A Broad View of the Research Process
This book is presented in a
step-by-step, linear form, chapter after chapter of what do to next, but
research takes place in a circle—it’s a recursive process. Yes, home and family
sources come first, but the order in which you do research may be directed by
what records are available to you or the information you can discover. As you do
research in census records, you will find new counties to search for county
records. As you find new information in county records, you will come back to
census records to search for the new people you have discovered.
As you research your family members,
enter information about births, marriages, deaths, and children in your
genealogy software program. When you reach a standstill, analyze your problem,
decide which records might help, then try to locate those records. As you search
records, you will go back to secondary sources as you discover new family names
and new areas where your family lived.
Remember to cite your sources thoroughly
as you work. Eventually, you will encounter conflicting information, and you
must evaluate your sources and decide which offers the best evidence before you
Let’s throw in a note here about human
nature. Children don’t always belong biologically to their parents. There are a
number of reasons for these “non-paternal events” and most any adult knows most
of these. Information from living people can include gossip, rumors, reasons and
excuses about why a child doesn’t belong to one or both parents. When living
memory fades however, we’re left with records that often don’t tell the whole
story. We have to do the best we can with the records available to us and
remember that our ancestors were human—probably delightfully so.
If you discover a family scandal (these
often have roots in non-paternal events), how do you handle it? First, consider
the feelings of living people involved. It’s usually amusing if someone’s
great-great-grandfather was charged in court records with horse stealing. But
it’s a horse of a different color if the father of one of your living relatives
has a criminal past. You’re free to put whatever you want in the note fields of
your genealogy software. And you can mark notes as “private,” so they aren’t
distributed if you share your information.
When it’s time to publish your family
history, do not include anything ugly that would hurt someone’s feelings. Yes,
it may be true, but just omit it. There’s enough Ugly in the world—don’t add to
it. Don’t surprise anyone, either, with previously-unknown family scandals. If
it’s dirt you’re interested in, take up gardening.
Allied and Associated Families
While you are looking for information
about your family, use your own frame of reference. You are part of social,
business, religious, and extended family groups. So were your ancestors. Look in
both primary and secondary sources for kinship. If you have a broad base of
people to look for, you won’t run out of information and hit a “brick wall.”
In the note fields in your genealogy
software, list the names of people you find in the records who are probably
members of those social, religious, business, and related groups.
As you work through the research
process, keep written, dated notes of your analysis, evaluation, and planning
sessions. When you search a source without finding what you expected to find,
you have learned something. Negative research can be valuable. Record each
search you make, even if you find nothing so you won’t find yourself searching
the same source twice for the same information.
Same Name Problems
Your troubles are not over when you find
the name of the person for whom you are searching in a record. Look in your
telephone directory—how many William Smiths do you see, how many John Martins?
You must not only find your ancestor, you must establish that the record in
question belongs to him, not to a man of the same name.
How do you do this? Look beyond the man’s name to other identifying traits.
If you ancestor is listed in census records as unable to read and write and, according to the
census, has very little personal property and no real estate, he is probably not
the man of the same name who wrote and signed a will, devising his many parcels
of land and slaves.
When you think you have found a marriage record for your ancestor, but you compute his age and
find him to be about twelve years old, consider his father’s younger brother or
his cousin of the same name.
Look for signatures of the man you’ve found as your possible ancestor. Compare them with
signatures of the man you know is your ancestor.
When you’ve found a man in the records with the same name as your ancestor, look at the names of
the people around him. Who witnessed his deeds, for whom did he serve as
administrator? Are these people on your list of previously established allied
and associated families?
Study whole families, not single family
units. Examine families with your ancestor’s surname who live in the same county
or district. They may or may not be related. Learn enough about them to separate
them from your ancestors. Perhaps the ‘other’ family in the county owned slaves
and yours did not; perhaps they were Baptist and your family’s members were
Watch for markers left by previous
record keepers who also had to distinguish between men of the same name. The tax
records may have “of Wm.” or “Sylamore” after a name to attach a father or place
name to a man to distinguish him in the records from another of the same name.
You can bet the man who owed the smaller amount of taxes made certain the clerk
kept his records straight.
The newest aspect of genealogy is DNA
matching. For now, it’s a supplement to genealogy research. Someday, as the
science advances, it may tell us all we want to know about ourselves and our
Basically, we inherit our DNA from our
parents. We get mitochondrial DNA from our mothers and, with little change, it
follows our maternal line back into pre-history. Men inherit Y-chromosome DNA
that follows paternal lines, making small changes through the ages, backwards in
The best way to learn about the science
behind DNA and its implications for genealogy, is to read books, then
participate in surname studies. The book to start with is Thomas H. Shawker’s Unlocking Your Genetic History: A Step-by-Step Guide to Discovering Your Family’s Medical and Genetic Heritage. Then read Megan
Smolenyak Smolenyak’s Trace Your
Roots With DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree, and Colleen Fitzpatrick and Andrew Yeiser’s
DNA & Genealogy.
One of the most entertaining authors on
the subject of DNA is a pioneer researcher in the field, Bryan Sykes. Start with
The Seven Daughters of Eve, about mitochondrial DNA. Then read
Adam’s Curse about Y-chromosomes. Follow that with Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland.
Several companies offer genetic testing
for genealogists. The largest is Family Tree DNA. Read the material on their
website to learn about genetic tests for genealogists. Your choice of which
company to use may be influenced by a surname study in progress, so investigate
before you spend money.
In the research process, maps are an
indispensable resource. Libraries and archives have collections of maps and
commercial firms sell reproductions of historical maps. Using census records
without maps is sort of like finding your way through your home blindfolded. You
can do it, but you may encounter a few stumbling blocks along the way.
An especially helpful book, Map Guide to
the US Federal Censuses, 1790-1920, has been produced by William Thorndale and
William Dollarhide. It shows maps of the states through the years depicting
changing county boundaries.
State lines may look like solid barriers
on the map, but on the landscape, they’re often invisible. Waterways on maps
were barriers, but served as a means of travel as well. Look at topographic maps
showing natural contours of the land. Mountains were a real barrier to early
travel. Thanks to the Internet, we have wonderful map resources at our
fingertips. Family Tree Maker 2009 incorporates Google Earth in its “places”
Look at soil maps. Your ancestors knew
how to grow particular crops, and when they migrated to a new area, they looked
for a region similar to their old home in terms of terrain, soil, and
vegetation. If you find your ancestors in the Gulf Coastal Plain area of
Arkansas, you can probably look a few generations earlier and find them in a
similar region in Mississippi, Alabama, or Georgia. The agricultural schedules
of the census will help you learn what crops your ancestors were raising.
Seeing the Big Picture
You must do two
things well to be a successful genealogical researcher.
Sift through volumes of records looking for minute details.
See the ‘big picture’ or overview of your ancestors’ lives in the context of part of an
Merely compiling names and dates is a
very narrow view of family history research. Learning about political, social,
economic, and religious events and movements taking place in your ancestors’
lives can not only add ‘meat’ to the ‘bare bones’ of their vital statistics, it
can increase your success in your research.
For example, reading about the “Great
Awakening” (a religious revival movement in the early 1800s) can help explain
why your ancestor became Baptist or Methodist after a long family history of
some other (or no) religion. Learning about the financial difficulties of cotton
planters during the ‘Panic of 1837’ (a severe depression) can help you
understand why your family pulled up stakes and moved westward at that time.
To get the full picture, frame your
family within historical context. This is not to say you should sprinkle your
family history with irrelevant facts. Avoid gratuitous information such as,
“this was the same year Tyler was elected President” (unless your ancestor was
active in the campaign or it had a significant impact on the family).
Reading for Historical Context
All of your genealogy research time
doesn’t need to be in front of your computer monitor. There’s room for a lot of
old-fashioned book reading, too. Visit the history section of your library and
check out books that will be helpful to your research, though they aren’t
traditional genealogical sources. I’ve already mentioned reading a history of
the foreign country your ancestors came from—read American history, too.
To structure your reading, begin with a
broad overview of the social history of the United States. Read Daniel J.
Boorstin’s prize-winning trilogy, The Americans: The Colonial Experience, The
Americans: The National Experience, and The Americans: The Democratic
Experience. Earliest settlement through the founding of the United States is
beautifully described in Ted Morgan’s Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the
North American Continent. His writing continues with A Shovel of Stars: The
Making of the American West 1800 to the Present. Morgan tells the story with
interesting people and vivid incidents.
Then narrow your reading, depending upon
which time periods and geographic areas involved your folks. If your ancestors
followed the most common migration pattern, they arrived on the American eastern
seaboard and moved westward, seeking more land and greener pastures. Ray Allen
Billington’s Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier tells the
details of this migration and includes a wonderful bibliography to direct you
toward additional reading. If your ancestors chose in particular the southern
route, read Everett Dick’s The Dixie Frontier: A Social History.
David Hackett Fischer covers the
cultural history of four waves of settlement from the British Isles in Albion’s
Seed: Four British Folkways in America. He tells about the Puritans who came to
Massachusetts Bay, the Royalist elite and their indentured servants who came to
Virginia, the Quakers who came to the Delaware Valley, and the Scotch-Irish who
came to the American backcountry. Fischer tells of settlement and association
patterns, religion, speech, architecture, ideas of family and marriage,
child-naming patterns, customs of food and dress, and other aspects of every-day
Your reading will give you a better
understanding of your ancestor’s life, even if he isn’t mentioned by name in a
book. Researchers with ancestors who moved from Virginia to Kentucky can learn a
tremendous amount about the forces which prompted the move and importance of the
kinship networks by reading Boynton Merrill, Jr.’s Jefferson’s Nephews: A
Sources for Books
The books mentioned above are just a
very small sample of the tremendous variety available. Where do find these books
besides your local library? In the dark pre-Internet days, we had to shop for
books in retail stores or used book stores within driving distance. Inventories
were limited and prices were high. The Internet changed all that—new and used
books are now available all over to everyone. And prices have taken a nose-dive,
thanks to supply and demand. Some of the books mentioned in the preceding
paragraphs are for sale on the Internet for less than a dollar plus a few
dollars for postage.
sources for books are Amazon.com and
[Get Started] [Is Family History For You?] [Home and Family Sources] [Organizing Your Family Records] [Beginning Your Research] [Federal Census Records] [Courthouse Research] [Military Records] [Ethnic Genealogy] [A Broad View] [Correspondence] [Sharing Your Heritage] [A Genealogist's Toy Box] [Glossary]