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By James W. Petty, AGCM, CGSM

I recently met a friend, also a professional genealogist like me, and found him caught up in a difficult research project. He had received an assignment to solve a genealogy problem in Pennsylvania. The client provided a great deal of data about the family, having already pursued the research as far as they were able. The previous research appeared to be very thorough and complete. Vital records had been searched, along with censuses, Church records, court minutes, deed records, probate files, cemetery inscriptions, and published histories. Military records had been looked into as well. They had traced the family back to a certain point, and had come to a brick wall. Now the problem was in my friend’s hands to solve; and to him the project seemed overwhelming.

What the client had spent years searching, the professional researcher was now expected to resolve in a matter of a few hours. My friend had looked into each group of records, but found he was just repeating searches the client had done. The image of this problem had grown so big in his mind, that he had simply shut down, and had postponed research on it for several weeks. The project was his responsibility, but now he was afraid to look at it. What was he to do? He had an Elephant on his menu, and it appeared to be too big to eat!

Have you ever had an Elephant on your menu? A problem seemingly too big to swallow? We all have, at one time or another, and it doesn’t have to apply only to genealogy. Elephants appear in all shapes, sizes and colors. But genealogy seems to attract elephants, and many people searching for their long lost loved ones, find an elephant or two on their menus.

How do you eat an Elephant? The simple answer is the one I learned when I was a young man. If you find an elephant on your menu, cut it up into a thousand little pieces and eat it one bite at a time.

Of course, I am not inviting you to eat an actual elephant; they are seldom offered on the butcher’s block in America. I am merely explaining how to face problems of seemingly gargantuan proportions. Divide your problem into many parts and focus on it one piece at a time. This is just what I instructed my friend. We sat down and studied his problem, and soon found one little aspect on which to concentrate. The ancestor in question, whom I shall call William Johnson, had a large farm, and according to property records the client provided, Mr. Johnson’s property bordered land belonging to a Widow Johnson. It was likely that Widow Johnson might have been the widowed Mother of William, but there was nothing to prove that, and no records had been found by either the client, or by my friend, to identify what Widow Johnson’s given name was, or from whom she might have been widowed.