Background Information: An Overlooked Research Tool
- Newsletter of the BCG
Kay Haviland Freilich , "Background Information:
An Overlooked Research Tool,"
OnBoard 11 (September 2005): 17-18.
Background is deﬁned as the social, historical,
technical, or other circumstances whose understanding gives
meaning to a fact or event. The BCG
Genealogical Standards Manual1 points out that in evaluating evidence, researchers
must consider the data’s background context. Among
the points to be considered are changes in the geographic
boundaries of political subdivisions, types of records
created (or not created), characteristics of the area’s
records, terminology, and the literature, laws, regulations,
customs, and history of the area.
The records our ancestors
left behind were created for a reason. What they say, and
how they say it, can tell us as much as the words themselves.
Conversely, the records our ancestors did not create were
not created for a reason. Understanding these reasons will
help our research and will, perhaps, give us some of the
missing answers. In other words, knowing about the record
can be as important as knowing the record.
One type of background
information we use regularly deals with geographic boundaries.
One of the first things we learn is that boundaries change
frequently. We need to understand these changes to know
where to look for the records. We need to know the before
and after of the boundary changes: what was the previous
jurisdiction; what is the next one. And, of course, where
can we access the records? In some jurisdictions they remain
where they were created; in others, they are transferred;
in still others, copies are made and sent to the new jurisdiction
stay where they were created. Each possibility requires
a different research plan.Laws are often the driving force
behind the creation of a record, so we need to understand
the law at the time and in the place when and where our
ancestor lived. Reviewing the laws can help us understand
their records. For example,
• Inheritance: Division of property when the decedent
dies without a will is gov-erned by civil law. During the
colonial era, some colonies followed English common law
of primogeniture and gave all property to the eldest son.
Other colonies divided the property and gave the eldest
son a double share.• Taxes: In some areas and time
periods, property taxes were assessed only on property
owners. At other times and places, the holder of the property,
wheth-er owner or renter, was responsible for the taxes.
Knowing how tax status was determined in an area of research
can tell us whether we should be looking for records of
land ownership.• Marriage: Minimum ages for legal
mar-riage are set by state law, varying from state to state
and from one time period to another. Many of the laws also
state the ages before which parental consent is required.
If a marriage record includes pa-rental consent, or contains
a notation that either of the parties is “of legal
age,” and we know the legal ages for marriage,we can calculate an approximate age or “born by” date
for the in-dividual.
Sometimes laws dictate where a record
must be created. Knowledge of the law can help us ﬁnd
the record we have been seeking. Consider the ancestor
for whom no marriage record can be found, even though a
baptism record is available and the individual was buried
in a church cemetery of the same denomination. While logic
tells us the most likely place for a marriage record is
that church, the laws of the area may have directed that
the marriage be recorded in another place. Prior to the
Louisiana Purchase, the area that later became Missouri
had also belonged to Spain for a time; the law of that
time required all marriages to be recorded in the Roman
Catholic Church. In colonial Virginia, marriages were considered
legal only if they were performed under the authority of
the ofﬁcial church of the colony, the Anglican Church.
Another area where background can help our research is
knowing if the record we want was actually created. Consider
• No passenger list for an immigrant
ancestor—because he arrived via Canada before Canadian
border crossing lists were kept
.• No World War I
draft record—be-cause he was already in the service
and was not required to register.
• No Quaker birth
record—because the parents were not members in good
standing at the time of the birth.
• No property transfer—because
it was not recorded until many years after the event, or
because the property passed to another under the terms
of a will.
• No Revolutionary War pension—because
the soldier did not live long enough to collect a pension,
or because the soldier served in a state unit that may
or may not have granted pensions.
Sometimes laws speciﬁed the creation of records
but some reason may have rendered them incomplete. Several
colonies, including Pennsylvania, had early laws mandating
the registration of vital events. However, many residents
did not comply with the laws, and some of them were simply
repealed. Other records were intended to be incomplete.
One example is the 1880 census Soundex. It was created
to provide ofﬁcial age records for individuals who
might later collect Social Security. As a result, only
children age ten or under—and members of their households—were
included in the Soundex.
Researching the background of records
is not without challenges. As these examples have shown,
many different things touched the lives of our ancestors.
For each one, there is another background to consider.
There is a wealth of resources available to aid our study
of background information. Excellent references on the
laws of inheritance, property, and other topics2 are available.
Dictionaries, maps, and atlases are other useful references
that will help us consider the why of a record
as part of our research.
1. Board for Certiﬁcation of Genealogists, The
BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, Millennium Edition (Orem,
Utah: Ancestry, 2000), page 10.
2. See, as examples, S. N. D. North, compiler, Marriage
Laws in the United States 1887–1906 (Conway, Arkansas: Arkansas
Research, 1993); Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law
of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986); and Carole
Shammas, Marylynn Salmon, and Michel Dahlin, Inheritance
in America From Colonial Times to the Present (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University
Kay Haviland Freilich, CG, CGL
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