One of the early science fiction books I read was one by Robert Heinlein called "The Door into Summer." See Heinlein, Robert A. The Door into Summer. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957. This book is about a protagonist who reinvents himself using time travel. How many of us have wished that we had a little handy time travel to answer some of the apparently unanswerable questions left to us by the impenetrable past. If we could just walk through a Star Gate and talk to the people involved, the mysterious would soon be made plain.
Even though a lot of the ideas of science fiction are now commonplace facts in our future-world of 2012, one of those ideas, time travel, has yet to become commonplace. But if we search carefully and learn from history, we can open our own virtual door into summer.
Here are some of my suggestions for almost achieving time travel:
Suggestion No. 1
Begin at the edge of time and place and work inward.
If you find one of those baffling genealogical mysteries, try working at the problem from the edges rather than the middle of the missing information. If you can't find the family, search for them in the state. If you can't find them in the state, search the county. If you can't find them in the county, search the town and so forth and so on until you have reached the middle of your search and then move outward again, collecting information about the family as you go along. Try both forward and backward in time. Gain an idea of the larger picture where the family or individual may have lived. How did they get to this place? Why would they go there? Many early families moved through common migration routes as a group with family members and friends. Some of the same people may keep appearing throughout the life span of the people you are searching for. Search for friends and relatives. Don't spend all your time looking at the same records in both time and place.
Suggestion No. 2
Walk a mile in their moccasins
There is a common saying that you really cannot know a person until you have walked a mile in their moccasins. You can't really say you have look for an ancestor until you know who the person was and what they did with their life. No one lives in a vacuum. I helped one of my friends with some research a few years ago. He knew nothing about his father and had only a limited amount of information about his mother. We were able to find over 100 individuals on his mother's side of the family, but nothing about his father. My friend did not know if he was living or dead. He recently came up to me and said he had his father's name. For all that time, he had been looking for his father with the wrong name. How did he find his father's name? He asked his mother and his aunt. Walking in your ancestor's moccasins may mean you try to find out about the person you are trying to find from those who knew him, not from himself. Look at the ancestor's life from his or her perspective.
Suggestion No. 3
Walk the streets.
There are few things we can do as genealogists that clarify an ancestors' lives more than visiting the places they lived, the houses they lived in and the streets they walked. You get a more visceral understanding of their lives and challenges when you look at the physical world they lived in. The town may have grown or disappeared, the landscape may have been altered, but there is something about standing where they stood and seeing what they saw that makes a connection we cannot get in any other way.
Suggestion No. 4
Study and Read
What was happening at the time your ancestor lived? Was it peace or war? Was there a famine? A drought? A depression? Much of what seems random in people's lives is really a reflection of the times they lived. I am always amazed at the lack of historical knowledge we have in our country. People are surprised, for example, when I suggest they check the World War II or World War I Draft records. They seem to have forgotten the major world wars.
You get the idea. Traveling in time is really a simple process of learning about the history and geography of our ancestors. This opens our own private door into summer.