Are you ready to improve your research techniques? Do you have a difficult research problem in your family tree? Is it time to move to the next level of genealogy research? Whether or not you are a professional genealogist, you can adopt the same practices that a professional uses. In short, you can learn to research like a pro.
This is the first in a six-part series designed to help any level of researcher grow their genealogy skill set. Each post will have a specific task that you can do. Join me for brick wall busting as we tackle our family tree challenges. To read the entire process in one, easy to read format, check out my book Research Like a Pro: A Genealogist’s Guide.
Research Like a Pro, Part 1: What’s Your Question?
Research Like a Pro, Part 2: Analyze Your Sources
Research Like a Pro, Part 3: Where Did They Live?
Research Like a Pro, Part 4: What’s the Plan?
Research Like a Pro, Part 5: Where Did You Look and What Did You Find?
Research Like a Pro, Part 6: Write it Up
What’s your question?
All research begins with a question. Looking at your family tree, you may have many questions. You notice there is no death date for an uncle. A great grandfather has a questionable second marriage. No parents are listed for your great great grandmother. Often you may have so many questions that you don’t know where to start. As you research, you may formulate more questions that pop up as you find new information. How do you focus these questions into research that is productive and relevant?
Formulating a research objective is the key to your success and the first step a professional takes in working with a client. Consider yourself your own client. You want to get the most out of your limited research time and see results so you need to turn your questions into a working research objective.
Your genealogical questions will generally fit one of the following categories: identify an individual, prove a family relationship, or discover ancestor actions.
Identify an Individual
What does it mean to identify an individual? Think of the specific facts that make up his unique identity: name, parents, birth date and place, spouse, marriage date and place, children, death date and place, residence, military service, and occupation. These are details you might need to research to uniquely identify your ancestor.
When and where did [your ancestor] die?
Prove a Family Relationship
If you’re working on the FamilySearch Family Tree, you will soon discover many unproven relationships. Children added to marriages that don’t seem to quite fit. Multiple spouses for an individual. Two sets of parents. All common scenarios when incorrect merges occur. Sometimes a relationship that has been in place for years needs to be proven.
Who are [your ancestor’s] parents?
You might want to discover how your ancestor lived. Was he involved in a war? Did she serve in the community? How did the family worship? Researching the activities of your ancestor can often provide clues that will also help you to prove his identity and family relationships.
What was [you ancestor’s] religion?
Step 1 Analyze your pedigree and choose a question
Your first step in researching like a pro is to analyze your pedigree. Look through your family tree on FamilySearch or Ancestry. Is there a nagging question? A feeling that something isn’t right? Important relationships missing? You might have several questions, but you need to choose one.
For example, I have five glaring holes in my family tree. Five of my 32 ggg grandparents have no parents. I am currently focusing on proving the parents of just one of the five, Cynthia Dillard. My research question is simple: Who are the parents of Cynthia Dillard?
Step 2 Formulate an objective
Once you’ve chosen your research question, you can focus your research by formulating an objective. Your objective should include key identifiers. Think of what you know about your ancestor – name, birth, residence, spouse, etc.
For example, researching Cynthia Dillard, I know that she was born about 1816 in Georgia. She married Thomas Beverly Royston about 1834 in Georgia or Alabama. She died in 1882 in Texas. I don’t have a birth, marriage, or death record for her, so I didn’t know her maiden name until I discovered it on the death certificates of three of her fourteen children. I have the clue from the 1880 census that her parents were born in Virginia. Putting together my research question with the identifiers for Cynthia Dillard, my research objective looks like this:
This objective of this research project is to prove the parents of Cynthia Dillard, born about 1816 in Georgia. Cynthia married Thomas Beverly Royston about 1834 in Georgia or Alabama and died in 1882 in Texas.
Step 3 Write down your objective
The final step in setting your research objective is to write it down. Start a document in your word processor and title it “[ancestor] Research Project.” Type in your research objective and you’re ready to go. This document is your research report. You’ll be adding to it as you go.
That’s all there is to it. You’re on your way!
Best of luck in your family history endeavors! Ready for the next step? Go to part 2: Research Like a Pro, Part 2: Analyze Your Sources
Do you want to take your genealogy research to the next level? In our Research Like a Pro Study Group, you’ll complete assignments and peer reviews and receive feedback from professional genealogist Diana Elder AG®.
I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today’s Genealogy Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2017/05/janas-genealogy-fab-finds-for-may-19.html
Have a great weekend!
Thanks for the mention! It’s always an honor to be included in your great list.
Some first pointers to creating a research plan. I admit I need to be far more focussed and stop my scatter gun approach. Thank you for the reminders.
You’re welcome! It’s just so easy to surf for records without a plan.
Shared your great blog today on https://www.facebook.com/7TownhomeofMAGRC/?ref=tn_tnmn Facebook.
Thanks! I appreciate it. I hope it helps your readers.
Thank you for this posting. I am looking to be a better genealogist, I am late to this party, but it is never to late to learn the correct way to do genealogical research,
You’re right, it’s never too late! I’m glad you found us. Good luck with your research.
In your podcast today, you invited questions about Native American research. I am a member of the Choctaw Nation, and am trying to link my second great grandmother’s parents, born in Mississippi before relocation, to their families of origin. I am also trying to locate their graves in Indian Territory. We know their English names and birth years in Mississippi from the Dawes Rolls and the Choctaw census. I recently located the father’s Civil War records from the Choctaw Mounted Rifles in Fold3. I have a theory, from research into Civil War era records, about his wife’s given Choctaw name and English surname. I’m not sure, however, if there are other records I am missing. (My goal is to verify her maiden name, and, if possible, to trace both her family and her husband’s families back to Mississippi. Please let me know if this might be the sort of problem you are interested in researching, and thank you for considering it.
This sounds like a fascinating research problem. I’d be very interested in working with you on solving the mystery of your ancestor’s origin in Mississippi. I’ll send you a private email and we can go from there.
My cousin and I are working together on Mayflower decendent applications. As you can guess, we have the same lineage except for our parents. Our brick wall, is that our heritage is Samoan. I used family search to try and find family records. We know that great-grandmother was LDS served at the church as a janitor. We know she raised two grandsons. I have found newspaper clippings and ship manifests that say she is going to visit her brother Elisala. Slowly we have piece together a very small quilt. What else can we try? We have written to the islands, and it has been months with no reply. we wrote again, and still no reply. WHAT DO WE DO NOW?
Thanks for your question! As you work through the Research Like a Pro process, the first thing you’ll want to do is create a specific objective. I’m guessing that you’re looking for your great grandmother’s parents? Once you’ve stated your objective with the key identifiers for your grandmother, you’ll want to do her timeline analysis. Looking at each record of her life, you’ll see exactly what you have found. You’ll then want to research the locality – in this case that might would be Samoa. You’ll want to check the FamilySearch Wiki for Samoa to learn about the records there. Then you can make a research plan.
If you’ve purchased Research Like a Pro: A Genealogist’s Guide you can join the private Facebook group to get a lot of help from everyone there!
I bought your book for a Christmas gift to myself. All the emails you posted I have saved. The book doesn’t follow information that you post online is much better. thank You Anna
Thanks for purchasing our book! It is intended as a reference for someone starting the RLP process and can’t be all inclusive. Our podcasts and articles on Family Locket develop the process further and give additional ideas for research. Thanks for your comment and let us know how your research is progressing.
Where can I find old (early 1960’s) elementary school pictures and records? I’ve called the school, the library, 2 suggested websites, ancestry and come up with nothing. I’m a fairly new family researcher (about a year). I don’t know where else to look. Thank you, Linda
That’s an interesting question! You could try checking with the local historical society or even newspapers. If you could track down some of the student’s names from the newspaper you could look for them in records and see if anyone saved photos.
Hello, I have been searching, in vain, for proof of my grandmother’s birth. According to her and every other supporting document I have found, she was allegedly born on September 14, 1903 in Cleveland, Ohio. I cannot find proof anywhere and while I understand that Wayne County did not start recording births until December 1908, there has to be somewhere I can look that I just haven’t been able to find. Any suggestions? I would greatly appreciate any suggestions you may have. Thank you, Treva
Since civil birth certificates were not issued until 1908 in Ohio, alternate places to search for a birth record are church records, bible records, school records, and newspaper notices. Here is a great table on FamilySearch that gives ideas for places to search. https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Record_Finder
In some instances, all we can rely on for a birth date is family information, a death certificate, headstone, Social Security application or other record created much later in life. Gathering all those together can provide proof of birth.
Hi, just starting on this process after purchasing your book and so far have been really enjoying it. However, I’m not sure I even have an objective at this point… I am mostly wanting to get each person a timeline so that I can see what other information I need or could look for. Is that in itself an objective?
You can use the process to verify your family lines, so each ancestral couple could have their own objective. That’s a great way to get started. As you work on the timeline, you’ll likely discover where you need additional research projects.
This lesson confirms what I had been thinking but hadn’t put down on paper. It’s helped me to better focus my research question & elaborate objectives.