Prompted by this question on the main site: Resources for researching family from Greene County, Tennessee?
As I write this, our only edits have been adding tags and editing the title. However, to preserve the original text I'll quote it here:
I am researching my family tree and am stuck because my ancestor was 24 in 1850 so he is already living with his wife and child. The 1840 census doesn't tell me anyone other than head of house hold and I'm not sure of any brothers or sisters of my ancestor so I'm stuck. I also believe there to have been another family with the same last name living in the area which makes it more difficult to tell who is who.
I can say with confidence that I've been in exactly in the same place as this user -- I am stuck in exactly the same fashion right now in many places on my trees, because I haven't yet followed the advice I would give to this user. How do you dig yourself out of the hole when you don't know the right question to ask -- when you're so stuck, all you can say to yourself is "I'm stuck" and you haven't even asked a question?
Now let's look at what happened to the question. These are not in exact chronological order, but from the edit history combined with the comments we can see:
- A welcome message (good) that included a link to the tour (good) and a comment that there isn't a question in this question (also good)
- A suggestion that the user could look for a birth or baptism record; retagging with birth-records and baptism-record
- asking if the user could link to the 1850 Census and asking if the user has located a marriage record for this couple
- retagging with united-states and tennessee and replacing 1800s-decade with 19th-century
- reworking the title to make it into a question
- editing the title to fix a typo (oops)
- more comments asking for more info, and a couple of links that could start the unsticking process
Here's my concern. The current fashion in the genealogy industry is to have the users make trees on the sites of the major players like Ancestry, Find My Past, My Heritage. These vendors all provide "hints" in various ways that nudge the user towards historical records, photos, compiled genealogies, or other users' trees that might be associated with their person of interest. New users who have started 'doing genealogy' since these systems have been set up have been taught that 'doing genealogy' means matching up names. They leapfrog through history by matching up census records with birth/baptism, marriage, and death/burial records. Then when "something happens" to make this process break down, e.g. working in pre-1837 England, where you lose both the census and civil registration, or pre-1850 USA where you no longer have the every-name census record.
This problem was nicely described in this answer to Tracing US ancestor back to Germany?
At one time or another, I suppose most of us have suffered from premature connectivitis syndrome (PCS)--we don't really know enough yet by which we can well identify a person, yet we want to connect them to a much earlier place in time. I know I suffered. Somewhere I have copies of e-mails sent to cousin Dr. Bill Smith with lists of Preston and Butler names. All of these e-mails could have been titled, "So and so might be one of these, right?"
Lecturers still encourage newbies to collect all the census records and BMD information that they can find for every person. But are we right to do so? In his webinar Complex Evidence: What it Is, How it Works, Why it Matters, F. Warren Bittner calls finding a birth, marriage, or death date a False Research Imperative -- because merely filling in a blank on a Family Group Sheet doesn't answer the real question of whether two (or more) records with the same name on them actually belong to the same person.
What can we do here, as we try to direct people to ask specific questions, to not perpetuate this industry pitfall of simply collecting the BMDs and census records and calling it a day? To me, having the BMDs and census records is only the beginning -- it's the frame around the portrait of our person, not the portrait itself. Knowing the birth, marriage, and death places and dates, and having the census records are what we use to set the framework for further searches -- to search effectively we need to know the time and place as well as the name.