Researching Low-Tech Style: With a Whiteboard
Do you have a lot of people with the same surname in a locality and don’t know how to sort them out? I run into this situation occasionally. What do I resort to using? My large whiteboard and a set of dry erase colored markers. If you have a similar family history challenge, I’m sharing the steps I take to sort out the generations and the families.
When finished, my whiteboard may look sort of messy to you, but to me it is a thing of beauty! This research project involved sorting out the Norman’s of Culpeper County, Virginia. I needed to find a family for the client’s ancestor, Moses Norman, to fit into and some clues led me to Culpeper County and this group of Normans.
Step 1 Sort Records Chronologically
Doing an initial sort to put the records in order from earliest to latest will help as you begin to fill out the generations. I like to look for the earliest settler and put him at the top of the whiteboard. Often he came into an area with a brother or a couple of grown sons. Those can also be noted.
In the case of the Normans, I had discovered Isaac Norman in an early Vestry Book in 1738. He seemed to be the earliest Norman in the county, so he went at the top of the board, written in blue. As I discovered additional records for him, those were also lettered in blue below his name: land grants for 1726 and 1727. Online trees have birth and death dates for him, so even though I hadn’t verified those yet, I included them to have a reference point.
Step 2 Start with the Wills
If you’re lucky enough to have wills stating actual relationships, start with those. You can be reasonably certain of those relationships and putting in the individuals will begin to build a framework for the family. Analyzing the dates, try to put these individuals in the appropriate place on the whiteboard.
I discovered wills for three of the Normans: Joseph Norman, Courtney Norman, and John Norman. I initially thought Courtney Norman might be a brother to early settler, Isaac Norman, so had put him at the top also, in green. Continuing to fill in the records, I realized that he was more likely to be a son. Adding each individual named in the wills was very helpful as it showed multiple men of the same name: Isaac, William, and John. I would have to be careful to sort out the records for these individuals.
Step 3 Fill in with Additional Records
Once the wills are recorded on the whiteboard, you can then add land, tax, and other records for the people that seem to fit. If unsure, put a question mark to indicate that you’re not sure which John Smith was referenced. When you see the family as a whole, you may be able to better determine which record goes with which ancestor. If an individual had died, he wouldn’t be witnessing a will ten years later.
After I had mapped out the wills for Joseph Norman, Courtney Norman, and John Norman, I began adding other records. Tax and land records as well as additional mentions in the probate records helped to fill in the details for several of the individuals.
I also found an Isaac Norman who I haven’t identified yet. With the original settler named Isaac Norman, many of his descendants carry the same name. Records for this Isaac Norman are circled in black in the center of the board. I thought he might be a brother to Joseph Norman, so put him on the same level. He could also be a son to Joseph Norman, so I drew a line making a connection. Additional correlation and analysis of the records will help to put Isaac in the appropriate family.
Step 4 Make it Permanent
After you’ve gone to the work of filling out an entire whiteboard with a family, be sure to take a picture to capture your work and/or transfer the information to an electronic document in a program such as Lucidchart. If you’re sure of the connections you can add those to your genealogy database or online tree.
Why didn’t I start with an electronic document? Sometimes I need a break from my computer screen. My mind can look at problems in new ways if I’m handwriting and analyzing through a different medium.
Although I took a photo of my whiteboard sketch, I also transferred it to Lucidchart so that as I continue with the research I can add information. My next project will likely focus on the family of Joseph Norman and a new whiteboard sketch could put him at the top and start to fill in the records of his children. I suspect his son, Isaac, may be the father of my client’s ancestor, Moses Norman. I have several more records to search to test this hypothesis, but now I have a framework for this family and can refer to my photo or chart as I find additional sources.
The screenshot below shows the portion of my chart for Joseph Norman. Dotted lines indicate a hypothetical relationship that needs to be proven.
Step 5 Write Up Your Conclusions
After going to all this work, be sure and write what you’ve discovered in a research summary or report. You may think that you’ll remember the connections you made, but you won’t. Putting away the research even for a few days may cause you to lose your thought process. A research report is the perfect place to add ideas for future research. After charting out the family, you’ll have seen several areas for more research and will want to keep track of those.
I wrote a detailed report for my client and with their permission share a portion here: Norman research project.
My report included several suggestions for future research and I’ll be using my chart to make my research plan for the next phase of the project. I already have an electronic research log entry for each record used and as I work with key individuals I can begin to build timelines for them to help analyze and correlate the information. Seeing the family as a whole will be key to putting together the puzzle.
Are you ready to tackle one of those challenging families? Grab a whiteboard, some dry erase markers and give it a shot. You might be surprised with your discoveries.
Best of luck in all of your genealogical endeavors!