By Daniel Hubbard | January 2, 2011
Work I’ve been doing for some clients recently has got me thinking about a way that I sometimes do research when connections are hard to make. I think of this method as “painting ancestors.” I don’t mean portrait painting. I mean something more along the lines of house painting.
These days painting woodwork with oil based paint is something of a lost art. Every time I buy some I’m asked if I know how to use it and before I can say “yes,” I’m told that you can’t just put on one thick coat with a single stroke of the brush. You need to work it into the wood by going over it with quite a few back-and-forth brush strokes. I always politely thank the person for the advice, or rather, I do manage to insert into the conversation that I have done this before by thanking them for the reminder.
First Brush Stroke
The research method goes something like this. I have an immigrant to the U.S. or someone else that for whatever reason has an extra built-in research hurdle. A bit is known but not much. That information, whatever it is, gives me my starting point. Like we all should, I start the process of working backward through time. Somewhere along the way, things start to not quite add up. Nothing catastrophic, nothing that screams “This is wrong” but puzzling all the same. The brush stroke moves along but the paint doesn’t quite cover.
In one recent case, I found people who seemed to be members of the extended family I was researching but they did not exist in the information I had been given. I couldn’t prove or disprove a relationship from American records either. What I had was just enough information to try to cross the Atlantic and find one or two of my immigrants in the old country. Once I’d made the somewhat premature eastward leap, the puzzle pieces all fell into place and it was clear how those people’s lives fit together. In another, a supposed pair of brothers weren’t making as much sense as I would have liked. For one brother there was just enough information to look for him before he came to America. When I found him, I also found that his supposed brother was indeed his sibling but that the brother’s name, though explicable, was significantly different from what it was later in life.
Second Brush Stroke
With new knowledge it is time to make the return brush stroke, working the paint in more deeply, making the coverage better. Now, with new information, I can move forward in time and find new evidence with which to firm up connections. With a very different version of an emigrant’s name, it can be possible to trace forward what couldn’t be traced backward.
Keep On Painting
With a difficult family, each brush stroke can teach enough to make the next stroke worthwhile even if it still does not give you the full picture.
The trick is, of course, to put enough effort into each pass of the brush to make it worthwhile but not put in so much effort that if you discover that you’re mistaken, you have wasted a great deal of effort. That is, in a sense, the whole point when deciding to proceed this way. Putting things on rock solid footing before you move further back is usually the best technique. Sometimes though, instead of getting rock solid footing, you get spinning wheels. Effort is getting wasted. At that point it can work to push on briefly and then retrace your steps—to add that second brush stroke. That exercise might teach you enough to explain why the wheels were spinning. They might have been spinning because you were on the wrong track entirely and suddenly that becomes clear. The hoped for result is that the wheels were spinning because you lacked a crucial bit of information that was easy to find by allowing your first brush stroke to be imperfect and being willing to go over the same area a few times, improving your knowledge each time. Eventually, a full coat of paint will be put down.Twitter It!