Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

5 Steps to Improving Your Family History Experience

When you are working on researching your family history, you can easily get sidetracked by failing to focus on the fundamentals of historical research. Sometimes finding an obvious match for your ancestor will send you off on a tangent when it turns out that the obvious match was the wrong person. Other times, you might get mired in details and forget that not every record has been preserved and not every fact about a person's life can be verified. Here are some simple steps to get you back on the right track.

The First Step: Focus on the places

I don't know how many times this has to be said but it seems like I have to say this regularly when I am helping people with questions. The further back in time you research, the more crucial it becomes to make sure the places are accurately recorded and make sense. For example, my surname ancestral line is a relatively common name in England. But there are also a substantial number of Tanners who originally come from German-speaking parts of Switzerland and into what is not Germany. Some of my ancestral Tanners who came originally from England and some of the Tanners from Switzerland lived in the same county in Illinois. Without a careful consideration of who these people were and where their ancestors came from, there could have easily been some confusion.

If you look at your pedigree with a critical eye, you may find that there are places associated with births, marriages, and deaths when there are no source records to support the places listed. This is commonly the case when the family is supposed to have come from "Kentucky," or New England or "England" or "Germany." Most of the time, these vague locations lack substantiation. Each of your family lines effectively ends at the point where there are no specific sources showing the location of an event in the next generation of ancestors.

The Second Step: Learn about the places

Just a few minutes ago, before I started writing this post. I was asked to look at a family where the birthplace of an individual was recorded as West Virginia in 1854. This could obviously have been recorded by someone who thought that the place as it is today was the place that should be recorded. However, as I have written many times, the place of an event should be recorded as it was at the time of the event. In this case, if you don't happen to know, West Virginia was taken from Virginia during the U.S. Civil War in 1863. This fact can make all the difference in the world as to where the records of this family can be found.

This is why it is extremely important to learn about the history of each place mentioned in your research. The boundaries of cities, counties, states, and every other political subdivision have changed and may continue to change. Every one hundred years you go back in time means that there were major boundary changes. For example, Arizona became a state in 1912, just over 100 years ago. A hundred years before that, the land that is now called the State of Arizona was part of Mexico. Very few of the countries of Europe had the same boundaries in 1920 as they have today. In fact, some of the countries in existence then do not exist now.

While you are learning about political boundaries, take some time to learn about the history of the places where your ancestors lived. My experience in working with people over the years has graphically shown me that those who know the history of the area they are researching are much better prepared to do historical or genealogical research than those who don't.

The Third Step: Identify the types of records that could have been created in the places associated with your ancestors' lives

The basic activity of genealogists is learning about and then finding records. The pervasive use of computers with indexed records leads many researchers to believe that they can find their ancestors solely by searching for names. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are still a lot of records still locked up on paper and when I start to do research on any one of my ancestral lines, I soon run out of digitized records and I am back to microfilm. It takes a little longer, but I am almost inevitably then back to paper. Researchers need to expend a significant effort in finding records to search.

The Fourth Step: Search the records

Here is where the real work begins. I spent part of the day I am writing this post working my way, page by page, through a microfilm roll. Fortunately, this roll was digitized but I have searched a lot of rolls of microfilm that wasn't digitized. Once you get back to the 1700s it is highly likely that you will be looking at paper at some point in your research. I should also mention all the books. Yes, books are being digitized, but major libraries with significant, genealogically valuable book collections that must be searched book by book. This is called "reading the shelves" and is eventually, the necessary adjunct to "real" research.

The Fifth Step: Keep records of what you find

It is very common that someone asks me for help in finding an elusive ancestor. What amazes me is that I do all of the basic research to begin actually looking for the ancestor and inevitably the person informs me that they had already done all of the research that I had just done over again. They then begin producing reams of research and documents that they had stacked up in some back room or basement. If you are going to do research, have the courtesy to keep track of what is and what is not done. You can call it a "Research Log" or whatever you want, but when you ask for help, at least have the courtesy of providing the helper with what you already know. Thanks in advance.

There are probably more steps, but I will stop here for now.


  1. Replies
    1. Have you done a blog on how to record places? I know to use the original name of the place where the event took place but have lots of question.

      How do I record places in the us before it became the U.S? British Colonies or how? What date do I use for the establishing of the U.S. How about during the Civil War do you use Confederate States?