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Research Tips: Sometimes You Have to Go Sideways

The following is reprinted from a recent issue of The Archivist, The GSBC's quarterly newsletter distributed to our Members. If you enjoy this sample article, genealogy, or local NJ history, please consider joining the GSBC. Your membership dollars ($20 per membership year) help us provide a wide array of programming, research, indexing, and education — benefits which are designed to inspire your own research progress.


Sometimes You Have to Go Sideways

By Barbara Ellman

As genealogists, we are taught to start with what you know and work backwards — which works well until you back your way into a brick wall. Then, going only backwards can limit what we can do to find the missing piece of the puzzle. Sometimes, we have to think out of the genealogy box — going around the brick wall instead of through it.

Go-Sideways-Article-GraphicFor some time, I had been searching for information regarding the children of a distant female cousin. I knew that the cousin had been married for 17 years before getting divorced and I even had the record of the ex-spouse’s second marriage. But I hit a brick wall finding any indication of any children born of this first marriage.

Normally, I wouldn’t seek out information about the family of someone who married into my family, as my research is not normally focused on the family of extended family. But from a newspaper article about the couple’s wedding, I knew the names of the ex-spouse’s parents and decided to pursue a sideways approach to the research. I went in search of an obituary for the ex-spouse’s parents, and there it was — an obit for the father listing the names of his four grandchildren from his two sons. Now, I was part way there. But which children, if any of these four, were the children of my cousin’s first marriage?

Using Google, I searched again on both the ex-spouse’s father’s and mother’s names. This time, I discovered a small posting in the couple’s religious affiliation’s newsletter which wished the grandparents ‘good luck’ on the birth of a grandson to the ex-spouse and his (second) wife — and, it named the infant’s brothers! Through two separate announcements congratulating the grandparents, I was able to place names to all four grandchildren and discern which children belonged to my cousin and her ex-husband.

In another brick wall situation, I was trying to determine the town in Europe from which my relative had migrated to the US. The ship’s records and the person’s naturalization record only showed the gubernia (Ukrainian province) in which they had lived and no specific town or village. Using a sideways approach, I searched  the census and discovered that my relative lived near his maternal relatives. I then searched several of these maternal relatives’ naturalization records — which included a town of birth! With a town name in hand, I then searched the vital records for the town named in these naturalization records and it led me to some of the records for the person I was researching. Eureka!

If I had pursued just the linear path to the records, the records directly connected to the relative I was searching, I’d still be staring at my brick wall. Since then, my motto has become “Take a step back and think sideways”!