If you use the New Year to reinvigorate your genealogical research, how long does it take before you are throwing your hands up in frustration all over again? Six months? One month? A week and a half? You are not alone. This year, let’s see if we can look at the old genealogical brick wall with new eyes using a few tricks:
- Research Log Re-boot: If you don’t have a research log, you may end up repeating research or (worse!) missing clues that you need. Take everything you know about the ancestor and create a research log with it. Yes, this will take some time, but it is a critical part of re-assessing your research. If you already have a research log, or are about to create one, try this idea: Instead of putting your research in the order in which it was undertaken, put each item of found or attempted research into a category, such as probate, vital records, land records, census, military, family stories and bibles, etc. Do you notice any record groups you have ignored? You may have focused more on censuses and military records, and completely missed land records!
- New or Updated Websites: You have some favorite go-to websites, we all do. How about checking someplace that you haven’t before, haven’t checked in a while, or did not think may apply. Genealogical websites are constantly updating their holdings. Try a new newspaper website like Genealogybank.com (fee-based), NewspaperArchive (fee-based, available free at any LDS Family History Center), The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America page, or any local historic newspaper available through your public library’s website. I was astounded at the amount of new digitized records available at FamilySearch, and solved a client’s research problem right from my home computer with the probate and land records available there.
- Learn Some History. Perhaps part of your research problem is perspective. What happened in your ancestor’s area during their life that may have affected the records they would have made? Was a battle fought then? Did county lines change? Were they part of the religious reformation of the early 1800s? A client recently spoke bitterly about a 3rd great-grandfather who abandoned his family. As we looked at the timeline, I asked if the grand-father had served in the Civil War, and on which side. The client had not thought about it before. As it turns out, the ancestral family lived in a part of Virginia severely hit by the tragedies of War, and the grandfather was a young Confederate veteran. We talked about the possibility of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress for both spouses. We may never know exactly what caused their split, but knowing these little bits of history puts the family into a different light.
- Internet-heavy Research: The Microwave vs. the Stove. As researchers, we are so very spoiled (no, I am not complaining). So much is online at our fingertips. However, relying too heavily on sources found online can blind us to records that are only available in State Archives, local historical societies, and local courthouses, etc. Here’s my analogy for this problem: In my kitchen I have both a stove with an oven and a microwave. As you can imagine, I use both in almost all of my cooking. I love my microwave because it is fast and easy, however I just can’t cook everything in it. Sauces, eggs, pies, cookies, and sauteed vegetables just don’t quite work if I use the microwave to cook them. I have to use the stove for some things. Other things I really prefer using the microwave for. In all my cooking, I use both of these tools. In research, your microwave is like internet research: fast and relatively easy. Your oven is more like on-site research or records your order through the mail; it will take longer, but the benefits are undeniable. Use both your tools, and learn the benefits and limitations of each.
- Investigate the Neighbors. If you are stuck, try a completely different approach: Neighbors and extended relatives. Put down your research for that elusive ancestor and start up a new project for a neighbor of the ancestor or a relative (or presumed relative) in the area. You may end up seeing their paths cross with the ancestor you’ve been working on and give you a new clue for your mystery man. A great tool for this is Elizabeth Shown Mills’ new quick-sheet, The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research.
Hopefully I have given you some ideas. The main point is not to give up. Remember that even if you haven’t found that elusive ancestor, you have gained experience and education, and your time is not wasted. Tell us some ideas that you have used to re-invigorate your research, we’d love to hear!