This month, Elizabeth O’Neal’s Genealogy Blog Party Theme is “How I Did It,” which is all about the methodology. Personally, I think learning about methodologies used by others is the most important way to expand and develop my own research skills. Those are the sessions I seek out first at genealogy conferences.
Methodology is like reading a road map, with lots of twists, turns and choices to make, hoping to find the treasure at the end of the road.
I’ve written quite a few posts about how I did it over the past 5 1/2 years. So for this month’s blog party, I decided to do a two-parter. First, I’ll share some tips about how I go about researching and then will list links to some of those previous posts that shared my joy at breaking down various kinds of brick walls.
A Few Tips About Genealogical Methodology
1. Education and practice are the anchors to developing good methodology skills. My mom was big on many of Ben Franklin’s sayings and “Practice makes perfect” was one of her favorites. It’s one of mine, too, because becoming proficient researcher takes a lot of practice using many kinds of records.
Sometimes, how to best use particular record sets can be self taught. For example, once I’ve figured out what kind of indexing system a county clerk has set up, I can make good use of the land deeds, probates, court minutes, tax lists, etc.
Other record sets are not so easy to use, or they are in a foreign language, or in some unusual format. This is why education is so important to me. I’d say at least 90% of the genealogy webinars today are free if attended during the live session. The handouts might only be available to subscribers, but listeners can certainly taken their own notes. Legacy Family Tree Webinars, FamilySearch, the Board for Certification of Genealogists (whihc hosts their free webinar library on Legacy Family Tree Webinars site) and many state genealogical societies offer monthly webinars on every topic imaginable. I watch at least a half dozen webinars each month and usually even more than that.
2. How I Typically Approach a Research Question – How I begin to research will obviously vary somewhat depending on the answer I am trying to find.
Here’s an example of searching for the unknown maiden name of a colonial Massachusetts ancestress.:
No one, absolutely no one, had any documented evidence or even a theory as to what the surname might be. It had also been years since I had poked around this line myself.
First, I visited AmericanAncestors, to which I subscribe since I have a ton of early New England family branches, to see if anything new had been published about the mysterious lady. Nada.
Second, I googled the family to see what came up. There were (probably copied and pasted) family trees that had a maiden name, but no documentation and they all changed the first name (Susannah) to Susannah Margaret and gave her Margaret’s maiden name. They all turned two ladies who married men of the same name into one woman who married my ancestor. Nothing there to add to my knowledge.
Next, I checked repositories for digital books relating to the family so I could take a new look at those oldies, but goodies, and gather some notes to formulate my plan. There were a couple of items published in the 1800s which have stood the test of time.
Fourth, I formalized a two-pronged plan. I listed all the Susannahs born in a geographical area in the correct narrow time frame (1670-1683) and began researching each of those families to determine what became of their child Susannah. I also began delving into court records, land deeds, probates and any other miscellaneous records I found to build a FAN club for the couple AND the husband’s parents since I figured the two families likely knew one another.
I note names of neighbors, church friends, witnesses to any legal transactions and who the children all married. Then I check to see any and every type of record available for that locality in the time period of interest.
I am still working through this project, which will be the subject of future blog posts. 🙂
Fifth, I have found that success often rests on thinking outside the box, or leaving no stone un-turned. I have read books and genealogy journals, learned about tax lists, used vital records, land, probate and court minutes, gotten help to use Danish military lists, followed Loyalists from New Brunswick, Canada back to their American colonial homes before the war, followed clues in family lore, and even read footnotes in books. County histories, locality anniversary books, church books, and ethnic journals have been searched out.
To locate all these resources, use more than one search engine, as different results will pop up. Besides FamilySearch and the other big subscription websites, look at online catalogs for local libraries and historical societies. I always look for unique items – books or whatever – that relate to the time period my family was in that place. I’ve even found a couple of “The Way We Were” books printed in modern times that included reprinted stories and photos of my family from 100-150 years ago.
Remember, not everything is online and, in fact, MOST information is NOT online and might never be! I’ve written letters and made phone calls and gotten great results. Sometimes, you have to go the extra mile to find your answers, even though it might not be the quickest way to positive results.
How I Did It
Finding my great grandmother and her family in Denmark took 30 years and multiple trips to Salt Lake City to access records and get help with reading them:
Nana didn’t know the name of the village where my grandfather’s family came from in Slovakia. It turns out I had the answer all along, but needed someone who knew the history of the area and the language to read it for me:
Oliver Shepley lived in Groton, Massachusetts in the 1700s. The maiden name of his wife, Mary, was not known. By building a FAN club, I came up with a great possibility and two researchers at NEHGS agree that I’m probably right:
Proving that my 3X great grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Astle, who married Thomas Coleman and lived in Calais, Maine, was the daughter of Daniel Astle and grandchild of Loyalist James Astle was proven by a document that even a professional researcher missed because she didn’t check a wide enough span of years:
Here is one last example about how I used un-common family names to build a case for extending a branch of the family tree:
I hope I’ve inspired you to tackle some of your own brick walls. Thanks, Elizabeth. This was a great topic!