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Melinda Daffin Henningfield, CG®, “The Role of Background Context in Document Analysis,” OnBoard 23 (January 2017): 1–2.

No man [or woman] is an island1

Family historians often come across documents hiding in attics and closets or tucked away in boxes and drawers. The documents—having no known connection to the finder’s family—lead to perplexing questions, such as “Why is this will in my family’s papers?” or “Who is the person named in this letter?”

Answering these questions requires analyzing a document’s physical condition and custody over time, the informant’s credibility, and the information’s consistency and reliability. Thorough analysis identifies information relevant to a defined research question. Thomas W. Jones adeptly covers the process in “Focused Versus Diffuse Research.” Dr. Jones describes efficient research as formulating specific, focused questions and the research goal as answering those questions.2

Document analysis also considers “all significant geographic, political, legal, and historical factors.”3 Expanding research to include background information helps meet the first component of the Genealogical Proof Standard, “reasonably exhaustive research.”4 Meeting Standard 12 requires considering “historical boundaries and their changes, migration patterns and routes, and sources available for potentially relevant times and places,” and the “economic, ethnic, genetic, governmental, historical, legal, linguistic, military, paleographic, religious, social, and other factors” that might affect the scope of research.5 To meet Standard 41, research incorporates “histories of the area, its population, and relevant time periods, and works describing customs, governance, laws, and regulations.”6

A single document can raise many questions. Each question may require different contextual information. An example is Hiram Niday’s Jackson County will executed in 1855.7 What if the research question is “When did Hiram Niday settle in Jackson County, Oregon Territory?” Research into Jackson County’s geography and history before Hiram settled there helps to pinpoint his probable arrival as no earlier than 1851. His profile might include the following paragraph.

Hiram Niday settled in the Rogue River Valley of Jackson County, Oregon Territory, when it was a vast, lonely, unpopulated area surrounded by mountains. The Rogue River, originating in the Cascade Mountains on the east side, bisects the county. The river is embraced on the north by a spur of the Cascade Mountains, on the south by the Siskiyou Mountains, and flows to the Pacific Ocean through the Coastal Range on the west. In 1846, not knowing whether Oregon Country would eventually be part of the United States or Great Britain, a small group—including two Applegate brothers—undertook locating a southern route for future immigrants.8 Despite increasing travel between the northern part of the Oregon Territory and California that involved crossing the Rogue River, “the first house in Rogue River Valley was built at the ferry” in 1851.9

In his will, Hiram devises a total of 320 acres—160 acres to his wife Caroline and 160 acres to his children when they become of age. The research question might be “Why did Hiram Niday of Jackson County, Territory of Oregon, give half of his land to his wife Caroline in 1855?” Legal factors in the following paragraph may begin to answer the question.

Hiram’s devise of a total of 320 acres suggests the possibility of a Donation Land Claim. From 1850 to 1853, a male settler could acquire 160 acres in his name and another 160 acres in his wife’s name.10 The land willed to Caroline perhaps was already in her name. Determining the land’s origin will help locate the land records. The National Archives, rather than Jackson County, holds the Donation Land Claim files.11

Hiram’s will stipulates that Caroline should pursue an award for land destroyed by the Rogue River Tribe in 1853. What if the research question is “Why did the Rogue River Tribe destroy Hiram Niday’s property in Jackson County, Territory of Oregon, in 1853?” Historical information in the next paragraph addresses this question.

The Indians’ aggressive reputation is a likely reason for lack of settlement in the Rogue River Valley before 1851. Lindsay Applegate was told that “portions of the country through which we would have to travel were infested with fierce and war-like savages, who would attack every party entering their country, steal their traps, waylay and murder the men, and that Rogue River had taken its name from the character of the Indians inhabiting its valleys.”12

Our targeted research principals did not live in a vacuum. Their choices were influenced by kin and associates, by legal and political circumstances, and by the geography surrounding them. Their peers may been loyal to Britain, yet our folks favored rebellion. Laws or religious customs of their time and place could have denied them education or marriage. A raging river or rugged mountain may have prevented access to the local courthouse so they went to the adjacent county’s courthouse. They may have traversed an ocean to find a better life for their families or to help their male children escape military service. These circumstances may only come to light while exploring the context of their lives.13

Context should be an inherent part of research reports, case studies, and generational histories about our research subjects that we write for ourselves or for others. It frequently explains “their world”—the social, political, and legal factors constraining them, and the geography and technology confining or freeing them. Document analysis executed in concert with the Genealogical Proof Standard and Standards 12 and 41 guides us away from erroneous assumptions and opens our eyes to previously unexplored resources.


Melinda Daffin Henningfield, CG®


All websites were viewed 19 December 2016.

1 John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions; Together with Death’s Duels (N.p.: Project Gutenberg, 2007), 108; digital images, Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/23772).

2 Thomas W. Jones, “Focused Versus Diffuse Research,” OnBoard 17 (September 2011): 17-18.

3 “Rubrics for Evaluating New Applications for BCG Certification,” p. 2, DW7, Board for Certification of Genealogists (https://www.bcgcertification.org/brochures/BCGNewAppRubrics2016.pdf). [Editor’s note: For an updated version, see Ibid., Board for Certification of Genealogists (https://bcgcertification.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/BCG-New-Application-Rubrics-2018.pdf : viewed 18 February 2018).]

4 Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn.: Ancestry, 2014), 1.

5 Ibid., 12.

6 Ibid., 25.

7 Jackson County, Oregon Territory, Probate Case Files, 1876 [1853]-1926: Probate Case file no. 891, Hiram Niday, 16 March 1855, 2 pages; digital images from the Oregon State Archives, Secretary of State’s Office, Oregon State Archives, Salem.

8 Lindsay Applegate, “Notes and Reminiscences of Laying out and Establishing the Old Emigrant Road into Southern Orgeon [sic] in the Year 1846,” The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society 22 (March 1921): 12-21; digital images, JSTOR (http://www.jstor.org/stable/20610174). The author recalled their dangerous passage through the Rogue Valley-and over the entire trail-by using his memory and “notes taken at the time.” The road they established is now called the Applegate Trail.

9 Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Oregon, 1848-1888, 2 vols. (San Francisco: The History Company, 1888), 2:184; digital images, Internet Archive (http://archive.org/details/historyoforegon02bancroft).

10 U. S. Congress, The Statutes at Large and Treaties of the United States of America, December 1, 1845, to March 3, 1851, vol. 9 (Boston: Little and Brown, 1851), 496-500, “An Act to create the Office of Surveyor-General of the Public Lands in Oregon, and to provide for the Survey, and to make Donations to Settlers of the said Public Lands;” digital images, Google Books (http://www.google.com/books).

11 Anne Bruner Eales and Robert M. Kvasnicka, Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives of the United States, 3rd ed. (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2000), 293.

12 Applegate, “Notes and Reminiscences,” 15.

13 For useful examples of using background context to analyze documents, see Kay Haviland Freilich, “Background Information: An Overlooked Research Tool,” OnBoard 11 (September 2005): 17-18. Also, Barbara Vines Little, “Working with Documents: The Importance of Context in Record Analysis,” in Virginia: The First Frontier, National Genealogical Society, 2014 Family History Conference, Program Syllabus (Arlington, Virginia: NGS, 2014), 575-77.

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