, looking for bits and pieces of our past. Paper was invented over 2,000 years ago. For that reason, we expect to find remnants of paper-trails left by our ancestors. While there are some ancient records existing today, and many haven't even been found yet, but so much has been lost for ever.

Even in America, to one degree or another, records have been maintained over the last two centuries by individuals, churches, old businesses, family bibles, etc. And every level of government has made and kept [tried to keep] records and documents since before President George Washington whacked down Papa's cherry tree. But here's the sad part. Archived paper records don't last forever. Blame it on mishandling, neglect, elements of nature, floods, tornadoes-you name it. Still, human neglect has destroyed the majority of the paper trail left to posterity over past eons; carelessness being the main culprit; storing them on dusty shelves, in cellars, in closets, and in record vaults to one degree or another without humidity and temperature control. Paper disintegrates naturally as adhesives binding the pulp breaks down. Preserving documents have always required an intense, costly chemical process, understood and master by few. And consider there was no means of microfilming or photo copying until the 20th century.


Few of us can afford to buy every roll of microfiche or CD ROM available that "might" contain records possibly holding clues to our ancestors. So, where does that leave us? It means were work harder and smarter. We do it by thinking logically and using ever available resource. Our greatest resources being our minds-brain power. It is the most complex, most powerful computer on the face of the planet.

If we believe a clue is but one piece of information, we are defeated before we begin. We must wring every drop of logical sense out of each clue we have. A clue is a tool for research. It may not have any value in itself, but when used as a piece of a whole puzzle, it may be a golden key for unlocking ancient doors. A genealogist must take a clue and dissect it, examine it, then do it again and again, until every spec of information has been dismantled and gleaned for its value. Then write it down in a log or record in some meaningful order. Always revisit the clue and see if it later fits with other clues.

A complex machine is nothing more than a combination of simple machines, each doing its part of the primary process. Truth is like a complex machine. It is a collection of small bits of information, each telling a small part of the truth, and when we organize these clues in a logical order, we begin reconstruct the truth. Along the way, a clue may give rise to another theory, and we begin yet another avenue of searching. Genealogists are some of the most tenacious detectives, in the strictest sense of the word, to be found. If I ever committed a crime and wanted to vanish from society, I wouldn't want them on my trail, for a true genealogist leaves no stone unturned, no clues uninvestigated.

Genealogists often have little to go on but common sense, a few clues, and a gut feeling. What we must do is learn to think, reason, collect clues, and collate facts in the same methodical, logical, and orderly fashion as professional missing persons investigators. We must keep records of our sources and our research to prevent us from retracing old trails.


Suppose there is no birth certificate on file documenting when G,G, Grandmother, Sarah Jones, was born. Finally, your interment search located a marked grave, only the tombstone's born-date is reportedly eroded beyond recognition. You must then ask, what I know about her. You know when she was married in 1840. You know her Father's name was Frank C. Jones. Her mother was Sue Ann. Here's where we give our brains a little exercise in deductive logic.

Up through the 1980, legal accountability for a female was age 12 or 13, especially in rural life. Usually, for a male it was 16. The reason being, raising families was tough on the farm, and the sooner a girl was married off, the lighter the burden of feeding and clothing. You usually gained another male in the family to help out with heavy chores when needed.

Considering that she had to have been at least 12 [minimum] when she was married [some exceptions]. That would make her born at the latest, about 1928. This "proves nothing", but it does indicate a point in time to begin working our way forward and save wasting time and effort going back even further.

An excellent source for age determination is often a census record, even for children, and any member living in a particular household at the time of the census. Try locating a county/state/federal census record(s) for all the county/counties Frank C. Jones is believed to have lived in, starting from 1920 [five years earlier than you estimated the minimum date Granny could have been born], then search forward. A census won't give the DOB of any family member, but it will give the ages of everyone in the household at that time.

Example: In an old census, suppose you found...

1830 State Census For Covington Co. AL

Dist. 2
Jones, Frank C. M 42 Farmer Assets $820.00
Sue Ann F 36
Jones, Sarah F 6
Jimmy John M 3
Mary Lou F 1
Ezra J. Garfied M 10 (Cousin)

As you can see, Sarah Jones was age six in 1930. Counting backwards, with confidence, you can safely conclude Granny Jones was born in either 1824 or 1825. Therefore, 1824 is a time frame you can use to begin searching for other information relative to her. Also note, the live in cousin. Notes like this often come in handy later on in research.

Genealogy is all about logic. It's all about finding pieces that fit by deductive and inductive logic. And just because someone doesn't show up on any census report doesn't mean anything. Census, the early 20th century was a lot hunting and guess work, and many, many families with many generations in rural areas were never recorded in any census-ever. There was a lack of roads, communication, and much of the rural areas were virtually unexplored and inaccessible, even for government census takers. Many births or deaths were never recorded by the government.

This situation is where things like bible records and old church minutes come in handy. People were born, lived out their lives, and generation after generation, had families, never paid any taxes, never wrote mailed a single letter, and died without the outside world knowing they ever existed. That's the way rural America was, and that's precisely why genealogists learn it pays to become the best detective they can be.

This article is © Copyright 2000 Albert C. Blackwell
Albert Blackwell is a semi-retired aerospace engineer, school teacher, com. photographer. MMIS degree. Freelance writer, digital photo restorationist, aspiring screen writer. You can read more of his genealogy articles, as well as articles on other topics, at:
He can be reached at:

Search for your surname: