Doing a Genealogy Research Project from Start to Finish
Have you ever completed a genealogy research project from the beginning to end? From objective to report? I just completed one and I want to share what I learned.
I did the project for our Research Like a Pro study group. I wasn’t planning to join the group at first – I thought I would just help in the background with whatever Diana needed. She developed the idea for the study group and was finishing up her planning. At the last minute, she encouraged me to join. I knew that having assignments and peer review would provide accountability. I do well when I have accountability – it’s highly motivational for me, so I agreed to join.
The first assignment in the study group was to choose an objective and write it down. So, I started a document for the research project and wrote my objective at the top.
If you want to see an idea for a research project document, Diana has created a template for the next Research Like a Pro Study Group that you can download below.Included are sections for the basic elements of a genealogy research project: objective, summary of known facts, background information, working hypothesis, identified sources to search using a locality guide, prioritized research strategy, findings and analysis, conclusion, suggestions for future research, and results summary. Here is the template:
Objective and Analysis
I chose a research objective that coincided with the research I was already doing on my Confederate soldier ancestors for my RootsTech presentation. My objective was not the typical “prove a relationship” objective, but instead focused on discovering the actions of my relatives during the Civil War. Here’s the objective I wrote at the start of the project:
Discover the actions of three brothers, sons of John D. Isenhour and Sarah Bailey, in the antebellum period and during the Civil War:
– Valentine Isenhour, born 1820 in North Carolina and died 23 Apr 1895 in Clyde, Callahan, Texas.
– Moses William Isenhour, Confederate soldier, born 1823 in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, died 16 February 1862 in Fort Thompson, United States, married to Amanda Martha McKinney 1 October 1846 in Montgomery, Arkansas.
– Josiah Edmond Isenhour, born 1825 in Missouri and died 13 December 1868 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
After creating my objective, I analyzed the information I already had and made a timeline showing important dates. I evaluated each record to decide how credible it was. I asked, “Is it an original or derivative record? Or an authored work?” and “Is this primary, secondary, or undetermined information?” and “Does the information provide direct or indirect evidence?”
It was helpful to review each other’s work as we practiced this step. Others’ comments shed light onto records that I hadn’t thought of in that way before. I had to decide whether I thought a newspaper obituary was original, derivative, or authored. That was a tricky question. I ultimately decided that it was an original record but that the information was undetermined – whether or not it was primary or secondary, since the author was unknown. Others say an obituary is an authored narrative. (What do you think? Here’s the discussion on Evidence Explained )
I made notes in my research project document as I analyzed the records I already had, with questions and ideas for research.
One thing I learned throughout this process is that creating too broad of an objective makes the project harder to organize. If I could go back to the objective assignment, I would only select one individual at a time. I also learned the value of the three different types of genealogy research questions / objectives: identify an individual, prove a relationship, and discover actions.
Before researching a person’s actions, you must first identify them! When I discovered a second Civil War Service Record for Moses Isenhour in a different location, I wondered if I had I wasted time researching the wrong person. That’s when I went back and made sure to identify Moses of Arkansas and Moses of Texas as distinct individuals.
I found that Moses of Arkansas’ family moved to Texas right around the time of the Civil War. That’s when I found a separate Confederate Service Record for a man with the same name (Moses Isenhower) in Texas. My Moses Isenhour had a Compiled Military Service record for a regiment in Arkansas. As I continued to research, I was able to identify the Texas man as a different Moses than mine through tracing his family in census and cemetery records. That brought me back to my original hypothesis: my relative was Moses Isenhour of Arkansas.
Now I was ready to continue researching Moses of Arkansas’ actions, having identified him as my relative.
The next assignment was to learn about the state or county where I would be researching and create a guide to genealogy research in that place. When were the records created in that county? What repositories exist there? What is the geography like? What county histories are available? I added lots of links to my locality guide document. Instead of copying and pasting a lot of text, I just linked to articles that had historical background and websites that had county boundary changes, and so on. I realized that there are hundreds of resources online with helpful information.
As I learned about all the records available in my location, questions and ideas for what to research came to mind. I made notes of this in my Research Project document.
For the research planning assignment, I organized my notes and ideas into a prioritized plan and wrote a hypothesis for what I thought the records would show. I realized that I need to take some steps to identify each individual a little further with census, land, and tax records before I could research their military service with confidence that I had the right person. I put that as top priority in my plan, then listed the collections I wanted to search in Fold3 and Ancestry military records. I also ordered the regimental history for Moses Isenhour’s unit.
Research, Research Log, Citations
Before I started, I knew that Moses Isenhour was likely a Confederate soldier. I just needed to review the evidence and make sure I had the right person. I followed all three men in land, census, and tax records. Once I had this part down, I moved on to the fun part – researching their actions during the Civil War.
My favorite part of the project was using the details I found in the records to flesh out the historical scene that they were living through. It was fascinating to learn about the day to day happenings of Moses’ regiment, the 11th Arkansas Infantry. The entire regiment was captured at the Battle of Island Number 10, but Moses died before his unit saw battle. The regimental history revealed that the winter was harsh, muddy, and full of illness. Moses died during this bleak winter while taking his turn at rotating through picket duty night and day.
Diana taught us to make citations as we went along so we wouldn’t have to return to our source. I learned my lesson after doing some searches and not creating the citation. It was a pain to go back to the URL that I had saved and try to remember the details that should go in the citation.
I learned a lot about citations this time by reading Diana’s lesson about citations and Elizabeth Shown Mill’s book and website, Evidence Explained. I spent a lot of time studying the first two chapters of the book. Once I got the basics of the citation down, it became a lot easier to create subsequent citations. One of the group members shared a fabulous resource from the BYU Family History Department that I want to share with you – Templates for Citations. These templates are based on the citation style in Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence Explained.
Next time, I will create separate research logs and reports for each person. It was not fun searching through my research log for the entries about Moses and then the entries about Valentine. I know this will depend on the objective and the project, but I don’t think doing one single log for all three of these men was helpful in this instance.
Writing about my discoveries, connections, thoughts, and the conclusions I came to during the research phase is an important step that I often skip. I want to be better about this. Whether it’s in the notes section of a software program or in a more formal document, written conclusions are extremely valuable. I discovered it was not enough to just keep my notes in a research log. A research log is not cohesive and does not have enough space to truly analyze and discuss your hypothesis.
Since I have to spread out my work with several days in between work sessions, I need to be able to quickly glance at a project and remember where I left off. Waiting to write up my research until the end of my project meant that I forgot some of the conclusions that I came to while I was researching, even though I did keep detailed notes in that section of my log. It was best to write my findings in the report as I went along researching.
I found that the most helpful section of the report was the “future research suggestions” section. This section allowed me to list new ideas for research as I wrote without getting off track. I could finish my analysis of a record knowing that my idea was saved in “future research.”
My report isn’t perfect, but if you’re interested in reading it, here it is:
I created separate documents for my evidence analysis, research plan, and log.
Overall Lesson Learned
Besides learning several new skills, I learned overall that the simpler the objective, the more manageable the project. There’s no reason to create an objective and research plan for a 50 hour project all at once. In the future, I will create smaller plans that will yield a 10-20 hour project. If I don’t solve the problem or answer the question in that time, I can use my ‘future research suggestions’ to go forward and create a new plan for my next research session. I may decide to keep adding to my report or write up an entirely new one for each session. I feel that doing research in manageable chunks of time, coupled with writing my conclusions will increase my efficiency twofold!
If you are considering signing up for the next session of the Research Like a Pro study group, please feel free to contact us with any questions. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and Diana’s is email@example.com. Here is the link to more information about the study groups for January 2018 and you can read reviews of the experience from other study group members:
The study group is on sale for $125 until next Wednesday, December 13. Have a great week!