What’s the point of genealogy project? Sure, it’s to uncover a family’s history. But the real mission should be clear: results!
Nobody wants to spend time on a project that goes nowhere. That’s a frustrating experience that you shouldn’t ever endure. So to kick of the new year, in the next few months I will focus on one genealogical project and show you how to get real, tangible results.
No, that may not mean having one hundred new ancestors’ names by next Tuesday. I won’t be getting into a specific record group or telling you where on the internet you can find that answer you’ve been looking years for.
Rather, I’d like us to put one project on the fast track and show you a proven method for organizing the research. In the next few months I will go into detail about:
1. Goals and Background Information
2. Timelines and Maps
3. Research Plans
4. Writing as a Research Method
We’ll take each of these, break them down into small goals, and move forward slowly but surely. By the end of these four organizational steps, you’ll be surprised at how much you do and don’t know about your own research.
Step One: Goals and Background Information
1. Define your goal. We hear the word “goal” and our eyes roll back into our heads. It’s as if we are conditioned to hate having goals. But take a deep breath. A goal is just a road with a sign saying, “This way to your destination.” If you don’t know where you are going, how are you going to get there?
Write down your goal. Be specific. Do NOT say, “I want to prove myself all the way to Charlemagne.” Do say, “What happened to Uncle Dolphus after the Civil War?” or “Who are Grandma Eulalee’s parents?” Even if you want to prove your relationship to a Revolutionary patriot, you still have to do it one generation at a time; make each generation a separate goal.
So, what is your goal? Write it down and refer to it frequently.
2. Write the background information. This is simply a summary of what you know about the ancestor and WHY you know it. It may be full of blanks like:
“Uncle Dolphus was born in 1836 in Livingston County, New York. He never married. He moved away from the family after ____. He was living in Solano County, California by 1881. He died _____.”
The blanks are just as important as what you do know. They help us focus on the missing pieces.
3. Use footnotes. Be careful; sometimes the “facts” are actually misleading. That’s where footnotes come in. The footnotes tell you and other researchers you may work with in the future how credible your information is. Do I know for sure that Uncle Dolphus never married? The footnote would say that it was a family story passed down by his great-niece. This isn’t the greatest piece of information; the source is too far removed from the events. How do I know that Dolphus was in California? The footnote would show that he and the other siblings quitclaimed their father’s home and property to his little sister, Anna. I have the probate file book, page number, and year. I use Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence! or Evidence Explained! to keep my footnotes consistent. Use any footnoting system you want, just make sure you are citing each fact you claim, and where it came from.
4. Collect as much info as possible. Where does the data come from? You need to go digging in your own house. In my case, it almost felt like archaeology: the strata of paper and photos was so thick! I dug out all the paper relating to Uncle Dolphus; all the printed pages, research notes, everything. Then I re-read it all. I realized I’d miss-remembered some things, such as thinking someone said he had died in San Diego County instead of Solano County. I found that I had some information I hadn’t quite put together before. In writing out, in paragraph form, what I did know and footnoting each fact to say why I knew it, I got a better hold on the problem.
1. Make a focused goal.
2. Get out all the papers and information you have about that person or family.
3. Write your background information with blanks and footnoted citations.
Feel free to write and tell us how you’ve done, and if you learned anything new. We would love to hear from you.
Next month: Timelines and Maps.