One of the first obstacles that any family historian or genealogy researcher encounters is figuring out not only what to look for, but where to look for it. Nowhere is that more true than in the United States, where growth and change seem to be the only constant, and our increasingly mobile population can – and does – move freely within our borders.
Unlike our European and Eastern counterparts with their ancient histories and their territorial boundaries that may not have changed significantly in the past five centuries or so, the United States is a relatively young nation. And, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, its people have never been inhibited in their freedom to move from place to place at will.
The average American has made liberal use of this freedom from the earliest days of our country’s history to the present day, which is one of the most fascinating aspects of genealogical and family history research. We can easily visit the places where our ancestors lived and worked and raised their families. We can experience individual history in a way that is up close and personal.
But such freedom of mobility raises a set of questions that can be not only frustrating, but sometimes impossible for the researcher to answer. Consider this one example:
Family tradition asserts that my paternal grandmother’s family migrated to Florida from Thomas County, Georgia in 1855, and they settled in Columbia County.
Now, that’s pretty specific for family tradition. But, as I’ve discovered, it’s not completely accurate.
They didn’t migrate directly from Thomas County; there was a stop for a couple of years in Baker County, Georgia, where at least three of their children were born, according to the 1850 U.S. Federal Census.
To date, I’ve been unable to find any records of any kind, in any Florida county, until the 1860 U.S. Federal Census, when the family, including all eight children, are shown as living in Suwannee County, Florida.
The property in Columbia County that was assumed to be the original family homestead wasn’t purchased until the late 1880s by my grandmother’s father, not her grandfather.
So, where was the James Chastain family between 1850 and 1860? Why can’t I find any trace of them in either Georgia or Florida during that time period? And where were they living between 1860 and 1887? Surely, there have to be records somewhere. Aren’t there?
Well, there’s a small matter of the Columbia County courthouse burning to the ground. Not once. Not twice. Three times! Plus serious water damage in the 1920s that wiped out another large chunk of the remaining records.
And, if that weren’t enough to make me seriously consider abandoning my research, a house fire totally destroyed the Henry Chastain homestead and all the family records in 1967. I was out of options. There was nowhere else to turn.
Then I thought about the most valuable lesson years of research has taught me: Disappointment and discouragement will be your constant companions, and there may be times you have to set your work aside for a while to gain new perspective, but quitting must never be an option. There must always be another source to explore, another place to look, another question to ask.
The truth of that mantra really resonated with me when I briefly stopped my active research and took time to remember conversations with my grandmother, when she talked about visiting with her grandparents and her multitude of aunts and uncles and cousins at “the old home place.”
Suddenly, effortlessly on my part, I realized where she had been talking about, and I knew from my research that the area where her grandparents had originally settled had been part of four different counties and had changed hands several times. Perhaps the records I was looking for had changed hands as well. Almost miraculously, a whole range of new research possibilities opened up for me.
The work ahead of me will be painstaking and challenging, and no doubt disappointing and discouraging at times. But it gives me hope that there are answers to be found – if not here, then somewhere else; if not now, then some time in the future – as long as giving up is not an option.