What do you already know about your family? This is not a question to be addressed casually if you are beginning your family history research or even if you have been researching for many years. Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours with one of my friends working on his family lines in the FamilySearch.org Family Tree. He began by showing me his ancestors back seven or eight generations and looking at names and more names. He had no idea where to start or what to do.
I find this to be an extremely common situation. Genealogical research can very quickly involve very large numbers of ancestors. The geometric sequence progression of direct line ancestors illustrates this perfectly: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256 etc. My friend was looking back at a level where he had over 500 (510 to be more exact) ancestors. When you consider that many of these ancestors had more than one spouse, practically, the number was even greater. What was the problem here? He thought he was ready to research some of his remote ancestors when he had serious data problems my closer to the present. After going back to his parents and grandparents, we found a situation where one of his great-grandmothers supposedly had her first child when she was five years old. We spent the rest of the time looking at this one family.
When we say that research begins with the known and moves to the unknown, we mean it. The accuracy of each successive generation is based entirely on the accuracy of the data about the one that is more recent in time. Jumping back into time to do "research" almost guarantees that you are researching the wrong people. This does not mean that a single line cannot be accurately extended, what it does mean is that moving back generations without doing the fundamental groundwork for each intervening generation is ill-advised. So, do we take out aunt's or grandmother's word that everything she put in her pedigree was the gospel truth? Not unless you want to find out later that you were building a bridge in the air without any support.
I have been working on my family lines for over 30 years and I am just now beginning to sort out the lines where the controversy begins with the families of two great-great-grandfathers. In my case, most of the information "passed down" from my family was inaccurate. When I say this, I mean the people were not properly identified, not that there were simply errors in the dates etc. the identity of the people listed was and is in question.
In many cases, it is easy to determine where to start because the pedigree is incomplete in the first four generations or is almost entirely lacking in supporting source documentation. The main question to ask at this point is whether or not the researcher is actually interested in doing research. The reactions I get to my comments about the status of the information they have already gathered is usually indicative of whether or not they are willing to begin to do research or are merely passively interested is seeing names on a pedigree.
I look at the starting point in terms of geographic locations. My questions involve discovering a trail of established, verified, specific geographic locations that are associated with events in the family tree. The reason for this position is simple. Genealogically pertinent records are associated with specific geographic locations. Depending on the family and the location, this identification may need to be down to the specific house, farm or ranch the family lived in or on. This is particularly true when you have people with the same or similar names in the area.
Here are the steps to determine where you start doing research:
Step No. One
Examine your family lines carefully. Look for documentation with valid sources for the information recorded for each individual. Look for consistency in dates, places and names.
Step No. Two
Choose a specific line for investigation. Verify each place and the associated records where the recorded events occurred.
Step No. Three
Begin your research at the point where the names, dates and places begin to be partially recorded or missing.
Most of the time, this process takes me about ten to fifteen minutes before I have found serious data problems.
Previous installments of this series include: