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A Broad View of the Research Process

Recursive Research

This book is presented in a step-by-step, linear form, chapter after chapter of what do to next, but research takes place in a circle—it’s a recursive process. Yes, home and family sources come first, but the order in which you do research may be directed by what records are available to you or the information you can discover. As you do research in census records, you will find new counties to search for county records. As you find new information in county records, you will come back to census records to search for the new people you have discovered.

As you research your family members, enter information about births, marriages, deaths, and children in your genealogy software program. When you reach a standstill, analyze your problem, decide which records might help, then try to locate those records. As you search records, you will go back to secondary sources as you discover new family names and new areas where your family lived.

Remember to cite your sources thoroughly as you work. Eventually, you will encounter conflicting information, and you must evaluate your sources and decide which offers the best evidence before you can continue.

Non-Paternal Events

Let’s throw in a note here about human nature. Children don’t always belong biologically to their parents. There are a number of reasons for these “non-paternal events” and most any adult knows most of these. Information from living people can include gossip, rumors, reasons and excuses about why a child doesn’t belong to one or both parents. When living memory fades however, we’re left with records that often don’t tell the whole story. We have to do the best we can with the records available to us and remember that our ancestors were human—probably delightfully so.

Family Scandals

If you discover a family scandal (these often have roots in non-paternal events), how do you handle it? First, consider the feelings of living people involved. It’s usually amusing if someone’s great-great-grandfather was charged in court records with horse stealing. But it’s a horse of a different color if the father of one of your living relatives has a criminal past. You’re free to put whatever you want in the note fields of your genealogy software. And you can mark notes as “private,” so they aren’t distributed if you share your information.

When it’s time to publish your family history, do not include anything ugly that would hurt someone’s feelings. Yes, it may be true, but just omit it. There’s enough Ugly in the world—don’t add to it. Don’t surprise anyone, either, with previously-unknown family scandals. If it’s dirt you’re interested in, take up gardening.

Allied and Associated Families

While you are looking for information about your family, use your own frame of reference. You are part of social, business, religious, and extended family groups. So were your ancestors. Look in both primary and secondary sources for kinship. If you have a broad base of people to look for, you won’t run out of information and hit a “brick wall.”

In the note fields in your genealogy software, list the names of people you find in the records who are probably members of those social, religious, business, and related groups.

As you work through the research process, keep written, dated notes of your analysis, evaluation, and planning sessions. When you search a source without finding what you expected to find, you have learned something. Negative research can be valuable. Record each search you make, even if you find nothing so you won’t find yourself searching the same source twice for the same information.

Same Name Problems

Your troubles are not over when you find the name of the person for whom you are searching in a record. Look in your telephone directory—how many William Smiths do you see, how many John Martins? You must not only find your ancestor, you must establish that the record in question belongs to him, not to a man of the same name.

How do you do this? Look beyond the man’s name to other identifying traits.

If you ancestor is listed in census records as unable to read and write and, according to the census, has very little personal property and no real estate, he is probably not the man of the same name who wrote and signed a will, devising his many parcels of land and slaves.

When you think you have found a marriage record for your ancestor, but you compute his age and find him to be about twelve years old, consider his father’s younger brother or his cousin of the same name.

Look for signatures of the man you’ve found as your possible ancestor. Compare them with signatures of the man you know is your ancestor.

When you’ve found a man in the records with the same name as your ancestor, look at the names of the people around him. Who witnessed his deeds, for whom did he serve as administrator? Are these people on your list of previously established allied and associated families?

Study whole families, not single family units. Examine families with your ancestor’s surname who live in the same county or district. They may or may not be related. Learn enough about them to separate them from your ancestors. Perhaps the ‘other’ family in the county owned slaves and yours did not; perhaps they were Baptist and your family’s members were Quakers.

Watch for markers left by previous record keepers who also had to distinguish between men of the same name. The tax records may have “of Wm.” or “Sylamore” after a name to attach a father or place name to a man to distinguish him in the records from another of the same name. You can bet the man who owed the smaller amount of taxes made certain the clerk kept his records straight.


The newest aspect of genealogy is DNA matching. For now, it’s a supplement to genealogy research. Someday, as the science advances, it may tell us all we want to know about ourselves and our origins.

Basically, we inherit our DNA from our parents. We get mitochondrial DNA from our mothers and, with little change, it follows our maternal line back into pre-history. Men inherit Y-chromosome DNA that follows paternal lines, making small changes through the ages, backwards in time.

The best way to learn about the science behind DNA and its implications for genealogy, is to read books, then participate in surname studies. The book to start with is Thomas H. Shawker’s Unlocking Your Genetic History: A Step-by-Step Guide to Discovering Your Family’s Medical and Genetic Heritage. Then read Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak’s Trace Your Roots With DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree, and Colleen Fitzpatrick and Andrew Yeiser’s DNA & Genealogy.

One of the most entertaining authors on the subject of DNA is a pioneer researcher in the field, Bryan Sykes. Start with The Seven Daughters of Eve, about mitochondrial DNA. Then read Adam’s Curse about Y-chromosomes. Follow that with Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland.

Several companies offer genetic testing for genealogists. The largest is Family Tree DNA. Read the material on their website to learn about genetic tests for genealogists. Your choice of which company to use may be influenced by a surname study in progress, so investigate before you spend money.


In the research process, maps are an indispensable resource. Libraries and archives have collections of maps and commercial firms sell reproductions of historical maps. Using census records without maps is sort of like finding your way through your home blindfolded. You can do it, but you may encounter a few stumbling blocks along the way.

An especially helpful book, Map Guide to the US Federal Censuses, 1790-1920, has been produced by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide. It shows maps of the states through the years depicting changing county boundaries.

State lines may look like solid barriers on the map, but on the landscape, they’re often invisible. Waterways on maps were barriers, but served as a means of travel as well. Look at topographic maps showing natural contours of the land. Mountains were a real barrier to early travel. Thanks to the Internet, we have wonderful map resources at our fingertips. Family Tree Maker 2009 incorporates Google Earth in its “places” task pane.

Look at soil maps. Your ancestors knew how to grow particular crops, and when they migrated to a new area, they looked for a region similar to their old home in terms of terrain, soil, and vegetation. If you find your ancestors in the Gulf Coastal Plain area of Arkansas, you can probably look a few generations earlier and find them in a similar region in Mississippi, Alabama, or Georgia. The agricultural schedules of the census will help you learn what crops your ancestors were raising.

Seeing the Big Picture

You must do two things well to be a successful genealogical researcher.

Sift through volumes of records looking for minute details.

See the ‘big picture’ or overview of your ancestors’ lives in the context of part of an integral whole.

Merely compiling names and dates is a very narrow view of family history research. Learning about political, social, economic, and religious events and movements taking place in your ancestors’ lives can not only add ‘meat’ to the ‘bare bones’ of their vital statistics, it can increase your success in your research.

For example, reading about the “Great Awakening” (a religious revival movement in the early 1800s) can help explain why your ancestor became Baptist or Methodist after a long family history of some other (or no) religion. Learning about the financial difficulties of cotton planters during the ‘Panic of 1837’ (a severe depression) can help you understand why your family pulled up stakes and moved westward at that time.

To get the full picture, frame your family within historical context. This is not to say you should sprinkle your family history with irrelevant facts. Avoid gratuitous information such as, “this was the same year Tyler was elected President” (unless your ancestor was active in the campaign or it had a significant impact on the family).

Reading for Historical Context

All of your genealogy research time doesn’t need to be in front of your computer monitor. There’s room for a lot of old-fashioned book reading, too. Visit the history section of your library and check out books that will be helpful to your research, though they aren’t traditional genealogical sources. I’ve already mentioned reading a history of the foreign country your ancestors came from—read American history, too.

To structure your reading, begin with a broad overview of the social history of the United States. Read Daniel J. Boorstin’s prize-winning trilogy, The Americans: The Colonial Experience, The Americans: The National Experience, and The Americans: The Democratic Experience. Earliest settlement through the founding of the United States is beautifully described in Ted Morgan’s Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the North American Continent. His writing continues with A Shovel of Stars: The Making of the American West 1800 to the Present. Morgan tells the story with interesting people and vivid incidents.

Then narrow your reading, depending upon which time periods and geographic areas involved your folks. If your ancestors followed the most common migration pattern, they arrived on the American eastern seaboard and moved westward, seeking more land and greener pastures. Ray Allen Billington’s Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier tells the details of this migration and includes a wonderful bibliography to direct you toward additional reading. If your ancestors chose in particular the southern route, read Everett Dick’s The Dixie Frontier: A Social History.

David Hackett Fischer covers the cultural history of four waves of settlement from the British Isles in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. He tells about the Puritans who came to Massachusetts Bay, the Royalist elite and their indentured servants who came to Virginia, the Quakers who came to the Delaware Valley, and the Scotch-Irish who came to the American backcountry. Fischer tells of settlement and association patterns, religion, speech, architecture, ideas of family and marriage, child-naming patterns, customs of food and dress, and other aspects of every-day life.

Your reading will give you a better understanding of your ancestor’s life, even if he isn’t mentioned by name in a book. Researchers with ancestors who moved from Virginia to Kentucky can learn a tremendous amount about the forces which prompted the move and importance of the kinship networks by reading Boynton Merrill, Jr.’s Jefferson’s Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy.

Sources for Books

The books mentioned above are just a very small sample of the tremendous variety available. Where do find these books besides your local library? In the dark pre-Internet days, we had to shop for books in retail stores or used book stores within driving distance. Inventories were limited and prices were high. The Internet changed all that—new and used books are now available all over to everyone. And prices have taken a nose-dive, thanks to supply and demand. Some of the books mentioned in the preceding paragraphs are for sale on the Internet for less than a dollar plus a few dollars for postage.

Two excellent sources for books are Amazon.com and AbeBooks.com. Enjoy!

[Get Started] [Is Family History For You?] [Home and Family Sources] [Organizing Your Family Records] [Beginning Your Research] [Federal Census Records] [Courthouse Research] [Military Records] [Ethnic Genealogy] [A Broad View] [Correspondence] [Sharing Your Heritage] [A Genealogist's Toy Box] [Glossary]

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