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The strengths and limits of online genealogy research

For over a year I have explored the family history of former slave Jefferson Clark of Leon County, Texas, and his suspected former slave owner George W. Tubb. You can read two summaries of this case study in previous articles in this column:

The research in this case study has been conducted solely through online records. This was always the point of the case study--to show both positive and negative aspects of conducting genealogy research solely online. I used both free and paid subscription websites in the course of this research.

There are several lessons that I hope readers have learned:

1. With diligent searching, you can find a lot of information online. In researching Jefferson Clark's family history, we used digitized images of Texas death certificates from FamilySearch, digitized images of 1867 Texas voter registration lists from Scribd, digitized images of federal census records from Ancestry, transcriptions of probate records from the Noxubee County, Mississippi, GenWeb website, and transcribed marriage abstracts from the Noxubee County, Mississippi Genealogy & History Network website.

2. When limited records are available, it is important to be thorough in your search and your analysis. Identifying Jefferson Clark's potential owner required compiling a list of potential slave owners, narrowing down the list by removing those who did not qualify, and correlating all of the available information. For example, Jefferson Clark's entry in the 1867 voter registration revealed that he had been in Texas since about 1858. By reviewing the places of birth of George W. Tubb's children as provided in the 1860 and 1870 federal censuses, we see that Tubb also moved to Texas about 1858. Analysis and correlation of information is the third condition of the Genealogical Proof Standard. Another excellent example of thorough search and analysis can be witnessed in the attempts to identify George W. Tubb's father using the federal census records. This involved establishing a migration route based on the places of birth of George W. Tubb's siblings, identification of Tubb families in these localities, working around "burned" counties, and analyzing the "tickmarks" in pre-1850 census households to identify family composition.

And the most important lesson to take away...

3. Not everything is available online. Despite thorough searching and skillful analysis of available records, what have we actually proven in the course of this case study? Nothing. There is a lot of indirect evidence that suggests that George W. Tubb was the former owner of Jefferson Clark, but we have not found any record that specifically connects the two men in any way. We still do not know for certain that we have identified George W. Tubb's father.

In the course of this research, we have done what we could do with limited information. However, by limiting our search to online records, we have not yet met the first condition of the Genealogical Proof Standard. We have not "conducted a reasonably exhaustive search for all relevant records."

This is the number one problem confronting "armchair genealogists"--those who limit their research to online records. Though the number of records available online has been increasing exponentially in recent years, available records still represent only a very small percentage of the records we need to conduct thorough and conclusive research.

So what do we do next? Stay tuned.

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