When was the last time you decided to go on a vacation? You got up one morning, jumped in the car and headed out on the highway with no plan, no map and no idea about where you were going?
Probably not any time recently, and likely never at all – even pre-pandemic days.
Efficient genealogical research requires the same careful planning, particularly when your ancestral trail has moved into a totally new locale and taken you out of your research comfort zone.
I’m not talking about moving from one town to another nearby, or even to a new county (although that should create at least a mini-plan.)
I’m referring to family who pulled up stakes and moved far away from friends, family and home. I recently read the story of my ancestor’s Massachusetts brother, who abandoned his wife and children – in the 1600s – and ran off to Virginia to begin a new life for himself. I can tell you from personal experience that researching Virginia records is nothing like researching in Massachusetts.
When I learned that my great grandmother’s family emigrated from Sweden to Denmark and then to Maine, there was a big learning curve when it came to Scandinavian records.
Finally, when my husband’s family started their westward trek and settled in areas with no birth or death records plus spotty marriage records, I experienced another learning curve, navigating less common collections that might fill in some of the vital record gaps.
Yes, there are similar kinds of records created in towns and counties all over the world, but that doesn’t mean that all exist everywhere or that they are housed in the same types of repositories. Or that they are even accessible to the public due to governmental restrictions.
Just as we would leave on a vacation with a plan and some maps, we need to set out on a new ancestral trail having done some preparation beforehand.
A strong research plan has more than one part and several smaller steps needed along the way. Before we look at a complete plan, I want to stress that NOT every part or every step is needed each time you research in a new place.
The key word is NEW. How new is it? A new county in the same state requires much less pre-preparation than landing in a new country where one doesn’t even speak the language.
However, let’s assume that our research trail has led us down the road to a totally new environment.
How do we begin? As difficult as it is, contain your excitement (or dread) about this new research experience. Planning makes the research process much easier and way more efficient.
Create a research guide!
Survey the scene. Jump in, but not by looking for your ancestor. Dig around to learn the types of records available. An excellent first stop is the FamilySearch wiki, which will provide an excellent overview of the types of records available. Don’t stop there, though! Look for local libraries, archives, historical and genealogical societies. Are there Facebook pages? The link above will take you to my post, which outlines the information to be included in a complete research guide.
Create a research question.
Once you know the lay of the land, it is time to create your research question. Ultimately, you’ll want to know everything there is to learn about your ancestor while he/she lived in that place. However, a research question needs to be more carefully defined and multiple research questions can be formulated at once.
What records will help you answer your research question?
If I was tracking a family on their westward move in the U.S., for example, my first research question in the new location would be “When did Ancestor X arrive there?” That would limit my first searches to land deeds/grants records and tax lists, if they exist. I wouldn’t be flailing around the marriage records or court records, hoping their surname appeared. Don’t forget to create a “to do” list of all the sources that might help answer your research question.
Keep a log of the records in which you’ve searched.
Add notes to indicate what you found (e.g. in tax lists for 1809, 1810, 1814, etc.) and also what wasn’t found (e.g. not in tax lists before 1809.) This is important for two reasons. First, what if you run out of time and don’t finish reading the records? Your notes will remind you where you looked and what was found when you return to finish reading. Second, newly discovered sources might appear. Perhaps you learn that the local library maintains vertical files for early settlers and their families and you can’t remember if you knew about/looked at the source already.
Mini-analyze as you go through the records.
As you are researching, you should be doing at least a mini-analysis of each nugget of information you find. Does the record pertain to your ancestor/family? Did multiple family units settle in the same place? Is the surname common, raising the possibility that some records might not pertain to anyone in your own family line? Were their two or more distinct men or women living there at the same time? Finally, does the record pertain to your research question? If it does, continue on. If not, and it’s a BSO (bright, shiny object) distracting you, make note of that record so you can return to it another time.
Thoroughly analyze your findings.
Next, after you have recorded your findings, do a much deeper analysis. Basically, you have created a pile of puzzle pieces. How do the pieces fit together? Are there pieces that have no place in your puzzle? Perhaps you have John Miller, born c1776, and you find him in the 1850 census. You also find his name on a jury list in 1870. While it’s possible your John Miller was still living, it’s highly unlikely that a 94 year old man would be serving on a jury at any time. That John Miller might be a son or grandson or a collateral relative. He might also just be another John Miller, totally unrelated to your family. That puzzle piece should be set aside because it doesn’t fit.
Draw a conclusion.
The final step is to draw conclusions. Have you answered your research question, to a reasonable degree, based on the hard evidence that you have found. Let’s go back to my hypothetical question – when did my Ancestor X arrive in his new home? Two pieces of evidence I might have found are lists which show he was taxed there not before 1809, but consistently after that date, and a land deed, also dated 1809, showing that he purchased land for the first time in that place. My conclusion would be that Ancestor X arrived in the new locale no later than 1809 and perhaps by 1808, as he might have settled there after the tax collector made his rounds in the spring. Land deeds and tax lists are solid evidence – primary records created at the time – that my 1808-1809 conclusion is valid.
Perhaps your research question is only partially answered. Review possible resources available that you initially overlooked to be sure you haven’t missed an important record set. Your research guide will come in handy!
Repeat this process as many times as needed as you work through your list of research questions! It gets easier and more automatic with practice.