Category Archives: Research – General

Beginning Concepts: The Research Plan

In genealogy, there are two things you really ought to keep track of to help your research be FOCUSED and effective. Several weeks ago I wrote about how when we all begin, we are collectors of family history information, but eventually, we have to get focused to solve any of the “brick walls” we encounter. Two things that help you be focused are utilizing a research PLAN and a research LOG. In my world, these are the same document. I lovingly call them my Research PLOG (patent pending).

Different researchers have different techniques. Look around at what others have to say on the topic if my system doesn’t work for you or make sense for how you work. The main message here is to do it!

I’ve written about research plans twice before:

Both of those previous posts come from the angle of preparing for a research trip. However, you don’t have to be going on a trip to create a plan. It will make your time at a repository more efficient and effective if you have a pre-planned list of what you want to look at when you arrive. But we have all been stuck at home for a year, and it looks like we will be for a bit longer. Have you been planning your research before you do it at online “repositories”? I know I have not been doing it enough. I have an idea of what I want to find, I go look for it, I don’t find it, I move on to the next thing… but months from now, I am not going to remember that I did that search and will do it again. And if I don’t utilized my PLOG, I’ll do it again in another several months.

A research plan/log allows you to plan your research “attack” and record your findings so that you can review what you’ve done on a given project and NOT DO IT AGAIN! (I am sure I am not the only genealogist in the world who spent precious research dollars ordering the same death certificate twice…or three times?) A research PLOG, if used correctly, can save you time and money. I wish I had learned about research plans and logs earlier in my genealogical journey!

Of course, there are databases that are constantly growing, that you should go back and search again at a later time. Be sure to note in your log what years those databases covered at the time you looked at them (we will get into more on this later). Also, a caveat to using a PLOG correctly…you have to review it before you start in on another research session. This is where I find myself failing many times. I just don’t take a moment to read my log for a given project. So, it’s like I never logged anything if I don’t go back and review it!

Now that I’ve convinced you that you need to start utilizing a log, next I will get into the nitty-gritty of what my research PLOG system looks like.

Beginning Principles: Getting Focused

Every genealogist starts out in a “collection” phase. You just gather up anything and everything that pertains to your family tree, with very little focus on a particular project. I think this is the right way to do it. You have to have a base to start from and collecting and gathering important items and information from family members now, while they are still alive, is so important. But after a while, you may have noticed, you have quite a “pile” (whether physical or digital, or both if you are like me).

I’ve talked about organizing those piles before in my series about getting organized, so I won’t belabor it again. But you have to get organized before you can really move forward. OR you’ll do what I did and order the same records several times, download the same wills, search for the same obits, etc. Don’t do that. Get organized now, while the piles are small-ish, so you can be more efficient later.

Once you’ve gotten organized, you can start to see where your challenges are, the proverbial “brick walls,” or the research projects that are going to take more effort to solve. Filling in the gaps will require more structured research. When you get to this phase, it is helpful to define your research by establishing good research questions.

A good research question is a well-defined research goal. It needs to be as specific as possible, defining exactly who you are looking for, but not so specific that it isn’t possible to solve. The question has to be answerable for it to work. Here is an example from my own research:

Too broad: Who was the father of Fred Miller?

Well, which Fred Miller. There are about a billion of them in the world. And about a hundred in Wood County, Ohio in 1850. (Ok, I might be prone to exaggeration, but it sure feels like that sometimes!)

Too narrow: What is Fred Miller’s exact date of birth?

Well, for this one, we may never be able to find an exact date of birth due to record loss or just no records at all. The question may not be answerable so it is better to broaden the question a little bit. Perhaps to simply say “when was he born” which could be answered with a date range or something like “about 1805.”

Just right: Who were the parents of Fred Miller, living in Perrsyburg Township, Wood County, Ohio, who was 45 years old in the 1850 census?

With this one, I have identified a unique person in time and place, and I am asking an answerable question, “who were his parents?”

NOW, you can start planning your research to answer this question. Next we will talk about research plans and how to create and execute them.

Beginning Principles: Important Records Part 2

Last week we looked at a few of the “basics” when it comes to records a beginning genealogist should be looking for and possibly a few things beginners don’t realize when they are first starting out. This week let’s explore a few of the more “advanced” records that can be located for your ancestors. These records are where you can really start to dig in to the details about individuals.

  • Land Records – Deeds primarily fall into this category for the beginning genealogist, though there are other types of land records to be found. If your ancestors were farmers, like mine were, you are most likely going to find deeds somewhere along the way. These are held at the county courthouse for the most part though these days, they are likely digitized at FamilySearch. Take a look through their catalog for your county to see if they are there. Deeds will tell you when an ancestor bought or sold land, how much land, for how much money, and more importantly where that land was located.
  • Probate Records – Estates and wills are especially helpful when they can be located because they will often spell out family groups and relationships. You may also get very detailed information about the stuff your ancestors owned such as furniture and occupational equipment. Again, these are typically found at a county courthouse, though many may be digitized at FamilySearch.
  • Military Records – Draft registration cards or ledgers, pension applications, enlistment records, compiled military service records, and more fall into this category. These kinds of records are available in a lot of places, but a good starting point website is Fold3.

After these kinds of records, you really start digging into the details. But those are probably not records a beginning genealogist is going to dig into right away so we will address some of that later in another series. Next we will talk about how to start focusing your research.

Beginning Principles: Important Records

If you are a beginner, you might not have a good idea of all of the different types of records one can find for their ancestors. As you gain experience, take classes, read blogs and books, watch webinars, and so on, you will gain a greater knowledge of some of the details you can really find. However, let’s start with some of the basics.

  • Vital Records – These include birth, marriage, and death records. What a beginner might not know is that they are a construct of the 1900s for the most part, especially what we think of now as a “birth certificate” or a “death certificate.” Those were not required by states until the early 1900s. And even then, it took quite some time for various counties to become completely compliant with those laws. However, you may get lucky and find births and deaths registered even earlier depending on the time and place. I do a lot of Wood County, Ohio research. They have birth and death records back into the 1870s. Baptism records will be found if your ancestors were members of a church that conducted infant baptism AND recorded those baptisms. Marriage records, on the other hand, have been recorded for quite some time, this is one record type that you will find going back to the 1600s in the U.S. not only in civil records, but also in church records.
  • Census Records – These are quite possibly the best record for quickly putting together family groups, and sometimes, several generations. Federal census records began with the U.S. Constitution. The first federal census was conducted in 1790 and every 10 years thereafter. However, not all survive. What most beginners don’t know is that nearly the entire 1890 census was lost in a fire. Only a few scraps remain. Some states conducted state censuses usually on the years ending in ‘5’ and only for a time.
  • Newspapers – And in particular, obituaries, are one of the best records for getting started with your family history. Obituaries usually give a good biographical sketch of an ancestor, who he/she married, who their children were, who their parents were, etc. Other newspaper articles are helpful too. Items in the “gossip column” or “social news” section can pin family members down in a time and place. If something bad happened, an accident or intentional event, that usually made the front page.
  • Cemeteries – Tombstones and cemetery records are quite useful in tracking down ancestors. When I first started, Find A Grave was only about famous people. I did a lot of cemetery visiting across the U.S. Now, I don’t have to (though I still like to) since Find A Grave has expanded to try to catalog all burial in the world.

These are some of the “basics” when it comes to records for the beginning genealogist. I will discuss some of the more “advanced” records to be found next week.

Beginning Principles: Important Repositories

Undoubtedly, the most important repository for you is the one that holds the records you need. I gave some tips on finding records in previous blog posts such as “Accessing Archives from a Distance.” This post is simply meant to highlight some of the important onsite repositories for beginners. “But we are in the middle of a pandemic,” you say. And I say now is the perfect time to get your game plan ready. We can visit all of these repositories virtually and create a research plan, which I will discuss in more detail in a future post in this series, but you can read a previous post on the topic here.

Top repositories for beginning genealogists:

  • Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah – This is the largest collection of genealogical materials in the world. Much is being digitized and can be found on their website. Some is “locked” due to contractual obligations and requires you to be in the library or at a local Family History Center to access. They have a huge collection of books on site. This is an important repository simply because of the geographical reach one can get from working on site. You can work on several projects at once while at the FHL.
  • Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana – This library is possibly the second largest collection of genealogical materials in the U.S. As the creator of PERSI (the PERiodical Source Index), they hold over 8,000 titles of genealogical society journals, on site, in addition to many other genealogical books and materials from all over the world.
  • Your State historical society or genealogical society library – Find out where your state’s historical and/or genealogical society is and whether they have a repository. Their collection will most likely be tailored to the state you are working in.
  • Any large genealogical collection in a city near you – Many cities have large libraries, and many of those libraries have a genealogy or local history collection that focuses on that city and region.
  • Local public library with a genealogy/local history collection in the area of your research – When you are working in smaller, rural areas, finding a small public library will often be the treasure trove you need. Small public libraries have the granular focus of collecting and saving information for that area.

Get online and find the catalog on the website for each of these locations. Pick a research project and start searching the collection for sources that might be useful for your goals. Then create a research plan. Someday the pandemic will lift and we will be able to travel again. I hope you come away with a ginormous amount of research to do onsite because you will have filled your days with research planning.

Beginning Concepts: Software or Online Trees?

When I began my family history journey, I started with paper charts and forms. It did not take long, however, to realize that there had to be a better way to store all of that information so I didn’t have to make photocopies and instead I could make nice charts and tables to share.

When I got started, there weren’t a lot of software options out there, and especially not for Mac users. I used a free shareware genealogy software for a while, but eventually found my way to Reunion. Over time, various websites developed that allowed users to create and store their trees in the cloud.

Reunion Family View

What is the best way to go about this these days? My answer to these questions is always “do what works best for you.”

Some only work in the cloud, having their tree completely at Ancestry or MyHeritage or any of the sites that let you build your trees online. Others only have sparse trees on those sites and keep the bulk of their research on their computer software. And still others, only work in word processors or on paper. Again, the best system is the one that makes the most sense to you.

I do a combination of all. I have most of my research in Reunion on my computer. I print out important items and keep them in my binders. I add clues or other documents as I find them to my trees online.

If you are looking for software, there are some great options. I recommend consulting Cyndi’s List for the latest. You can also find ratings and reviews at pages such as GenSoftReviews.

Find a system and and online or desktop tree-builder that works best for you. It will help you stay organized and keep you research manageable.

Beginning Concepts: Popular Genealogical Websites

When I first started genealogy, there were a decent number of online sources, but most everything was still in a library or archive somewhere. I wrote a lot of letters and filled out a lot of vital records applications when I first started. I began on the cusp of what the internet has become (and still becoming) in terms of online genealogy.

If you are a beginner today, I just wanted to share my top genealogical websites for starting your genealogical journey. Some are free, some are subscription. I hear a lot of complaining about the subscription prices, but when I think about how much I spent on mail and application fees, or gas or plane tickets and hotels to conduct this research “back in the day,” it doesn’t compare in my mind. Having access to millions of records at home, in the middle of the night (or early hours of the morning if you are more like me), is worth the fee to me.

My top genealogy sites for getting started (and in no particular order, only as they come to mind):

  • FamilySearch (free) – Hosts millions of digitized records and books that is constantly growing with new digitized microfilms every day, has an invaluable research wiki, and has a public-generated and edited family tree.
  • Ancestry (subscription, though you may access a library edition through a local library) – Also has millions of digitized records, databases, books, newspapers, and more. Also has a DNA database and public member trees.
  • Find A Grave (free) – Public-sourced cemetery and gravestone database full of millions of memorial pages for individuals from all over the world.
  • A newspaper site that holds the newspapers YOU need. Try Newspapers.com ($), NewspaperArchive ($), Genealogybank ($), or Chronicling America (free). Examine their catalog before buying a subscription!

Do you have a question of a more specialized nature? Perhaps you want to find some charts and forms to get you started, or find out more about railroad records, or are not even sure what you want to know more about? Another fantastic source I recommend to beginners and advanced researchers alike is Cyndi’s List.

Cyndi’s List has categories for you to browse. Don’t search the site, browse it. Find a category that fits your research question. This site is a list of links to other websites. But they are sites you may not have known to search for on Google or even know that those records and resources even existed.

Genealogy on the internet has exploded in the 20 years I’ve been involved. So much more is accessible at our fingertips than ever before! Get out there and find your ancestors.

Beginning Concepts: Interviewing Relatives, Do It Now

After you’ve collected everything you know, it is time to reach out to your living relatives. Every day that passes by, is one day closer to death, unfortunately. Not to be grim (though we did just pass Halloween), but this is a sincere fact of life. And I’m not necessarily talking about YOUR death; that’s another discussion about YOU getting YOUR genealogical records in order. I’m talking about our older relatives and even those our own age. The time is now to talk to them, to interview them regarding their memories of the family history. Each person will have their own side to every story, their own memories about family events, and so it is so important to ask as many relatives as possible about family events.

There are some great online resources to help you with questions that can prompt family members to talk.

Books:

  • Linda Spence, Legacy: A Step-by-step Guide to Writing Personal History
  • Kirk Polking, Writing Family Histories and Memoirs

Websites:

I have found that paper forms are very handy to use when interviewing relatives when you can sit down with them face-to-face. They can help prompt them to talk about things that they had forgotten. If they see a blank on your form and they know that information, they are often willing to share. Currently, I recommend phone calls or Zoom meetings for you family history interviews. And during this time when we are all so isolated, some of those older relatives would probably really appreciate the call.

It seems that sometimes cousins know more about my direct line than I do because they were more willing to gossip about something not affecting their nuclear family units. Ask cousins what they know about a particular family event and see what kinds of stories you hear.

My grandma on the right, her long-time best friend, Wilma on the left. During a visit where I interviewed them both.

If they are comfortable being recorded, do that so you don’t have to be a furious note-taker while they are talking. If you are using Zoom, that is quite easy. You can also set up your phone to record voices or go old-school and use a tape recorder if you still have one. Come prepared with charts and questions. Share with them pictures, documents, and information you’ve already collected. This often jogs their memory.

Here are some topics:

  • School days
  • Important life events
  • Residences
  • Migrations
  • Land ownership
  • Occupations
  • Best friends
  • Military service

Most of all, this is supposed to be fun and engaging. So, make some time to make some calls either by phone or zoom. As the holidays approach in this weird year, reach out and have some family history conversations with your family members.

Beginning Concepts: Data Collection Tips

If you are brand new to genealogy or if you want to do a refresh here are some solid starting points.

  • Start with yourself and work back in time.
  • Begin with what you know and work toward the unknown.
  • Start with the basics: birth, marriage, death
  • Add more details: military, education, residences, employment

Utilize common family history forms or genealogical software to help you build your family tree. Start with yourself and record everything about you, your spouse, kids, etc. Then work on your siblings and parents. Don’t stop with your direct line. Write down everything you know about your aunts, uncles, cousins, expanding out from your direct line.

Start in your own home. Look through your old papers for:

  • birth and death certificates
  • marriage records
  • diplomas
  • newspaper clippings
  • letters or diaries
  • photographs
  • funeral programs
  • yearbooks

I’m not going to tell you that one way is better than another. The best way to do anything is the way that works for you. I will tell you that I started with paper forms. Then I used an old Mac program that no longer exists. I’ve used a Mac since the beginning of time and so I have been a Reunion user almost since their beginning. I also use online family trees, but I treat those more like a holding place while I’m using their website. All of my research is housed in Reunion. I also print everything and organize it in my binder system.

Once you’ve exhausted everything in your own home, you’ll want to start talking to your relatives. We will discuss that next time. That’s where the fun begins!

Beginning Concepts: Why do we do genealogy?

I’m starting a new series that will focus on some “beginning” or basic concepts of genealogical research. A bit of a reset, perhaps. This year has been one giant [insert your favorite expletive-driven description here.] I’m feeling the need to get back to some of the basics before we head into the holidays and 2021. I’m hoping for a refocus and a shift in my thinking after the utter [again, insert your favorite descriptor here… “crapfest” comes to my mind] this year has been.

So this new series will look at some of the basics, starting with, why do we even do this at all? There are spiritual, religious, emotional, and psychological reasons we might be engaged in this pastime:

  • Greater understanding of family stories brings empathy to living family members, perhaps emotional healing
  • Helps with loneliness and depression by filling you with a feeling of knowing your family members and ancestors loved you (even if indirectly)
  • It may help with that muddling-through-life feeling by understanding that our ancestors went through tough times too and survived. “I can DO this! It’s in my DNA!”
  • Provides us with wisdom and a broader perspective when we understand our ancestors in historical and social contexts
  • May experience “spiritual power” and serendipity while engaged in genealogy

“If you were to gather fifty genealogists in a room, chances are that forty-five of them would readily admit to having experienced a few unexplainable incidents in their search for roots.”

Megan Smolenyak, In Search of Our Ancestors

One of my favorite book series is Psychic Roots by Henry Z. Jones, Jr. which explores some of the anecdotal, serendipitous moments genealogists have experienced.

Has the genealogy “bug” bitten you? Have you thought about why? What benefits you may be getting from researching your ancestors? You might take a few moments to consider the WHY of your love/obsession with family history research. For some it may be as simple as finding the next piece of the puzzle. For others, it may take on a whole new dimension.