Why is local knowledge important?

When digging into your family history it is important to get to know the area where your family lived. The more you know about it the better off you will be at tracking down those elusive members that just don’t seem to show up for 20 years – they must be on a census somewhere.

This is not just about knowing that the transcription of house name “Saft” is actually “Taft” or that there is more than one house on Unst called “Garden” so you can look for detail about which one it is. It is also going to help you spot the relatives you’re after when you’re looking further afield.

Let me give an example. When you’re looking at people in a census return who were born where they live now, their birthplace will generally be recorded correctly, for example, “Unst, Shetland”, possibly in part, because the enumerator is also from the same place and therefore knows how to record that place. When they live further afield, the enumerator will not necessarily know the place they were born and so will have to record whatever they tell him. I’ve seen a number of examples of this during my research, here’s the most recent one which prompted me to write this post. In this example without the local knowledge of, in this case, Unst, you might not realise they were the same people.

Man Symbol
James White
b. 28 May 1870 Parish School House, Unst, Shetland.
Found in Unst census 1871 and 1881.
Found in Lancashire census 1901 and 1911.

1891 Census

ROAD, STREET, &c.,
and No. or NAME of
HOUSE.
NAME and Surname of each
Person
RELATION
to Head of
Family
AGE WHERE BORN
Males Females
17 Bellevue Cres Jas White Lodger 20 Baltasound, Shetland

With local knowledge I know that Baltasound is in Unst, and that this is therefore my missing James White. Without that knowledge I might have skipped over this record assuming it was somewhere that wasn’t Unst.

So get some maps out and start familiarising yourself with the area. Perhaps even make a visit there to see the places for yourself. If you’re researching Scottish areas, you might find the Old Maps I blogged about before useful for this.

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2 thoughts on “Why is local knowledge important?

  1. I have enjoyed reading your blog. I am doing Thomas McEntee’s “do-over” and he has listed your blog on his Geneabloggers site. I must thank him. I too have ancestors who come from Shetland, Thomas Atkin & Mary Morrison were my gg grandparents. I look forward to reading more about Shetland.

    • Thank you Jan. Yes, I just discovered Geneabloggers this weekend and Thomas kindly added me to the list. I hope you continue to enjoy what I write. Good to hear from you.

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