Tag Archives: Research Techniques

What Does “Reasonably Exhaustive Research” Really Look Like?

In meeting today’s genealogical proof standard of completing “reasonably exhaustive research,” I have found that there are many different understandings of exactly what this means.

Personally, I think this is a good visual representation of “reasonably exhaustive research”:

Public Domain Image

Yep, an artichoke. At first, I was thinking an onion might do it, but onion layers are one on top of the other, working their way into the center.

Exhaustive research, I think, is more like peeling away layers of artichoke, which not only work their way step by step toward the middle, but each layer has many small pieces overlapping each other.

Let’s take a look at what each layer represents. The outermost portion of the artichoke probably best equates to today’s internet sites. We have the handful of big ones like FamilySearch and Ancestry, but depending on where one lives, there are additional “big boys” like Library and Archives Canada, Scotland’s People and so on. Some of these sites are free, although others are by subscription. I’ve met fellow genealogists who will proudly state that they have “searched and searched,” but there just are no records.

I am sure if I asked them if they had done a reasonably exhaustive search, the answer would definitely be YES! And where were these places that constituted this exhaustive search? Sites A, B and C online. I think most fairly experienced researchers would quickly agree that this would be a newbie mistake and I concur.

Let’s look at the next layer of the artichoke – lesser known national, regional and some state repositories that have some, but not all, of their holdings available digitally. Although I use the word “state” because I live in the U.S., provincial records certainly fit into this category. These repositories in reality should be represented by at least two layers of the artichoke, because there are a lot of them. Examples include the U. S. National Archives, the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Missouri Digital Heritage, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Canada, Arkiv Digital in Sweden, etc.

Newbie family historians quickly learn about these resources and most of them are fabulous, BUT not only don’t they have everything in their holdings, they also don’t have everything online. I’ve heard the complaint that not only has someone searched Sites A, B and C from the outer artichoke layer, but even Site D from this layer doesn’t have the records sought. Have they tried contacting the society/archives/repository directly to ask about items in their collection not online? The answer to that has usually been No! Or, I didn’t think of that. Isn’t everything online?

Neither of these situations, in my opinion, comes close to reasonably exhaustive research. The heart of the matter, or in this case, the heart of the vegetable, is more complex, tightly woven,more difficult to find your way and harder to pick apart.

Reasonably exhaustive research must, for the most part,  include leaving no stone unturned. Here are a few examples from my own research over the last 35 years.

  1. The Danish branch of my family tree was woefully bare for 30 years. The family migrated to Maine, so I searched state and local resources right down to the local historical society. I hired a researcher in Salt Lake City to find a home for my Frits Wille Oscar E. Johnson born in May 1845. Eventually, I searched the Danish 1880 census online and picked up the family’s trail in Copenhagen, but it went cold with Frits’ father, Johannes. From there, I spent hours reading baptismal records and Danish military levying rolls, page by page by the hundreds, as Johannes was a career soldier. Eventually, I was led to the Unwed Mother’s Hospital records in Copenhagen, filmed by FamilySearch. However, those records only covered the babies born, not the mothers. The mothers’ records were separate files, unfilmed, and held in the Danish National Archives, which cause me to hire a professional researcher in Copenhagen to retrieve a copy of his mother’s file. That met the standard of “reasonably exhaustive research” and enabled me to piece together the story of the Jensen family.
  2. My husband’s Sturgell family was another tough nut to crack (or artichoke layer to peel, if I stick with my original analogy!) In the pre-internet days, I wrote hundreds of letters to county clerks in two states, seeking information. I visited the Arkansas State Archives, digging through unpublished records. I corresponded with other researchers working on the Sturgells. I visited the Missouri courthouse to retrieve land deeds, but also found an original divorce packet that hadn’t seen the light of day since it was filed in 1876. I met distant cousins who shared family stories and, when digitized newspapers appeared online, I was able to gather enough documentation to piece together the family of Isaac and Mary Bandy Sturgell.

Have I mentioned that reasonably exhaustive research can’t be accomplished in a day or a week or probably even in a month???

If I were beginning to research a new person or branch of my family today, in order to convince others that I was meeting the genealogical proof standard of reasonably exhaustive research, I would begin by gathering what I already knew or believed to be true about this person/family.

I would start peeling away the outer layers of the artichoke by visiting online websites to see what clues or actual documentation might already be easily accessible. Could other researchers working on my person/family contribute to the little knowledge I had at the start?

Next, I would begin step-by-step research in locales (state, county and town) where the person/family lived, worked and were born, married and buried. Some of this research might be accomplished through digital images or microfilmed records, but it likely would also include phone calls, email or actual snail mail letters and, best of all, if possible, on site visits.

It would include reviewing vital records, court house records (many of which have NEVER been microfilmed or digitized), contacting local libraries and historical societies, looking for distant cousins interested in the family history, reading biographical and church histories in print and contacting organizations such as local ethnic societies, if appropriate to my research.

I would most definitely be reading up on all the types of records which might be available and unique to the area – e.g. Loyalist records in Canada, moving in and moving out records of Swedish parishes, centennial or bi-centennial publications, school records and locally created manuscripts detailing the area’s history.

To summarize then, reasonably exhaustive research must pick away enough layers of the artichoke to reach its core area. Beginning steps would include searching major sites like FamilySearch, Ancestry and My Heritage, but that is just the equivalent of dipping one’s toes in the water.

The search must continue, sifting through state, county and local resources, not only online, but through physical holdings housed in various repositories, from archives to societies to public and private libraries. Sources should include commonly found collections, such as land deeds and probates, but must also include lesser used records like tax lists and local historical diaries.

The final stage would be to locate unique resources, which might be indexed online (but also might not be), but which contents would need to be read and reviewed in person, either by oneself or a researcher near the locale in question. Examples here might include manuscript collections, historical family papers and original town minute records.

My take on all this is that if a researcher hasn’t reached the final stage, then he/she has not met the genealogical proof standard of reasonably exhaustive research!

I hope you will come back tomorrow when I begin a short series on delving into original source records in my quest to prove the parentage of my Joseph Coleman who lived in Bowdoinham, Maine during the late 18th century and first half of the 19th century.

It’s a great example of reasonably exhausting exhaustive research.





If You Can’t Prove It, Try Disproving It!

In a perfect world, each ancestor will have a readily available, easily found record of birth, death, marriage and other various sundry events in his or her life. In reality, not all records are easy to access, and, as much as we may not want to admit it, some records – even in places with great records – don’t exist.

Of course, I have an example right at hand. My maternal grandmother, Hazel Adams, was a Coleman by birth. She was born and raised in Maine, but also lived in Massachusetts and a few other places as my grandfather was transferred for work.

Hazel’s father and grandfather and great grandfather were easily documented. Her father was Hartwell Thomas Coleman, son of William Coleman and Sarah Moriah Crouse. William was the son of Thomas Coleman and Mary Elizabeth Astle and Thomas was one of nine children born to Joseph Colman/Coleman and his first wife, Ruth Spur.

Joseph appears to have probably been born in March in Massachusetts between 1768-1772, based on his age in 1850 and recorded in the 1852 cemetery record when he died.

Massachusetts is pretty much known as a genealogical heaven given their wonderful records. This Coleman research mostly took place before the internet was around, but even if I had started this research, say, last year, the steps would be the same.

Joseph Colman married Ruth Spur on 24 August 1793 in Roxbury, MA, which today is part of Boston. No consent was given for Joseph to marry, so I assumed he was at least 21 in 1793.

My search for Joseph turned into a negative proof search, since little could be proved before he married and moved to Maine. A search of land records turned up a deed in which James and Sarah Bowdoin of Dorchester, MA (today, also part of Boston) sold to Joseph Coleman a tract of land in Bowdoinham, ME on 16 April 1796. That was the link explaining Joseph’s move from MA to ME.

  1. I checked records at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, MA. Through their library loan program, I sent for several genealogies about Colman/Coleman families in New England in the 1700’s. I found no information about my Joseph Coleman, but learned that the given name “Joseph” was quite rare among colonial Colemans except in the descendants of Thomas Coleman, who settled in Nantucket, MA in the 1600’s.
  2. Local libraries in southern California had many of the books in the Massachusetts Vital Records Before 1850 series. I kept a running list of those volumes as I found them so I would know which towns did NOT have a record of the birth of a Joseph Coleman who might be mine. Every town I found was crossed off the list.
  3. I also checked the 1790 census for Massachusetts Colman/Coleman families. All of those families were crossed off the list. None had a son Joseph.  Noticeably absent, though, were any Colemans in the close vicinity of Boston, where Joseph married in 1793.

There was one possible candidate – a Joseph Colman born on 8 August 1769 in Newbury, Masschusetts to John Colman and his wife, Lois Danforth. However, he was NOT my Joseph. Ironically enough, this Joseph migrated to Vassalboro, Maine, which is only 40 miles north of the Richmond/Bowdoinham area. However, this Coleman family is well documented and he is definitely not my guy.

4. I hired a researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society to abstract names of each Coleman found on the Massachusetts Tax Valuation List of 1771, figuring that Joseph’s father would probably be on it. I investigated those few names,  without finding any new possibilities.

5. A check of the 1798 Massachusetts Direct Tax list produced no new clues.

At this point, to review, I had checked land deeds, investigated the 1790 census, hired a researcher to find Colemans listed in the 1771 MA tax list and eliminated Coleman families on the 1798 tax list.

There were no other Colemans living near Joseph in Maine from 1800-1820, with the exception of the second Joseph Coleman living in Vassalboro, so it didn’t appear that any male relatives lived nearby.

You’re probably asking what about probate records? Back in those days, probates weren’t too easy to come by when I lived in CA and the records were 3,000 miles away. Yes, I did eventually work my way through the eastern counties of Massachusetts and crossed the Colemans I found off the prospective parent list.

Years went by and my grandmother passed away in 1995 without me ever being able to prove who Joseph’s mother and father were. I know that was a disappointment for her – it was to me, too, since Massachusetts was known for its family history records. I had thought this would be a slam-dunk.

More years went by and the world entered the age of the Worldwide Web. It happened one day that I called NEHGS about another issue, but when I had a researcher on the line, I asked about any possible sources that I might have overlooked in my Coleman quest or that weren’t accessible when I first started my family research. This researcher, who is a very well known staff member there, agreed that the name “Joseph” was most common in the Nantucket descendants of Thomas. He also told me that there were gaps in the Nantucket records, which could easily explain my lack of success in identifying Joseph’s parents. He agreed that I had about exhausted the record possibilities.

There was one new resource, though, which might at least give some bread crumbs to try to follow. That database was being developed by the Nantucket Historical Association and is organized by surname and given name. Each entry brings up the equivalent of an index card entry. This most tantalizing entry popped up for “Joseph Coleman Jun.” Notice the live links!

Entry for “Joseph Coleman Jun.”

Here was a Joseph Coleman of an age to be the father of my Joseph. This Joseph died of yellow fever, off the coat of Guinea, according to the Nantucket death records, about 17 April 1775. Birth records are not recorded for these children, with the exception of daughter Elizabeth on 30 August 1768. The names of the other children were found in baptismal records according to the notation on the website.

Joseph married wife Eunice Coffin on 24 January 1760 in Nantucket, so these seven children were born between 1760 and 1775.

Another detail that caught my eye was that there were six daughters and only one son, Joseph. That meant no male siblings would be found when this Joseph reached adulthood.

I wish I could say that I’ve found definitive proof that this is my Joseph. This is still a work in progress, but I believe deep down that this is my Joseph and his family. I found it odd that there was no probate for Joseph in 1775, since he had a young family, but I am currently digging through Orange County, New York records. Eunice Coffin Coleman moved to New York with her children and her unmarried cousin, Benjamin Coffin, who mentioned her in his 1800 will. I have found no records for any Joseph Coleman in Orange County, although records have been found for his sisters.

It is possible that this Joseph Coleman died young and/or never married, but I did find one more crumb that might eventually lead to the solution of this mystery. There are no Coleman records extant in or around Boston for the 1790’s except for Joseph’s 1793 marriage. My working theory is that Joseph was indeed born about 1770-1772 and missed living in New England. When he came of age, he left New York and ended up in Roxbury for a short period of time.

Why was he accepted in the community and with whom did he live? His mother’s cousin, Benjamin Coffin, continued to have business dealings in MA and traveled back there several times. Joseph’s sister, Elizabeth, married a man named Isaac Belknap in 1786 in NY. The Belknap family was originally from Massachusetts and, in 1790, there were two Belknaps living in Roxbury – Charles and Isaac. These were cousins of Isaac in New York.

Could Joseph Coleman have traveled back to Massachusetts with one of his Coffin relatives and/or his brother-in-law’s cousin, met Ruth Spur and decided that his future was in Maine and not in New York? I think so, and right now, this is the only positive in a long line of negative proofs. It took a lot of disproving to get this far!

Just How Badly Do You Want the Answer?

As I look back on past research and choose topics for new blog posts, I often think about what I had to do to uncover various branches of my family tree. Some of the information has come easily, but some of it has taken a lot of work to discover. The difficult end of research led to my blog name of Empty Branches and a choice to tell stories and share resources to help break down brick walls.

Good researchers can be self taught or professionally trained, but I believe if one overriding trait – persistence – is missing, then that researcher never going to discover hidden lines unless by chance.

Persistence can be taken two ways – it can mean physical persistence in terms of being somewhere on location for in-person research and it can mean mental persistence.

Persistence brought a smile to my face as I thought about how it has paid off for me during 35 years of genealogical addiction. Some of my research has just involved a lot of time, energy and hard work. A few of them, though, were a bit over-the-top and those are the short stories I’d like to share with you.

1. Early in my research, Dave and I visited New England. It was a hot summer day in 1981 when we visited Gloucester, Massachusetts. Although Dave wasn’t really a genealogy fan back then either, he was happy enough to wander around New England because he had never been there before. Before we left on vacation, I had discovered epitaphs recorded in the late 1800’s (in the NEHG Register) for several of my Gloucester ancestors. I didn’t know whether the gravestones still existed, but if they did, I wanted photos of them.

Visiting the Old Burying Ground in Gloucester wasn’t exactly just a walk down the street to the cemetery. We couldn’t find it so we stopped to ask directions and got back in the car. Accessing the cemetery involved driving the car through someone’s back yard (the owner said no problem!), past their fresh laundry drying on the clothes line and parked in the weeds at the bottom of a hill. We then tromped through an overgrown cemetery full of mosquitoes and other bugs for about an hour. Dave threatened to leave me, saying the stones were probably long gone, but we finally found them in the deepest part of the cemetery under the trees. My James and Deborah Sayward, buried in 1734 and 1737, had some of the oldest stones there and may have been some of the earliest burials in that particular cemetery.

2. Again in the early 1980’s, I found a death certificate for Dave’s great great grandfather, who died in 1926 in Hopkins County, Texas. I was hoping to discover his parent’s names. I knew that John C. Williams was born somewhere in Arkansas about 1847 or 1848. While the death certificate had spaces for parent’s names, the entry said the dreaded “unk.” I decided there was more than one way to skin a cat, so to speak, and headed for the Arkansas 1850 AIS census index book. Remember those books from the pre-internet days? The type print was probably the equivalent of about a size 2 font. I photocopied the two or three pages of the Williams entries along with the misspellings, like “Willaims.” At the time, my main research library was the Los Angeles Family History Center on Santa Monica Blvd., about an hour from where I lived.

I spent many, many hours over visits covering about 18 months, pulling microfilm, looking for a 2 or 3 year old John Williams. I began with “A” Williams, then “A.A”” Williams and so on. Surprisingly, there were only two or three John Williams born between 1845-1850 in Arkansas. So, who did the father of John C. Williams turn out to be? William Williams, only he wasn’t just “William,” he was “William A.” Williams. I ended up reading the microfilm for almost every Williams family living in Arkansas in 1850!

3. John C. Williams began my Williams obsession. They seemed to give all their kids the same names and I think if a county hung out a sign saying “All records here have burned,” they thought it would be a good place to live. I spent 20 years piecing together the Williams history from 1700’s Virginia to the end of the Civil War in 1865. I then self-published a 150 page, every name indexed book, making about 75 copies. I think my profit was something like $1.47 per book, but I didn’t do it for money. It was a labor of love.

4. Another over-the-top effort involved black sheep Isaac Sturgell and his wife, Mary. In the early days, I had no maiden name for Mary and I really, really wanted to know what it was. I had had no luck in all of the books I had found in libraries, so I came up with the idea of writing a letter to every clerk of every county in both Ohio and Virginia that existed by 1850. Those were the two states where I thought they had most likely married. Again, this was in the pre-internet age. All those letters were printed out and mailed with self-addressed, stamped return envelopes inside. There were well over 200 counties in those two states. My method worked, though, and I was ecstatic when the Lawrence County, Ohio county clerk mailed me the copy of their marriage record.

5. The last activity also involved Isaac Sturgell. Dave’s aunt and I were at the Missouri county courthouse where Isaac had lived. The county clerk graciously gave us free run of the vault where the old records were kept. The vault was actually a fairly good size, the ceiling was probably at least ten feet high and there was a large metal table in the middle of it to be used for looking at files that were pulled from the drawers. I found an index book that included divorce records – there was a record for Isaac. Where was that particular file folder? Yep, in the top drawer up the wall near the ceiling. There was no ladder to reach those drawers and Dave’s aunt and I were afraid if we asked for help, we would be told those drawers couldn’t be reached with anything they had in the office or that it would be too much trouble to get a ladder from the basement or whatever.

What did we do? We closed the vault door slightly so people walking by wouldn’t readily be able to see in. I then climbed up on top of the rather high table, stretched and managed to get the drawer open. I pulled a few files until I found the Sturgell divorce and we copied the contents, which I don’t think had seen the light of day since they were filed. Somehow, I managed to get the folders back in the drawer, get down off the table and not break any bones in the process.

All of these persistent-obsessive activities happened in the “olden days” and, while I would no longer be climbing on high tables to reach vault drawers, I have to admit that a current day over-the-top decision was probably my John Whitmer parental online tree experiment where I emailed 350+ tree owners. However, it satisfied my curiosity so I am happy with it.

I’d love to hear some of your stories. How did a super-effort of yours help crack a brick wall?