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Kay Haviland Freilich, CG, CGL, FNGS, “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 while originals 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 governed 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, whether 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 marriage 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 parental 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 individual.

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 these examples:

• 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—because 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 Press, 1987).


Kay Haviland Freilich, CG, CGL

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG’s educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.