Now that you have defined your research questions, it’s time to discover the background information for the time and place you plan to search.
Background information includes the laws, political jurisdictions, historical events, etc, in force at the time and place of your search.
Kay Haviland Freilich’s article, “Background Information: An Overlooked Research Tool,” describes areas where background information is critical to successful research.
Political jurisdictions have changed over time. To discover the changes for the area you are searching, try Randy Major’s Map Tool, “Historical U.S. County Boundary Maps.” Just put the town and the year in the search box and hit the search button. As you change the date, you can see how the county changes as well.
If you don’t know the laws at the time of the event you are searching, you may waste precious time searching for a record that would have not been created.
Early laws for the U.S. are published in “Black’s Law Dictionary.”1 The early editions are very expensive, but may be more pertinent to the laws of the time you are searching. You may purchase a CD with the First and Second Editions from Archive CD Books USA for a very reasonable price.
For help understanding the laws of the time, consult Judy Russell’s blog, the “Legal Genealogist.”
For historical events, you might consult Wikipedia’s “Timeline of United States History,” or the University of Washington’s “U.S. History Timelines.” But don’t stop there. If you know your ancestor was alive during a particular war, you should read up about that war, who was drafted, where the service records are kept, etc.
Once you have a grasp of the laws, jurisdictions, and historical events of the time and place you will search, you’ll be far more organized in knowing WHAT you want to search!
- Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Laws Containing Definitions of the Terms and Phrases of American and English Jurisprudence, Ancient and Modern, 1st ed. (St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Company, 1891. ↩