The Genealogical Process of Elimination – Thursday Thoughts

Finding our ancestors is often a genealogical process of elimination

Photograph of group of unidentifiable individuals walking in the street accompanying “The Genealogical Process of Elimination” a Thursday Thoughts blog post from historytrace exploring the search for elusive ancestors in historical sources. Image copyright www.freeimages.com / Griszka Niewiadomski.Identifying entries which relate specifically to our own ancestors in historical sources is often a genealogical process of elimination. Particularly when using large conglomerate online databases such as those offered on big name genealogical websites such as Ancestry, Find My Past, Fold 3 etc. When there are just so many possible candidates for the individual you are searching for it is often necessary to discount individuals in order to identify the correct person who is actually your ancestor and not just another person with the same names and particulars.

This activity becomes a bit of a crossover between “Where’s Wally”, looking for an ancestor hiding within the entries, and that childhood game “Guess Who” where you try to identify your opponent’s identity from a group of individual characters by describing their particulars to eliminate and thus identify the true identity. You start evaluating how many points of match you need to be convinced you have successfully traced a person or located an ancestor. In this respect the genealogical game becomes a bit like “Battleships”, how many partial hits do you need before you get an actually reach your target.

When we are faced with a large number of potential entries with many variables like alternative spellings for names or hazy age and birth years. It is worth deciding on a search and elimination strategy for individual permutations and combinations of data points before you begin. This way you can tick these off and eliminate lines of enquiry as you go along.

Whilst searching for people can require your best gaming strategy, the genealogical process of elimination can be a motivating challenge, but also a frustration and at times a great discouragement. Again having a plan and gradually working through this will help you stay focussed and optimistic that you have comprehensively looked at all the possibilities in order to adequately work on your process of elimination within the data sets available.

In some cases the process of elimination become the main outcome rather than identifying an individual. Your efforts may only be able to confirm that to the best of your knowledge and abilities the search for person is not present within the historical sources you have checked. And as a result you may need to reconcile yourself to that reality.

Then is the time to fully review what you have done, by going back over the genealogical strategy you have used in your process of elimination to see if you have identified all possible sources. To look again at the places and data you have searched through and your search strategies. It is possible that something might dawn on you and you might identify a search strategy you have not yet used. With time new data sets may become available which could reveal information which helps you to identify a family ancestor in the sources who was hiding before. Alternatively you may receive new knowledge from other sources which can help you revisit sources which had previously yielded nothing.

Your genealogical process of elimination will not always bring success as this is dependent on so many factors, from accuracy of starting data to the vagaries of the preservation of historical records. But when all attempts fail, you will at least have the peace of mind that everything you could do to find a person has been done. This realisation may still feel uncomfortable and frustrating, however no hit can also be regarded as a valuable result.

Hannah Gill, historytrace, 17/06/2016

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You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “The Genealogical Process of Elimination – Thursday Thoughts”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2016; copyright image: www.freeimages.com / Ratnesh Bhatt.

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