Certain principles of success operate in the field of family history
research. These principles involve customs, geography, and governmental
jurisdictions, to name but a few. One of these principles is the process
which will be used over and over in your research: we call it the Research
Cycle. It naturally produces success again and again. Successful genealogists
use this cycle because it stresses:
The critical step of reorganization of data in light of new findings;
Evaluation of the new information in context with all of the information
you have available.
Successful genealogists use this cycle, and you will find similar models
in other books. However, the advantage of this formulation of the process
is that it makes explicit the critical step of the reorganization of data
in light of new findings and the evaluation of the new information in
context with all the information you have available. Now that you have
the general concept of the cycle, here are some specifics.
Fact vs. Tradition
You cannot set a goal if you have not separated fact from tradition,
hypothesis from actuality. You cannot comprehend what you know about an
individual until you have organized your facts in a systematic manner.
What is a tradition? Simply stated, genealogists consider anything not
proven by facts to be traditions. If the information is eventually proven,
it is moved to the fact category.
It is in this preliminary separation of information that a computer serves
the genealogist in a superior way. It records the facts and presents the
Wrong Way: If you record traditions in the same manner as facts,
your computer program will not only repeat, but in the minds of
readers, transform traditions into facts. This could launch your
research into a totally erroneous direction. There is a proper way to
record both facts and traditions, actuality and hypothesis. These methods
will be explained in depth later, but basically:
If information based on primary documentation is fact, then documentation
must be listed.
If information based on hearsay is tradition, it must be kept separated
with a note to that effect, such as "TRADITION" in capital
There must also be a place for the researcher's evaluation of the
documentation gathered, because all evidence is not equal.
The first step in setting a goal is to separate all facts from traditions.
This will necessitate documenting all of the dates, localities, and relationships
you have located.
Step 1: Set a Goal
Once you have separated facts from traditions, you can select a goal.
Limit your goal to a single, clearly-defined objective. Include in that
goal the full name, a time period, a location, and what you hope to find.
Step 2: Decide Which Source to Use
Once a goal has been selected, you must learn what sources are available
to reach that goal. Each goal you select requires specialized sources
to prove a fact, but you will have a difficult time determining which
to select if you are unaware of the many sources available to solve problems
within each locality and time period. In addition, sources are being discovered
constantly to aid the family historian. Although you may never learn about
all of the sources available to genealogists, you should know those which
are most successful and which pertain to your problem. Get the latest
edition of Val Greenwood's The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy
for supplemental reading.
The most basic genealogical sources include vital records such as the
civil registration of birth, marriage, and death records; federal and
state census records; and obituaries.
Step 3: Locate the Source (Repositories)
Next, you must know what repositories contain which records, the addresses
of the repositories, their availability, and how to use them. Step-by-step
guides are often available from the repositories themselves to aid you
in the selection of the repositories that fit your needs. Examples of
typical repositories containing genealogical information include:
- Public Libraries
- Family History Centers
- State and Federal Archives
- State Libraries
Step 4: Search the Source
There are numerous ways to search a source, and there are shortcuts you
can learn to use. For example, even in an unindexed source, it is not
necessary to read from cover to cover. There are methods to shorten the
process, thus helping you to use your time more wisely.
Step 5: Copy the Information
It's common for beginning researchers to neglect to make an accurate
copy of a source the first time they find it. Even though copying information
appears to be an easy thing to do, it is very wise for the beginning genealogist
to make a photocopy of the entire document until they learn what is important
to transcribe, abstract or extract from it.
Step 6: Evaluate the Information
The next step is often the most neglected in the process: evaluating
the information. When we locate a record, our excitement over the obvious
might prevent a meticulous evaluation of the less obvious clues. Questions
we should always ask ourselves are:
What else is this record telling me?
Can more information be obtained if I search this same source using
Am I reading the old handwriting correctly?
Should I ask someone for help?
Have I looked at the front of the book for clues the author discovered
when he or she compiled the source?
Take as much time as is necessary to ask yourself many questions about
each source that you locate. As you answer your own questions, you will
be guided to more clues for solving your ultimate problem.
Step 7: Use the Results
Once you have searched a source and found your ancestor, you usually
discover more clues. For example, finding John Wilkinson in the Arkansas
1880 federal census as an 80-year-old, born in Georgia, with his parents
born in North Carolina and a younger brother living with him, age 59,
born in South Carolina provides these new clues:
Birth year of John Wilkinson is 1800.
Birthplace of John Wilkinson is Georgia.
Birthplace of John Wilkinson's father is North Carolina.
Birthplace of John Wilkinson's mother is North Carolina.
Birthplace of John Wilkinson's brother is South Carolina.
The family will probably be found in the 1820 federal census of South
Carolina, since the brother was born there. This could lead to new
county records to search.
The published surname collections for Arkansas, South Carolina, and
North Carolina should be searched for the surname "Wilkinson."
Using the results of one search will guide you to more searches. Once
you have determined just what new information you have, you can set about
considering new sources for extending your family lines further.
Step 8: Organize and Reorganize
Finally, to benefit from this new information, you must place it in context
with all the other facts. This is most simply accomplished by using a
computer, because you can insert new information at the appropriate point
in the chronology without retyping documentation and research notes. Then
you can "reorganize the information" based on new information.
For example, data fields can also be quickly updated to allow for such
things as corrected dates, places and family connections from your family
letters or census findings. A good genealogy computer program also aids
in your analysis because it can search all notes for elusive clues such
as, "Was the man listed as a witness also listed as a neighbor in
a previous state, or later as a spouse of a direct, or collateral line
Setting a new goal will require another cycle of knowing what sources
are available to obtain a goal, which sources to use due to availability
and usability, and how to go about obtaining the sources.