Research Like a Pro, Part 1: What’s Your Question?
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.
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®.