Death, taxes & the “reasonably exhaustive” standard: IGHR Wednesday (4 of 6)

IGHR Diary -- Day 4Wednesday at IGHR brought a breadth of instruction. The intricacies of tax records, creative substitutes for the “vital records,” the layers of military records, and that question that plagues all GEGs: what is “reasonably exhaustive” research? (This diary began at Sunday’s Orientation.)

 Wednesday, June 15, 2016

I am home again after yet another jam-packed day of mind-expanding instruction. Four of us left campus for lunch together. Our conversation reinforced how different each GEG journey must be. Every ancestor can take you to a different place, a different socioeconomic class, a different destiny. Even as we are building standards and best practices, there will never be a formula. And we will never get bored.

Using and Interpreting Tax Records

Angela McGhie set the day in motion with a discussion of tax records, and the many ways they can serve us in our research. There was much to ponder in this hour, but two things stick out.

Taxes in ScrabbleFirst, I learned to trust tax records as indicators of the presence or absence of an ancestor, in places where the records were kept and have survived. Given how taxes work today, I should have realized that few escaped the tax man. Therefore, the absence of my ancestor from a tax listing should tell me something. Someone has moved, died, or ceased to be of a taxable age.

The second vital takeaway was the knowledge that a poll tax was not a tax my ancestors chose to pay if they wanted to vote. The historian in me has associated the word “poll tax” with the post–Civil War attempts to prevent African Americans and poor whites from voting by using poll taxes.

I learned today, though, that poll taxes were per-head taxes on men of a certain age range. There goes my long-held assumption that my 2xggfather David Cox was incredibly patriotic when he paid 1/25 of his worldly assets in a Georgia poll tax. He didn’t want to vote that badly after all.

Alternate Sources for Birth, Marriage & Death Certificates

Angela also taught a session on how to get past the absence of vital records. Among many other things, I learned that the Daughters of the American Revolution maintain an online repository of family Bible records. I knew that the DAR made the lineage documents available, but had little experience with DAR Bible Recordsthe other materials they offer online.

Angela also answered a question I had wondered about. When a marriage bond is posted, does money change hands? As I suspected, it does not. The bond is a promise to pay, should one of the marriage licensees default. I do find myself curious now as to how often these bonds actually required someone to pay.

Angela provided handouts with extensive lists of places to go for the vitals. These will be a great help in future research.

Using Genealogical Evidence

Mid-morning, Thomas W. Jones, award-winning author of Mastering Genealogical Proof and long-term co-editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Thomas W. Jonesjoined us to lecture on “Using Genealogical Evidence.” He started off with a shocking confession, saying, “I wasted the first sixteen years I did genealogy, until I joined the National Genealogical Society.” Just hearing it lifted a huge burden from me, because I know exactly what he means.

The early years, if you’re not properly taught, can be a well-intentioned and enjoyable sand castle–building exercise. Pleased as you might be with your elaborate sand structure, the elements will collapse it.

The difference in genealogical sand castles and timeless structures lies in the “Genealogical Proof Standard,” which requires a “reasonably exhaustive search” of available records. How do you know you’ve been reasonably exhaustive, though? I think most of us came into the lecture with that question.

It can be true that a picture paints a thousand words. Tom used a visual aid that suddenly made this concept workable to me. It was an image of a jigsaw puzzle beginning to take shape.

Several pieces of a woman’s face had been put together. It was not a complete picture, but it was enough to distinguish her face from any other that might emerge as the puzzle was completed. It was enough to be confident that the few last pieces of her face — her jaw and hairline — would not materially change how you viewed her.

Tom told us that this is the way to conceive of the reasonably exhaustive search. Do you have enough of the picture to be confident that no new information could surface to materially undermine it? I’ll take this image with me into my work. Finally, I get it.

Research Strategies in Military Records

We spent the entire afternoon immersed in military records, taught by nationally recognized lecturer Michael L. Strauss. Before he even Michael L. Straussbegan, we were provided with 22 single-spaced pages of notes on the types of military records available. It had never occurred to me how many different types of records and how many different offices of each military branch there are. I had been proud of myself for writing off for a few compiled service records, but I haven’t scratched the service of what’s there.

In scanning my notes to look for the major take-away, I find myself unable to choose. My notebook margins are filled with scribbles. So much, in fact, that I can’t remember writing some of it only hours ago. This section of my notebook is going to be a ready reference — a place I’ll come back whenever it appears that a family member was touched directly or indirectly by military service.

In a break between sessions, one of my new friends in class told me about the loss of her son in Iraq; the class session had set her thinking about wanting his service records. She buried him nearly a decade ago, but her pain is still so fresh. Getting lost in records and the genealogical gems I can extract from them, I sometimes forget about the humanity of those on the other end of draft cards and pension applications. I’ll try to think of her when I’m working in military records in future.

Wednesday wrap-up

Today brought great variety and valuable new insights, as we plied our instructors with questions. Even as we are all starting to get really tired, we are also entering into one of the best aspects of IGHR. We are making friends who can share this journey from now on.

In asking why we would favor this traditional institute over learning at home with books and videos (which are also wonderful), it really gets to those two things: building a network and having the instructors available for questions.

Continue to Newspapers, land, and courts: IGHR Thursday (5 of 6).

GEG_Single Wrap

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