Which Genealogy Strategy Do You Choose First?

When I confront a tough genealogy problem–and you only give me your toughest genealogy problems to solve, don’t you know–my first strategy question is: What research strategy has not yet been applied to this problem?

Not–what sources shall I examine first–

not–which relationship do I need to examine first–

not–what locality can I check first–

Not–what time period does the problem fall into–

Nor even–which research strategy is the best one to apply first–

These questions may all be relevant to the problem. Certainly, they are what we call the search dimensions. Each and every genealogy search uses these dimensions as a frame to focus and give definition to the problem.

And I would want to know the searches you have already completed–especially thiose that did not yield information, so I don’t inadvertently duplicate what you have done. Even if all you have been able to do is check the online databases like familysearch.org or ancestry.com with their multiple databases included in one search engine.

Here I want to list some of the common genealogy strategies I use. None is especially better than the others or works more quickly to solve the problem. The question is: WHICH STRATEGY HAS NOT YET BEEN USED?

Surname Target Strategy:

This is a very old research strategy taught and demonstrated by Derek Harland, A Basic Course in Genealogy, Volume 2: Research Procedure and Evaluation of Evidence. Salt Lake City UT: Bookcraft, Inc. 1958. Reprinted as Genealogical Research Standards. Target is pictured on page 127.

  1. Begin with the surnames appearing on your lineage charts, where you are stuck. If you have an uncommon surname, use this strategy at or near the beginning of your research. If you have a common surname, your results will be better and more productive if you know something about your family before you begin checking library catalogs and indexes on internet websites. You need certain basic details before you can recognize your Smith family from the many Smith entries you will find.
  2. Draw an archery target with at least 5 rings. Align the names from your lineage charts and family charts to coincide with the rings–family or primary surname, maiden surname of wife or mother, in-law surnames of uncles, nephews, brothers-in law, middle names of children that are also surnames–like Ambrose Smallwood Curtis, and namesakes within the family which appear in every generation like Swinfield Hill Curtis.
  3. Systematically search for all layers of the target until you find the answer.

Migration Patterns:

The specific patterns your ancestors made as they moved across America, or coming from a foreign land where they actually settled first–these are dimensions of identity every bit as distinctive as the surnames your ancestors carried with them. Mark them on a county outline map that covers the entire country. Quickest source for such a map: Everton’s Handybook. See 8th edition, 1991. Maps and atlas of migration trails at the back of the book. (This is my favorite edition of the Handybook.)

Then apply this search strategy to your genealogy database or family records:

  1. Chart surname entries from your documents onto family group sheets. Include father, mother, and all the kids.
  2. Sort these worksheets alphabetically by given name. Then by date of birth if you have several sharts where the names are the same.
  3. Draft lists of these characteristics: birthplaces; persons of other names living in the same household with their birthplaces–these identify migration patterns. Persons of other names recorded in same households and those with the same surnames recorded on same page or in same district–these are often kinship networks and families traveling together or associated with each other. Persons with distinctive surnames repeated in two or more family units–these identify family naming patterns, relatives living in proximity to your ancestors.

This strategy works especially well as you search the census records, if you actually read the census pages and watch for matching evidence. Then take your findings into other genealogy sources. You can even do a fine sort, setting aside those with your surname who have very different migration patterns. And concentrate on those who do match when you search marriages, wills, deeds, court records.

Hidden Family Evidence:

Ask new-found genealogy cousins and old family informants these questions. Now that you know more about your ancestors and their lives, you can glean additional evidence even from family members who say they can’t remember any more information.

  1. Where are family members buried? What cemeteries do you remember taking flowers to?
  2. How many times has your family moved? Did other family members move at the same time? What relatives lived nearby? Who was left behind? Travel anecdotes?
  3. Who was the first family member to come to America?
  4. What occupation did your great-grandfather (or father or grandfather) practice? Did other family members have the same occupation?
  5. Did your grandmothers work? Where? Were they educated in a special skill or trade?
  6. Who served in the military? Was it is wartime? Did they receive any medals?
  7. What special foods do you eat on holidays? Holiday traditions your family celebrates?

There are hundreds of other questions you can pose–these are the ones I use most often.  I may also ask about religion, after I get to know a relative better.

These three strategies will give you an arsenal of evidence you may not have known before.  And in the coming weeks, I’ll outline additional genealogy strategies that work wonders and contribute to my 96% suscess rate–so that you too can achieve that rate if you wish. Tune in regularly, so you don’t miss all the good stuff I have planned for 2007!  Your favorite genealogy expert of choice, Arlene Eakle

P.S.  I will be speaking at the St. George (UT) Jamboree, 9-10 Feb 2007, at the BYU-Northern Idaho Genealogy Seminar (where I will give the keynote address), 10 March 2007,  and at the Cache Valley (UT) Family History Seminar 24 March 2007.  Click on the banner on my Home Page for details on the St. George Jamboree.

And, watch this site for details on the other two.  Attend if you can–you won’t regret it.
WOW!  This is the heaviest my schedule has been for a long time.  They are all “close to home.”

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