April 16th, 2012

Follow These Steps to Solve Your Genealogical Problems

All of us inevitably encounter what might seem like an insurmountable obstacle during our genealogical search. Dead ends and brick walls have discouraged many a researcher, especially beginners who encounter them in the early stages of their research. Some of these problems may indeed be insurmountable – trails do end, and ancestors go unfound. A good genealogist though, will want to make absolutely sure there is no more information to be found before moving on to the next ancestor or phase of their project.

In my own personal search for my ancestors, I have encountered three major problems that can be overcome with a systematic approach:

  • Beginning research on a new family line that has never before been investigated. This can include a family that has had nothing published about it, a family that does have information published but it is of a poor quality, or a family for which current dead ends exist.
  • Correcting a tradition, belief, family myth or inaccurate material published in a family history. Some histories contain genealogical errors that have been in print for years, and often new research with a fresh approach is needed to correct them.
  • Solving a specific identity problem that has remained unsolvable by previous research.

The First Step

The first step to be taken is to present a clear and reasoned summary of the problem. When defining the problem, determine what you already know. This involves performing a rudimentary analysis of every single documented fact you have regarding the individual or family. This doesn’t mean simply listing their vital statistics; it means that you identify exactly where they lived, precisely when they moved there, what they believed in, what events were taking place around them. Sometimes we are too vague when documenting certain facts about our families. True, effective genealogical research involves going deep into the lives of our families. It means going beyond collecting facts about them, finding out who their friends were, who they worked for, who their minister was and such. The more you know about your ancestors life, the easier the task of finding information on them is, and consequently the easier it is to overcome obstacles.

When you assemble and record these types of well researched facts about your ancestor, you’re effectively creating a biological sketch of them. Events are placed in chronological order, especially specific documented events, and consequently their life path is easier to follow. Many researchers have discovered after following this process that the answer to their problem has been with them all along. In addition to recording what you do know, write down exactly what you don’t. This is a great help in directing further research, but so often it is neglected. Simply creating a section entitled “Things I don’t know but would really like to” will make it clear where to go in the next phase of your research.

The Second Step

The next step to problem solving is to tap into what other genealogists know. Remember to always confirm what you are told by others before recording it though. I have, and you may have as well (though I hope not), had the experience of people not being able to tell me where they got the information they were sharing. The information may well be accurate, but it is unusable as its source can’t be initially confirmed This makes our task a little harder, as we then have to go about verifying that data to make sure its not just a family legend. On the other hand, you may find well documented studies, which in turn are a breath of fresh air. You might find such genealogies or family related articles by placing queries in online forums or in genealogy magazines, online databases, published genealogies, or by examining the Periodical Source Index (PERSI).

PERSI is the world’s largest and most avidly utilized index of specific genealogy subjects and local history periodicals that have been written in both English and French. It offers genealogical researchers access to materials that would not normally be available to them. There is an Online Guide and Free Search of it available at FamilySearch.org. Many genealogists overlook this valuable resource, and also this step. Others never move beyond this step, always looking for someone else to provide their answers. When you hit a brick wall you must then really become a researcher; digging deep into records rather than remain a “searcher” – someone simply looking for someone else to provide the answers.

The Third Step

You next must decide what records to use. Some records will provide more relevant information to your research than others, so you will want to make an evaluation before you move forward. Decide on priority, availability, and ease of access, as well as determining how ell preserved each record collection is. The first places we always look are primary record sources, but these easily accessible records don’t always yield the information we require. Many people give up once they realize the information they need is not there, but when the going gets tough, the tough need to look for other sources. Sometimes the records containing the most valuable information are the hardest to find, but of course they will also be the most genealogically rewarding. Not just in the sense of yielding data, but in the research experience and expertise you’ll gain by searching for them. Some examples of such records would be:

  • Tax Records
  • Federal Land Records
  • Diaries
  • Circuit Court Records
  • Newspaper Accounts
  • City Directories
  • Local Histories
  • County Court records

The Fourth Step

The final and fourth step – the analysis – is the most crucial step in the research process. Any data or records you accumulate must be analyzed both separately and as a group. Often when records are revisited after a period of time and analyzed efficiently, new answers, clues, and perspectives appear. Ask the following questions as you gather your records:

  1. Does the record add anything to what I already know? Is it supportive or contradictory of my current knowledge?
  2. Who was involved in the creation of this record other than my relative? Is anyone else mentioned in it, and if so, who are they? Are they officials or associates of my ancestor? Do they appear in any other records?
  3. Have other records been created to compliment or complete a particular record’s purpose?

Often we find a record that generated other documents, but fail to follow the trail it reveals. Always look for a potential trail when you discover any records, as it is likely to reveal a pattern of behaviour, clues to other records or places to search, or a recurrence of names that may be relevant to your search. Following these steps may not guarantee that you overcome a roadblock or dead end, but it will give you the greatest chance of doing so. Make sure you read our articles on how to find the Ancestry Records you can use to discover your ancestors and which can help to develop the skills you will need to succeed in your genealogical search.