What Santa Taught Me About Genealogical Research

When I was in second grade, I got into a heated argument at school. My classmates were suggesting– no, insisting, that there was no such thing as Santa Claus and that parents were the ones that provided the Christmas morning loot. One of my primary arguments was that I knew my family had no money, yet each Christmas, I always got presents. “How could this be?” I asked.  As I rode home on the bus that afternoon, I devised a plan to prove them wrong. I knew about savings accounts. I knew that when you put money in or took money out, the bank clerk took your account book, stamped it, and gave it back to you. It sounds a little odd in today’s electronic banking culture, but it was this book and its entries that showed me a way I could prove that Santa, and not my mom, provided the presents on Christmas.

(Mom—stop reading at this point and skip a couple of paragraphs)

The next day while my mom was still at work, I went into the bedroom and found my mom’s savings account book. I carefully surveyed the entries for any anomalies. Satisfied nothing out of the ordinary had happened, I made a note of the balance. My plan was this: from that day forward, I would check the book. On Christmas Day, if no withdraws had been made, and there were still presents under the tree, clearly there was a Santa Claus. You have to hand it to me, it was a pretty brilliant plan for a 7-year old.

Each day I would open the nightstand drawer and check the book, and each day, there were no changes. I admit as Christmas drew closer and closer without any changes, I grew more and more nervous. What if I was wrong? But sure enough, Christmas morning came, and that tree was loaded with goodies! I did it! I had proven the existence of Santa Claus!! My mom had never withdrawn any money from her account, and yet there those presents were there under the tree.  The only remaining theory (in a 7-year old’s world) was that there was indeed a Santa.

I could hardly wait the rest of Christmas vacation to get back to school and report my findings. Breathlessly, I told them all the gory details: the daily balance check, fruitless present snooping just to be sure, and finally the jubilation of Christmas morning. The reaction was not what I expected. They were open-mouthed alright, but with laughter, not surprise. How could they not be convinced? I was near tears. “Then you explain it!” I blurted. And they did. Who knew that there were other kinds of bank accounts besides savings, and they didn’t come with little books? Who knew about credit cards? This 7 year old didn’t—at least until then.

By now you may be asking, “Chris, what in the world does this have to with genealogy?”

A lot, actually.

In the story, my mistake was not understanding that the withdraw may have been recorded in a place other than where I was looking. It’s not that a record for the withdraw wasn’t created by my mom, but that it was recorded in a place I didn’t know about or never thought to look. Doesn’t that sound familiar? If I had spent as much time researching the other ways available to my mom to buy presents, I would have realized that I needed to check those records, too.

How many times have we made this very same error in our genealogical research? Even though we formulated the correct question and devised a plan that could provide the answer, we limited our search and either didn’t find an answer– or worse, arrived at a wrong answer. In our research, checking only those sources with which we are familiar or are easy to use may not lead us to an accurate conclusion. We need to learn about other resources available, how to use them, and then actually check those resources. In today’s genealogy lingo, this is part of the “exhaustive search” clause of the genealogical proof standard

As an example, assume we were trying to prove that two particular same-surnamed people are father and son. Upon the suspected father’s death, his land was divided between his heirs and we’ve found several deeds of children disposing of their interest in his property. We’ve checked every single probate record and land transaction available but can’t find a reference to, or transaction for the person we thought was a son. We assume then that the younger individual must not be a son because there is not any evidence where we think there should be.

But did we check all of the sources available? Is there something we don’t know about that some additional knowledge might open up to us? Perhaps, unbeknownst to us, there was a partition case filed in Common Pleas court. Those Common Pleas records are un-indexed, hard to access, and time consuming to use so we’ve avoided them and weren’t aware what might be recorded there. In that Common Pleas case that we don’t know about, this particular son is indeed mentioned as an heir, but for whatever reason, his interest was never recorded or transferred in any deed book as the other children’s had. The only place he is mentioned is in that partition case.

The answer was right there in that Common Pleas docket. Just like the answer to the Christmas question…well, nevermind, I prefer to think that it was in fact Santa.

Note: this example was partially based on a real-life case from my own research where probate records and deeds were mostly destroyed in a courthouse fire. Unfortunately, the whole bit about me and Santa is 100% historically accurate.

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One Response to What Santa Taught Me About Genealogical Research

  1. I must say you were a pretty brilliant and resourceful 7 year old.

    Thanks for the reminder to keep our eyes and our minds open to ALL possibilities!