The Upside of Negative Results

(Vicki’s note – May 14, 2016 article by Allison – Legacy Tree Genealogists Project Manager):

The Upside of Negative Results

Making a new discovery about an ancestor is thrilling—so much so that one can even experience a “natural high”—that intake of breath as we realize we just found a new window of insight into our research subject. It is exhilarating to uncover a record that provides a new specific fact about an ancestor — like the occupation used by that ancestor to support the family, or the identity of his parents, enabling the line to be extended another generation, or the place of origin of an immigrating ancestor.

But what happens when a vast amount of energy is exerted and resources are spent and the search comes back negative? What do you do and how do you feel when nothing concrete was discovered about that ancestor and seemingly no advancement was made?

Believe it or not, finding nothing can actually be a good thing. Deflating and unexciting, sure, but still a good thing.

Even from a negative search we still learn something valuable. For instance, if an ancestor was absolutely not found in a location where it was assumed they lived, we can reasonably conclude that perhaps that ancestor was actually never there, but rather somewhere else. This seemingly dead end helps us rule out possible erroneous assumptions brought about by family lore or faulty previous research, and helps us consider new avenues. As a result, our attention can focus on determining the more precise location.

Another way a negative search can become a positive is that it forces us to try new methodologies and paths of research. Following are six ideas that can be explored in the wake of a negative search.

Search the Ancestor’s F.A.N. Club

If a negative search has resulted after making reasonably exhaustive searches for an individual, it may be time to research those people surrounding the elusive ancestor such as Friends, Associates, and Neighbors – in other words the FAN club, a phrase coined by genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills. Often referred to as “cluster research,” this methodology begins with researching one individual, then broadens to investigate that individual’s close family, then the in-laws, then the friends and neighbors, and finally the community. During this gathering process the patterns, facts, and movements about these communities are compiled and analyzed until a clearer picture emerges, often revealing new information about the original target subject. It’s important to remember just how interconnected and interdependent societies were in the 19th and earlier centuries, and to realize that there are multiple paths back to the same point in time. For example, even if you can’t seem to prove who your great-great-grandfather’s parents were, if you are able to identify the parents of that ancestor’s brother, you’ve by default also taken your own direct line back another generation.

Make a List of Candidates

Often there are numerous individuals in the same geographic location with the same characteristics, such as name and birth year. If the ancestor’s name is input into a database search engine and eleven persons with the same name appear, then make a list of those eleven individuals, and research each candidate, eliminating as you go along. If you are able to definitely eliminate all but one or two, you’ve narrowed your search a lot!

Ask “What If” Questions

If the elusive ancestor isn’t where we think he should be, ask “what if” questions. “What if the ancestor moved?” “What if the ancestor never came here in the first place?” “What if some historical event affected the family?”

Historical Context

Make sure you understand what was going on historically that may have involved your ancestor and may provide clues about their whereabouts. Did a war change the political boundaries or cause your ancestor to move away? Did a famine or pandemic affect your family?

Wait for New Record Collections to Become Available

New record collections are being archived and indexed every day. Even if we have exhausted the sources that pertained to that particular time period and region and we’ve maintained a thorough list of the databases and archives we’ve researched that have resulted in negative finds, we can refer back to our list and look into this new record collection, should one become available.

Consider DNA Testing

We live in an amazing time when more and more original records are being digitized and made available online. Vast amounts of genealogical information are now at our fingertips, within the comfort of our own home. You would think that every ancestral mystery should be solvable, especially if you pay a professional to use their skill and experience. That may be true in a lot of cases—we see successful results every day here at Legacy Tree Genealogists—but what if that key original document we seek no longer exists? Wars and natural disasters have destroyed huge amounts of critical information, making it impossible to follow a paper trail back to the 1500s on each of our lines.

That’s where DNA testing can make a significant difference. Your direct line ancestor may not have left sufficient records (or those records may not have survived) to identify their parents and grandparents, but what if their sibling or cousin did? What if the descendants of that sibling or cousin do have the records to prove who their ancestors were, and DNA shows that you are related? You can use that proof to bridge the records gap and figure out where your known ancestors intersected with the DNA-related family of the same time period. We have seen many stubborn brick walls come down as a result of DNA testing and strategic analysis of those results.

Don’t give up! At least post-1600, there are very few genealogical mysteries which are truly permanently unsolvable. Remember that while a “no” may be part of the process now, it will not always be! With enough time, effort, and exhaustive searching, you may still find the answers you’re looking for.


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