Puzzle Or Chain?: A Genealogical Analogy

Thoughts inspired by a discussion group last week at the Ohio Genealogical Society’s Annual conference (caution: analogies inside):

Our advanced discussion group read a Tom Jones article, “Uncovering Ancestors by Deduction: The Husbands and Parents of Eleanor (nee Medley) (Tureman) (Crow) Overton” (NGSQ 94, Dec 2006, pp. 287-304). The article focuses on inferential genealogy and presents an incredibly complex argument based almost entirely on indirect evidence. Inferential genealogy is a process with which even many seasoned genealogists are uncomfortable. Genealogy is arguably a “docu-centric” endeavor. If there are no documents directly stating who your ancestor was and what his connection was to those around him, then many are unwilling (or not confident enough) to use what is available to arrive at a sound conclusion. And let’s be honest – it is a LOT more work to do the research necessary to uncover enough of those indirect references to build a reliable conclusion. Many genealogists simply don’t have the patience, time, or the record access necessary to complete an exhaustive search.

One group participant had previously attended Tom Jones’ inferential genealogy lecture. He commented that Dr. Jones used the analogy of laying all the pieces on the table and then finding the one way that all the pieces will fit correctly together. In layman’s genealogy, the puzzle analogy is an oft-used and accepted expression. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who has participated in the hobby/profession to deny that the research process is about putting those pieces together.

But interestingly, when the subject shifts to proof – the analogy you most often hear is a chain. Many will tell you that if you break a link in the documentation chain, the argument that uses it is invalid. However, I think the puzzle analogy lends itself better to how we should establish proof. Think about puzzles you put together when you were little. Remember those poor old puzzles that sat in Grandma’s closet that were used and abused by all of your older cousins and siblings—only getting dragged out again when the old folks started talking genealogy and there was nothing else for kids to do? Inevitably, there are some missing pieces or pieces where some of the picture is torn away.

Yet those puzzles can still be assembled. There might be a few holes here and there, but the frame is together and there is a connection from side to side and top to bottom. The picture is not as clear as we might like to see it if we wanted a print to frame and put on the wall, but you can still tell that it’s a lion, or kitten, or pig, or whatever sort of puzzle you intended to put together. (Let’s not get started on knowing when the pieces from the pig puzzle get mixed in with the lion puzzle – that’s a whole article unto itself.).

Isn’t this exactly how inferential genealogy works? It puts together the pieces with which we were left. Isn’t this actually a stronger connection than a chain? The caveat here is an exhaustive search. Having as many of the pieces as possible—even those nebulous sky, grass, and water pieces—are necessary to ensure that we do in fact have the puzzle assembled correctly. We can’t simply put together the easy ten-strip section across the middle of a 500 piece puzzle and say that we are done. But assuming we’ve put all that grass and sky together and the pieces actually fit, we know what the picture is. Even if that little pink kitten nose piece is missing; even if the last person who tried to put it together found all the easily-identified kitty-head pieces,  put them together, but gave up when they didn’t connect to the edges;  even then we can connect one side to the other, and connect the kitty-head in the process.

Keep looking, you never know under which piece of furniture that missing piece might turn up. Now get out there and solve those puzzles, and may your skies connect to your kittens!

 

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3 Responses to Puzzle Or Chain?: A Genealogical Analogy

  1. avatar Greta Koehl says:

    We have one of those old kitten puzzles lying around the house somewhere. Now that’s the image I’m going to see the next time I solve a research puzzle….

  2. avatar Chris Staats says:

    I don’t care what you see, Greta, as long as you solve your puzzle :)