14 February 2007

How it's made: genealogy

Have you seen the TV program How it's made? You get the industrial strength truth behind the "home baked" and "family farm" images on the labels of the food we eat; the inside story on everyday consumer products.

Programs like Ancestors in the Attic, mostly portray a sanitized version of how a family genealogy or history is made. You don't see researchers spending hours, days or months searching original, or worse microfilmed, documents to uncover the elusive evidence. Although indexed census and civil registration records have made the search easier in many cases you also often find misindex or missing records. Many records remain preserved in out of the way repositories, unindexed and often unexamined for years, if ever, since they were created.

Another thing you don't see is people following promising but false leads. Genealogical research is like much other research where you, usually informally, formulate a hypothesis and then set out to test it. I've had an example recently in the context of a presentation I made to a beginning genealogy session when I spoke about the first golden rule of genealogical research - work backwards. I used the example of researching the ancestry of the new Mayor of Ottawa, Larry O'Brien. His father's grave marker shows a birth year 1908. The nearest I could come to establishing the next generation back was an entry for someone of the same name in the 1911 census, born in Montreal in late 1907. Was the grave marker birth year an error? I followed the Montreal family back two more generations into the Ottawa valley and was hopeful it might lead to some clues to establishing that as the correct family, but had to admit during the beginning genealogy presentation I didn't have evidence, it was a hypothesis.

On Monday I went to a public meeting where, to my surprise, Mayor O'Brien put in an appearance. It was an opportunity too good to miss so I asked him privately as he was leaving if his father was born in Montreal. He said no, in Manitoba, and mentioned the suburb of Ottawa where earlier generations had lived. Pretty good evidence against the Montreal hypothesis, and it was blown out of the water when I found his father, with a 1907 birth year, in the 1911 Manitoba census. Making the link back to that suburb is proving a challenge, but I do have a new hypothesis to work on. My presentation to a beginner session next week will have different story to tell and a new hypothesis to present.

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