“I didn’t find anything.” We’ve all said it. Those four words by themselves aren’t bad. The problem is that they are often at the top of a slippery slope of unsound conclusions. “I didn’t find anything; therefore, my ancestor isn’t there.” Here’s why that adds to brick walls and what you can do to turn it around.
Nothing Is a Really Big Thing
When we say that we didn’t find anything, we’re saying that we found nothing. Nothing is a really big thing. When we are sure that we’ve exhausted the records that we think he should be in, then we need to ask ourselves, “Why isn’t he here?” Chances are that either we’re looking in the wrong place or there’s something in our research that we haven’t considered.
(Yes, there are times when the records don’t exist. I’ll get to that in a minute.)
Doing an exhaustive search and concluding that the person isn’t there is different than how we often say “I didn’t find anything.” When we allow ourselves to take the mental leap of “not finding anything” = “he isn’t there,” we are cutting off resources and methods that we could be using to solve our genealogical problem.
“I didn’t find anything. He isn’t buried in that cemetery.”
“I didn’t find anything. He wasn’t living there.”
What “I Didn’t Find Anything” Really Means
When you’re looking in a resource — be it a book, a database, a microfilm, whatever — “I didn’t find anything” really means “I didn’t find it in this resource.” It doesn’t mean that he or she isn’t there. It just means you didn’t find him or her in that resource with the search strategy you were using.
It is entirely possible that your person truly isn’t in that set of records. But before you write it off completely, ask yourself if there’s something else you should be considering.
Consider the Source You’re Using
“I didn’t find anything” is fairly vague statement. Where didn’t you find anything? Was it a database? Was it an index? Not finding someone in an index is different than not finding them in the records themselves.
For example, if you do a search in FamilySearch’s database California Marriages, 1850-1945 and don’t find your ancestor, don’t make the conclusion that he or she wasn’t married in California in that time period. According to the description, “This index is an electronic database of information compiled from a variety of sources including the following: Family Records, Church Records, Civil Registration. … The index is not necessarily complete for any particular place or region.”
Is there another source that you could use for California marriages in the time period that you need?
For those times when the record you’re looking for doesn’t exist — either your ancestor isn’t in the record or the record was destroyed — think about other records that could give you the same information.
Consider How You’re Searching
Each resource has its own twist on searching. If you’re in a database, will it search variant spellings or do you need to do multiple searches to find both “Smith” and “Smithe”? Does it make a difference to search for “McMurray” vs “Mc Murray”? By the way, if you’re looking in a book, remember that older books sometimes put the Mac and Mc surnames after all of the other M surnames. (And we think databases are weird… )
Did you put too much into your search? Some databases will try to match everything that you enter. In those cases, if you search for William Ramsey, born 1870 in Ohio, and died in 1930 in California, it won’t return a record that has William Ramsey, born 1869 in Ohio, and died in 1930 in California. Play with your search terms.
(Read my “4 Things You Should Do When Using a Genealogy Database” for more search tips.)
Consider Not Searching
My favorite strategy when I’m not finding something that I think should be in a certain collection is to stop searching and start browsing. For example, I appreciate Ancestry making so many U.S. probate records available, but they aren’t always the easiest to search. When I’m confident that a family is in a certain county, but I’m not finding them in a search, I’ll browse the images of the indexes for that county. I have found numerous people using this strategy.
Not Finding Anything Isn’t the End
When we come up empty in a search, it isn’t the end. Instead of concluding that the person we’re looking for isn’t there, think about other sources, other search strategies, and other ways of using those records. Don’t let not finding something add a brick to that brick wall.