Welcome to another article on my Negative Space methods for family history research! If you’d like to hear more, you can catch my talk on Negative Space at the Society of Genealogists in July 2023. Tickets available here.
Ah, jigsaw puzzles. Most of us have tried to piece one together at some point in time. Perhaps some of you are dedicated jigsaw aficionados (apparently known as dissectologists).
Before we start musing over our genealogy research today, I want you to think back to a time when you worked on a jigsaw puzzle and consider the steps you went through when you hit a difficult patch.
Many people start by sorting the pieces out into edge pieces with at least one flat side, and centre pieces which don’t have any flat sides. Then you use the edge pieces to construct the outer frame, a fixed reference point in which you anchor the centre pieces. Regardless of whether you take this approach though, eventually you’ll reach a point where you get stuck and there’s a gap somewhere in your picture which needs filling in.
My next thought is something I want you to hold in mind throughout this article.
Filling in a jigsaw gap is where context becomes all-important. When you’re trying to resolve a gap in your puzzle, you don’t just start picking pieces at random and trying them in the space, do you? Instead, you take your cues from the context surrounding the gap. For instance, what is the colour of the border around the gap? What shapes would fit into those border pieces? Are there any identifiable objects in the completed parts of the picture to provide clues as to the contents of that mystery space? These observations help us to select potential matches amongst the remaining pieces.
Whilst solving that physical jigsaw, we enter into these observational and decision-making processes in a very natural way. Here, the existing parts of the jigsaw act as positive space: concrete items you can see and understand. Yet to solve the puzzle successfully, you need to think about the negative space too: the void where you haven’t fitted the pieces together. Getting the positive and negative space to work together is instrumental in your success.
So if we can adopt this mindset when solving a jigsaw puzzle, why don’t we do it more in our genealogy research? Holding these jigsaw-themed thoughts in mind, let’s mull over what negative space means for our family history work. Today I have four key tips for you for using Negative Space to your advantage, plus a quick example to see how you can leverage locations to direct your research…
Treat Your Negative Space Like a Gap in a Jigsaw Puzzle
So what exactly is genealogical negative space, and how can you use it effectively in the context of your family history research?
Imagine a separate timeline for each of your ancestors, scattered with events you’ve evidenced with your research. Those pieces of evidence won’t form a continuous line; much of your timeline will actually be an expanse of space. Put simply, negative space describes the gaps in our research where we don’t have any documentary evidence for what our ancestor was doing, or where they were, for a defined period of time (if you’d like a full introduction to my Negative Space approach then my earlier article is right here).
The majority of the time in family history research, we’re used to focusing on the positive space – the concrete evidence we’ve already found for our ancestor. Rigorous research requires us to start from the known and use these details to step into the unknown, so positive space is the bedrock of our research and is absolutely non-negotiable. But considering the positive space isn’t the only part of the genealogy research process, or at least it shouldn’t be. Whether or not we pay attention to the gaps in our ancestral timelines can radically change our perception of their life story.
If you’re constructing a jigsaw of a sleeping person but the part that’s missing is the murderer standing over them brandishing a knife, this half-completed puzzle won’t be giving you the full picture. Likewise, positive and negative space in family history research combine to create our impression of each ancestor’s life. If we only look at the evidence we have without accounting for the gaps, then we’ll have a very skewed perception of our forebears’ lives.
Just as exploring the context of our gaps can help us to solve a jigsaw puzzle, Negative Space approaches provide us with strategies for interrogating the gaps in our research and working out what we need to do next. Let’s adopt a fresh mindset on those intimidating unknowns now. I have some simple suggestions for you which I hope will transform those dreaded gaps into opportunities for progress…
1. It’s not “just looking for the gaps”
Every ancestral timeline contains gaps. You may remember me concluding my previous article on Negative Space by saying that “life is lived as a continuum, but we genealogists have to reconstruct that life from only a scattering of points in time“. Take any person from history and much of their life won’t lie on record anywhere. That’s just something we need to come to terms with.
Since gaps are an integral part of our research, we’ll never be fully rid of them – but it IS in our power to change how we respond to them. You might choose to ignore the gaps (at your peril), or you can face up to their existence and put them to good use. Negative Space methods aren’t about simply acknowledging those gaps, but actively using them to our advantage. Once we’ve identified the negative space, it provides some of the context we need to judge our evidence fairly.
So remember: it’s great to notice that the gaps are there, but you have to USE those gaps if they’re actually going to help your research.
2. Ask why there’s a gap in your research
Negative space exists in our ancestral timelines for all sorts of reasons. Once you know there’s a gap in your ancestor’s story, look closer and try to work out why it’s there. This should help your reappraise previous parts of work and get to the root cause of many issues – many of which will be fixable.
Perhaps this part of your ancestor’s timeline is simply one which you haven’t had chance to research yet. That’s easily resolved! Or perhaps you have run some searches, but you need to…
- rethink the location and time period you’re searching over;
- rethink the names you’re searching for;
- re-run the search to pick up any recent additions to the online database you were using.
Alternatively, there could be a more surprising bit of your ancestor’s story which you don’t know about yet, and they’re not in the place you’re expecting to find them. If so, it’s time to expand your horizons and think of alternative possibilities. I’ve included some of the most common causes of negative space – and possible response strategies – below:
3. Identify the context of your gap
Once you’ve thought about why a particular piece of negative space is there, it’s time to interrogate that gap and explore the context provided by the positive space around it.
Every piece of negative space is flanked by evidence at its start and end. Scrutinise these. Where is your ancestor at either side of the negative space? What job are they doing? Are any family members mentioned? And importantly – have any changes occurred to your ancestor’s location or personal details over the course of that time period?
Top tip: Always compare the endpoints
Comparing the endpoints tells us what has stayed the same and what has changed for our ancestor over that interval of negative space. This helps to…
- generate theories for what our missing piece looks like, by offering logical possibilities for our ancestor’s whereabouts or activities during that period of time;
- direct onward research in a sensible and reasoned manner;
- suggest suitable record sets to search.
For instance, where is your ancestor at the beginning and end of the negative space? Are they in the same job, or a different one? Have you noticed any changes to their marital status or family situation? These are just some ideas to start with, but once you notice a similarity or difference, you have some clues about how your ancestor’s life evolved during the negative space – and that can provide a springboard into record sets!
The types of similarities or differences you notice will depend on the records you have as your endpoint evidence and the details they contain. Nonetheless, almost all records provide some sense of location (all documents were made and stored somewhere!) so as an example, let’s think about how we might approach location – and possible migration – from a negative space perspective.
Location & Migration: A Worked Example
Imagine you’ve timelined one of your ancestors (let’s call him Peter) and noticed a chunk of negative space between two points in time, which we’ll call A and B. You have concrete evidence for Peter at both of these points, but the intervening period is a complete unknown. Your research has ground to a halt and you’re unsure what to do next. Looking at the positive and negative space together can help us understand where to go next. Could there have been movement around the country in that time, a change of job or family circumstances?
So how can negative space guide us? One way is to consider the possibilities for continuous settlement or migration throughout that time window. Revisit the evidence at A and B for Peter’s location. Is he in the same place at A and B, or different places? Based on this evidence, consider whether Peter could be a…
- Rester. This is when a person stays in the same place throughout the interval of negative space.
- Boomerang. A Boomerang is in the same place at A and B, but hasn’t stayed put in between. Being recorded in the same place at A and B doesn’t rule out movement away and back in the meantime!
- Voyager. Voyagers are in entirely different places at A and B. The person has definitely travelled in that time.
In some ways, the Voyager is the most obvious of these three options, because if Peter were recorded in different places at A and B, he’s undoubtedly undertaken some form of travel or migration. If the negative space demonstrates that travel has occurred, seek out migration-related documents. If you suspect very long-distance migration, explore passenger lists for international shipping (or other migration records appropriate to the time period).
Otherwise, investigate movement between parishes which Peter is connected with. Do any apprenticeship records survive which show him being apprenticed out of one parish and into another? Does the relevant local archive hold any documents of settlement and removal to show that he was moved between parishes when he needed to claim poor relief?
Resters and Boomerangs can be more difficult to separate, largely because these two states can only be distinguished by doing further research. Look closely at the rest of your ancestor’s timeline. Note down any parishes or significant places you know they – or their wider family – have connections with. You may have to keep both the Rester and Boomerang in mind as possibilities until more research finds emerge.
Quick Tips for Resters
If you suspect that you have a Rester, then you’ll need to look for evidence of continuous residence. If someone settled in a place for a reasonable amount of time, they may have paid taxes, received poor relief, or have been involved somehow with the life of the local community. Delving into the parish registers and documents from the parish chest (including Overseers records for the poor and taxation records for the better-off) for Peter’s locality may provide the evidence you need that he was living in the same place throughout that time period. If he was in trade, you might find him listed in historical trade directories.
Be creative with your thinking. Imagine for a moment that you’re Peter and ask what documents or records you’d appear in if you were resident in that place at that particular time!
Quick Tips for Boomerangs
Boomerangs commonly – though not exclusively – occur when a relative has entered and left an institution (such as a workhouse, a prison, or an asylum) during that negative space, just in time for them to return to their place of origin by the time you find them at B. Often small-scale local migration is involved, so explore local possibilities for institutions and search for Peter in these records. Alternatively, consider the wider family network and explore the records of other parishes which the family has connections with. Has Peter turned up there between points A and B?
Returning to that jigsaw puzzle we talked about at the beginning, we said that context was really important. Peter’s age and the wider historical context of his place and time can really help us fathom whether a Boomerang or Rester outcome is more likely. If Peter is fairly young and living at a time of national conflict, could he have seen service in the military between A and B, and that’s why he’s been difficult to track down? Do your reading to find out more about the social context of the era and, if appropriate, see whether Peter appears in surviving military records for that era.
Even when all the other evidence in your ancestor’s timeline points to them being a Rester, they can still surprise you. The slide below summarises a period of negative space for my own ancestor John MATHER between 1861 and 1875. At the endpoints of this time he was in Bury, Lancashire; before I interrogated the negative space, all the other evidence for him tied him to Bury and he looked really settled.
In 1861 he was a young man, living in Bury and newly married; his stage of life motivated a search using his children’s birth registrations as a hook to track him down. It turned out that after his son Lionel was born in 1872, he and his family actually moved to Belfast for a number years, where many of their children were born and one also died. By 1875 at the birth of John’s son Fred, the family were back living on the same street in Bury as if they’d never left. Despite initial appearances, John was actually a Boomerang!
4. Be as visual as you can
Drawing a timeline for each ancestor is usually the best way to identify the negative space in your research. Do you remember that we talked about needing to acknowledge our research gaps? Making our research visual forces us to confront the vast expanses of time where we have no evidence for our ancestor. It’s also a great encouragement for us to check our work, because we have to re-evaluate our evidence in order to draw the timeline. A fresh day and a fresh appraisal of our research can help us to notice useful features which escaped our notice previously.
Visualising our research in a timeline also allows us to see the distribution of dates for which we have evidence – it’s less easy to get that at-a-glance if you have all the dates and evidence in a list instead. You might have unearthed 12 different records which name your ancestor, but if they all lie in the same 5 year period out of a lifetime of 70 years, then there’s a lot you don’t know.
So have fun and make your timeline as clear and eye-catching as possible! Here are some quick tips…
If you’re not comfortable using timelines, you may find spreadsheets a more suitable approach. But as well as presenting all your evidence points on the spreadsheet, remember to leave extra rows for the negative space, as shown in the comparison below. This example demonstrates the visual difference you get from displaying four points of evidence by themselves (top) against the understanding you gain from including the years of negative space which lie in between (bottom).
Delve into the archives
When you try to compare the information about your ancestor at the endpoints of the negative space, you’ll end up jumping off into a range of record sets. Be open to exploring in all sorts of places: as well as potentially resolving some of the negative space, it may also help you break new ground as a researcher.
We’ve seen from our example with Peter that you might think about where your ancestor lived, what they did for a living and whether any life events such as ill health, poverty or crime might influence their appearances in records. Explore some of these options:
- Government-run websites providing 19th and 20th century civil records of birth, marriage & death registration; wills & probate, and Ministry of Defence military service records;
- Regional and local archives for places relevant to your ancestor;
- National archives;
- Regimental museums/archives for military ancestors;
- Occupation-specific collections held by charitable organisations, museums and heritage groups;
- Institutional records for prisons, workhouses, asylums and hospitals.
The wider the variety of record sets you work with, the richer the detail you’re likely to find. Cross-reference these extra details with the existing evidence you have for your ancestor. This should help you to identify that individual at a particular place and time and close down some of that negative space in your tree.
Now Go and Find Those Gaps!
I hope my Negative Space strategies can help you attack some of those brick walls in your family tree! No matter how long a tricky problem has remained with us, a fresh perspective can often help us find a way through – and I believe Negative Space is a great way of encouraging us to take a new viewpoint on our work. So from thinking about jigsaw puzzles and how we can use context to find a way forward, what have we learned about implementing Negative Space methods?
Four Quick Pointers for Negative Space
- Resolve to use your gaps to best advantage, rather than simply noticing that they’re there;
- Always question WHY you have a gap in your research. Sometimes you might be unlucky and the vital records simply haven’t survived, but at other times you may be in luck;
- Scrutinise those timeline gaps and squeeze every last bit of information and context out of them;
- Make your timelines big and bold – make the most of the visual assistance. Or if using spreadsheets, pad out the negative space using empty rows.
So good luck with exploring your Negative Space. It won’t always provide an instant solution, but I hope that it will help you to plan a route forward through difficult genealogy problems. Perhaps you’ll start to see your ancestors in a different way once you start to question whether they could be a Rester, Boomerang or Voyager?
And perhaps you’ll never look at a jigsaw puzzle in quite the same way again…
Are you feeling inspired to explore your family tree using my Negative Space approach? Please share your story in the comments section below!