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By Daniel Hubbard | July 1, 2012

The word leverage can be used in many ways. It means one thing in finance, another in social relationships. The original sense comes from engineering. It is simply the way in which a force can be made more effective through he use of a lever.

A short lever. Your problem ancestor just thumbs his nose at you.

At its simplest, a lever is a rigid rod that is held stationary at some point along its length. There are many ways to use a lever, depending on where the fixed point, the “fulcrum,” is but one thing that a lever can do is to turn a small force acting over a large distance into a large force that acts over a small distance. A crowbar is a good example. The the more lever there is between the person exerting the force and the fulcrum, the less the force that is needed to move a weight.

I like to think of leverage in genealogy as well. Some genealogical problems certainly feel like heavy weights. You prod them and poke them and they just don’t move. You push, you pull and nothing happens. You’re stuck or rather, the problem is stuck. You need a lever.

In genealogy, the lever is made out of information. Information isn’t just a product of research, it is a tool for research.

The fulcrum is the point where the known and the unknown meet.

The force is how hard you think about and integrate what you know.

A lever needs four things to be effective. It needs enough length and it needs enough strength. It also needs a well positioned fulcrum and some force.

Short Levers

Maybe you’ve been trying to find a record of a birth and aren’t sure where or when to look. You’ve poked at the problem with a rolled up page from a family Bible (figuratively, please don’t roll up any pages!) but still the problem just sits there. The Bible note records a birth forty years before the Bible itself was printed. It claims a birthplace that didn’t exist at the time of the birth. As material for a lever, it is not much. Its a very short lever and not very strong.

What’s needed is a longer lever. The research needs to cover a longer time. The more of a person’s lifetime that you understand the longer the lever.

Lengthening the Lever

The lever is longer but it just bends instead of getting you some respect from your nose-thumbing ancestor

Next comes a census record. The age given doesn’t match the Bible record very well at all and the state is different but it lengthens the lever. Next another census record is added. Ten years earlier and only seven years younger and the state is different again. Still a very flimsy lever. Not really a lever at all.

Time to Strengthen the Lever

A lever strong enough to hop up and down on but still you get a nose thumbed at you!

You need a strong lever and it won’t be easy to build. It will take many different pieces to put it together.

You decide to calculate rough ages for siblings from what you can learn about them. If they really are siblings, your problem person should somehow fit into the pattern. That is another addition to your lever.

You start to investigate the other people in the area. Many of them came from the same general vicinity before they settled. Perhaps that place should be investigated. You add it to your lever. Another family with a similar surname turns up suspiciously often near your problem ancestor. You add that alternative surname to your lever. You trace them back to where they were a generation before. Your lever is getting better.

A sibling’s obituary gives a supposed place of birth. You hadn’t run across that place in your searches. It turns out to be along a migration route that points back to a region that was already suspicious. More leverage.

A county history makes a claim about your problem person’s ethnicity. One of the places that has turned up is associated with that group. Interesting… More leverage…

You find a letter that mentions a “cousin” that you had never heard of before—more strength to be had there with some research.

Moving the Fulcrum

Some clues will let you move your fulcrum. You learn more close in to the problem and some of the unknown lifetime becomes known.

Another thing to try is moving the fulcrum, the boundary between what is known and what is unknown. Perhaps you can locate a land record that implies that your problem person has come of age. Years earlier you find a will in which the father lists your problem person among his minor children. Those give you new and more reliable times. You can reposition that fulcrum.

 One Last Effort

The lever is long, strong and the fulcrum is well positioned. That will teach an ancestor to thumb his nose at you!

Once the lever has some length, some strength and you’ve pushed the known as close as you can to the problem, it is time to jump on the lever—hard. Think, integrate, discover subtle clues. Your airborne ancestor will thank you.

“Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.”

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