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Research Challenge? Concentrate on the Facts

by Michael John Neill
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Just the Facts, Ma'am
Michael John Neill explains why taking a step back and simply focussing on where you can learn specific facts can lead to breakthrough results in your research. By learning what information different sources contain, you'll be able to use your time to search sources that are most likely to pay off.

Sometimes a different perspective helps a researcher solve a long-standing problem. To circumvent genealogical stumbling blocks, you frequently need to organize information or think about something in a new way. It is the change in organization or mindset that is the key. One way to view your research differently is to focus on the facts and not the sources.

Keep Your Mind and Options Open

This is not to say that sources are unimportant. They are vital to family history research. However, by focusing on the facts, researchers can open their minds and think about which sources are most likely to contain the desired fact, rather than banging away trying to find one particular source. Some may suggest that researchers should simply locate everything. However, it's not always that simple. All genealogists have limitations on time and money. As a result we are left hoping to hit the jackpot with those records we are able to access.

Focusing on the fact is not the only research paradigm you can use. However, if your current research method is not working it might be worth your while to give it a try. Looking at a problem from a new angle, shining the light in a different direction, and stacking the pages in a different order can all help in breaking through the brick wall that has you stymied.

An Example

If learning great-grandmother's maiden name is the goal, then those sources most likely to contain her maiden name are the ideal starting place. Her birth record, marriage record, death certificate, and obituary are all potential places to locate such information, assuming the records were created and are still extant. However, depending upon the location, time period, and availability of records, these sources may not produce the information.

At this point, your research may progress more smoothly if you stay focused on the desired "fact," not just on records created for great-grandma. If you focus on places to locate her maiden name, you might see sources you had previously overlooked, increasing the chance that you find the information you wish to locate.

So, ask yourself what sources could possibly contain great-grandmother's maiden name? If records on great-grandma don't product the information, are there other records on other individuals that might contain information about great-grandma? These records might have been created hundreds of miles from where great-grandma lived. Possibilities include the following:

  • Her children's birth records
  • Her children's marriage records
  • Her children's death certificates or obituaries
  • Her husband's obituary
  • Church records on her husband
  • Biographies of her children (or grandchildren) in county histories (sons-in-law too)
  • Family Bibles of her descendants (not just my line)

It may seem like "focusing on the family" is what needs to be done. In part it is, but there's more to it than that. If great-grandma had ten children, then searching all the above records for each of her children may not be practical or possible. The other thing you need to do is learn what information different sources typically contain. You can do this by visiting informational Web sites, reading how-to books, and attending genealogical conferences and workshops.

Learning more about records in general and the records of the area (and time period) where great-grandma and her children lived in particular will help greatly in your research. This is partially because it makes you a more informed, aware researcher. It's also because genealogy is not at the point where we can easily search every record ever created. In many cases, you have to pick and choose which records to access.

So by learning what information different sources contain, as well as remembering to think of your ancestor as a member of an extended family, and not just an individual, you increase the chances that you obtain the desired information, although there are no guarantees.

Another Way of Looking at the Question

Locating the surname of an ancestor's married daughter (probably from whom you do not descend) presents a similar problem. In this case, marriage records would be a likely place to find this information, but may be unsuccessful. At this point, you need to consider other documents or records that may provide this information. Of course the documents should be logically tied to the family — don't just grasp at straws. In this case, it may be helpful to analyze the will and estate settlement for the daughter's parents, as well as those of her known siblings, for information. Or, a land record disposing of the deceased parents' property may include the desired information. If the family belonged to a denomination that practiced infant baptism, check church records. Baptismal records for the nieces and nephews may list the aunt as a godparent. While not hard and fast proof, such records could provide a surname to research more thoroughly. The key is that you need to ask yourself:

Is there some record, logically tied to the family I am researching, that will provide this individual's married name?" Or,"Is there someway to determine the sons-in-law of the daughter's parents?"

Sometimes just asking yourself different questions is enough to stimulate new research ideas and options. Instead of asking yourself what records there are on great-grandma, ask yourself what records could provide you with a specific piece of information on great-grandma. Another reason for this is that in some cases all the records on one person can be confusing, if not overwhelming. Focusing on one event in great-grandmother's life, or working on obtaining one piece of information about her keeps your research focused. The more focused your research is the easier you can concentrate and make sense of the sources you are able to locate.

Asking yourself what records a certain event in great-grandma's life would have created is another viewpoint of the same fact-based approach. Instead of just looking for great-grandfather's death certificate, think about what records might have been created by his death. In addition to death records, there might be funeral home records, cemetery records, estate records, an obituary, land records transferring his property, a pension application for his wife and so on. While the amount of information each document contains will vary, each record could add information to the research puzzle. You could ask similar questions about great-grandpa's immigration process as well.

Primary and Secondary Sources

When you research with this approach, some of the sources will be primary sources for an event and some will be secondary sources for an event. Always weigh each source on its own merits and the circumstances under which it was created to determine how accurate the information it contains may be. However, researchers must also remember that there will not always be a primary source for every event. If there were, genealogy research would be infinitely easier.

Inaccurate or inconsistent information is another reason to focus on the fact, as there may be additional records that may provide the desired details. A research problem of mine focused on the father of an individual I'll call Anna. Born in Chicago in 1913, Anna's death certificate and obituary provided the name of the person whom the children believed to be the father. I had reason to believe this individual was not the father and I was stuck. At this point, I went back to the fact, which was Anna's parentage. I needed to locate those records (if there were any) where Anna herself provided her father's name, in the hope she listed a different individual. Her marriage application should have provided this name, except her children did not know when or where she married (Anna's husband could not help either as he was deceased). Then I realized that Anna had a social security number and that her SS-5 form had a place for father's name. Upon obtaining the SS-5 form, I saw a different name for Anna's father. By concentrating on where Anna might have provided the fact (and not her children) I obtained the information I needed.

The case of Archibald Kile makes a similar point. I needed the names of his parents. He died in the 1890s in Mercer County, Illinois, had lived in Mercer County, Illinois since 1850 and was located on all relevant census records for that county in the vicinity of Keithsburg. What I needed to think about were which sources would provide the name of Archibald's parents.

Given Archibald's death date, the number of records that are likely to list his parents names are minimal. While Illinois kept death records during this time period they generally do not provide parents' names. County histories, another excellent source during this time, provided no information on Archibald. At this point a fact-based approach was taken. In this case, it was determined what records created in Illinois during Archibald's residence that typically contained the names of the parents. Birth records do, but they were not applicable in this case. However, after 1877 in Illinois some county's marriage records contain parental information (Cook being one notable exception). Archibald's obituary, while not providing parental information, indicated he married three times, twice in Illinois after 1877. Both of these marriage records provided the names of his parents (including his mother's maiden name).

I could have taken other approaches and they might also have met with success. That's the wonder of genealogy; there are different approaches. So, if your approach isn't working, you might want to remember:

"Just the facts, Ma'am"

Sometimes it works.


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How-To Article: Look Outside Your Family to Find Results
How-To Article: Discrepancy Charts — Organizing the Inconclusive
How-To Article: Evaluating Written and Oral Evidence

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