Genealogical Methodology: Strategies for Success

How one approaches a problem might add or detract from the likelihood of successfully reaching a predetermined goal. This is especially true in the world of today’s genealogical research given that so many seem to think that it is “all” online.  By the way, if you are among those who believe that fantasy, you might be surprised to learn that the percentage of records digitally available online today is less than 10%. Factor in the probability that many records might never be accessible online and a researcher who limits his/her field of record sets might never find documents that do, indeed, exist.

It’s been quite some time since I wrote about strategies to research successfully so here are some time-proven tips.

1. Let’s start with the famous (or infamous, as the case may be) BSO or Bright Shiny Object. There is absolutely nothing wrong with setting aside some time to truly just browse and see where the rabbit holes lead. It’s fun and can lead to new discoveries. HOWEVER, crawling down the rabbit holes is not a viable research strategy.

2. Set a genealogy research goal. It can be a simple goal such as locating a marriage record or it can be more complex, such as proving the maiden name of a female ancestress.

3. Review what you have already searched and what information or clues might be sitting there pointing to your chosen goal. Sometimes, we already have an answer we are seeking, but overlooked it or didn’t realize it was lurking in a pile of notes.

4. Keep a research log for two reasons – (1) so you know where you’ve already looked and don’t duplicate your efforts and (2) so you can return to that record collection if further digging becomes necessary. I have to admit that I have never, even in my earliest days of hunting down the ancestors, kept a research log for every document or photo I’ve located. If I expected a birth record to be in City “X” and it was there, no research log is needed. However, when your goal is more complicated – like proving an elusive maiden name – research logs are essential to detail all the locations and repositories you’ve searched.  Tracing an ancestral trail through land documents is another great example of the need for a good research log.

5. Check all the commonly expected repositories where you might expect to find information you are seeking about your ancestor. Remember the caveat at the start of this post – most information is NOT available online. You MIGHT have to email, telephone, write a letter (with a stamp and envelope!) or visit in person to determine whether or not your ancestor appears  in the local records. Example – I wanted to search land deeds for my Loyalist ancestor who was living in Albany County, New York at the outset of the American Revolution. The Albany county clerk has land records online all the way back to – – – -1980! That wasn’t much help. FamilySearch has a good collection of U.S. county land records, including some from New York. A quick look determined that there were digitized images for mortgagor/ee records for the mid 18th century in Albany. However, there were no collections labeled as the traditional land deed index and deed books. Those records do exist for Albany in that time period, but it took feet on the ground by a local historian to check the index housed in the county clerk’s office. Ancient records are sometimes given to a local historical society for safe keeping, a state historical society, a local library or genealogical society or a state archive. My research log was up and running for that goal!

6. Create an ancestral timeline and fill in all the appropriate dates and events that will help you reach your goal. A database program like Excel is terrific for this as the columns can be sorted. Timetoast is one of several free alternative options available online.

7. Last, but definitely not least, follow a “no stone unturned” policy. Expand your horizon and brainstorm all the possible places where you might find the document/s to attain your goal.

How do you find all those stones to turn over?

  • Use the FamilySearch Research Wiki to get an idea of what categories of resources are available in the place you need to research
  • Google your person of interest along with a place or year. Someone else might have already found your answer.
  • Online search results often include old message boards. I have found many clues and book titles to help me attain my goal.
  • Church records vary greatly in the type of information they contain. Not only are baptisms, marriages and burials recorded, but mentions of new arrivals and departures from other congregations are recorded. Histories mention early members and notable happenings. They are also an excellent record of a FAN club in a given time period.
  • Tax lists at times include more than just males over 21 and the number of horses owned. Death dates can be determined when the male disappears and a female head appears or the entry changes to “heirs of.” Determining ages for sons where there are no birth records available can be figured out when they first appear next to their father’s name, or as part of the father’s household, indicating that he has come of age. I’ve even seen a couple of tax lists in Southern states that named each enslaved person in a household.
  • County histories can supplement or sometimes take the place of government records that have burned. Many histories are unindexed and often overlooked and underused.
  • Published genealogies may still be under copyright and it is necessary to locate a hard copy in WorldCat or via an online purchasing site. Modern publications are more likely to be well documented and worth seeking out. Books that are out of copyright need to be used cautiously, especially if source documentation is lacking.
  • Social Media Groups abound online today. There is likely a genealogically oriented group with a focus on your topic or place of interest.
  • Reach out to distant relatives. You never know what documents, photos, Bibles or family lore that might have descended in their branch of the family, but not yours.
  • Are you faced with a burned county, a place where “all” the records burned? Dig a little deeper. It is rare that every single record book burned in one county courthouse. Find out what was salvaged and, if you are lucky, what attempts have been made to reconstruct lost records. These substitute records are often not digitally available.
  • Contact local libraries and genealogy societies to find out what rare or unusual records might be in their holdings. Ask about their vertical files, folders in which local historical and genealogical articles and records are kept.

Happy Researching!

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