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Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Research Plans


We are list-makers. We have to-do lists, grocery lists, and gift lists at holidays. A genealogical research plan is a specialized type of to-do list just for your family history project. To have a successful research plan, I have found it helpful to follow a few basic guidelines:

1. Make a written plan. You would be surprised how often we start our genealogy research without a plan, let alone a written one. Writing focuses our thinking and forces us to ask questions about the viability of certain research paths. When we review our timelines and background information, we have a better sense of what we need to find to accomplish our goals. Personally, I like to put the background information, timeline, and research plan in one document.

2. Stay focused. As I’ve mentioned before, you should have a specific goal in mind for your research, such as “Who are Emmeline’s parents?” It is easy to get sidetracked. For every goal you have, there may be a series of little jobs needed to accomplish it. If you get to thinking about other research goals for other ancestors, make note of those ideas for another time, and stay on target. Don’t just make a plan for what you want, tell yourself how to find what you’re looking for. If you have to stop your research for a while, you’ll be grateful for the reminder.

3. Don’t over-plan. I remember once when I really wanted to plan for every contingency in an upcoming research problem. I literally wrote down 28 things I could investigate, that would possibly solve my problem. I followed the plan and ordered a vital record that was at the top of my list. Imagine my consternation when I got the vital record back and it changed the focus of everything I had on the rest of my list. The moral of the story is to not plan too far ahead, because the information we find may not be what we expected. Nowadays, I generally make a plan that involves 3 to 5 items, and I don’t go further until I have the results of one or two of them. This takes us to our next point…

4. Be flexible. Remember that theories about what our ancestors did and why are just that: Theories. Not proof. Not evidence. Our research is directed at finding the truth, and that may not necessarily follow our theories. When you get results from your research, take that into account. It may change the rest of your plan. I don’t think I have ever had a single research plan that did not change with time.

5. Plan effectively. If you want to find Emmeline’s parents, the first part of your plan should be the most effective strategy, not necessarily the easiest. Perhaps finding Emmeline’s obituary (and searching a few newspapers line-by-line) is more effective that finding every Emmeline (maiden name unknown) that lived in a certain census year. Effective doesn’t mean easy, nor does it necessarily mean difficult. Effective means you are more likely to get results. By far, the most effective things I find to put at the top of any research plan is to order birth, marriage, and death records, if they are available at the ancestor’s time period and location. What this really involves is finding out what records are available in your ancestor’s location. Try the FamilySearch Wiki for some great ideas from other researchers.

6. Some plans are location-based. Sometimes you know you are going to travel to a major facility, such as the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake, or the National Archives in Washington, DC. While they may not have everything you want to answer your research question (vital records are rarely at the National Archives, for example), you still need to plan to make the best use of your time. Find out information about hours, parking, copies, and restrictions so you do not get frustrated about something that has nothing to do with your actual research. Go online ahead of time to check online catalogs and plan out what you want most, and what can be your “Plan B” while you are waiting for records to be pulled or you don’t find what you wanted.

A sample research plan may look like the one below. Remember to adapt yours as needed. The research plan police are not out to get you. Over time, you may find you create your plans differently than you had in the past. The important thing is to make a plan, and refer to it often as you research.

Research Plan for finding Emmeline’s parents, born about 1869 in Genesee County, New York:

Background information: Emmeline (no known maiden name) was married to Augustus Wingate, probably by 1887, in Genesee County, New York. She died in 1937 in Washington, DC.

What to do and why:
• Order death certificate for Emmeline Wingate in Washington DC 1937. HOW: They should be on LDS microfilm, check the catalog. WHY: Emmeline’s maiden name and parents’ names should be listed on her death certificate.
• Check for obituary of Emmeline Wingate in Washington DC in 1937. HOW: Find the online Historic Washington Post available through many public libraries. WHY: Find out if it mentions any parents or living siblings.
• Order the marriage record of Augustus Wingate in Genesee County in 1887. HOW: New York vital records started in 1881, but not all were recorded. Call the county historian for instructions, the record is too early to be at the State Archives. WHY: Some marriage applications list the parents of the bride, or the witnesses may be relatives.
• Check for censuses in Genesee County in 1880. HOW: Use Ancestry or HeritageQuest online. WHY: Where is Augustus living? Could Emmeline be living in the same county or a nearby county?

In this sample, I already have four ideas. While there are other things I could do, I may consider these to be the most effective. As the results come from my research, I may change or add more information. If, for example I find that Augustus lives in the town of Batavia in Genesee County, I might want to know more about church records available for that area. Read up on research plans in many books at your local library and in online tutorials. One of my personal favorites is an article by Helen F. M. Leary, “Problem Analysis and Research Plans,” Chapter 14 of Professional Genealogy (Elizabeth Shown Mills, Editor. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Fourth Printing, 2005).

Remember, a plan is only the first step. How far will it take you? Try it out and let us know!

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Organize Your Project with Timelines and Maps

Why use timelines?

How do you keep your personal calendar of things to do each day? Written into a calendar hung on the wall by the fridge? Carefully noted in a day planner? Typed into your Ipad, phone, or other electronic device? Hundreds of sticky notes stuck to the front door? Some ways are better than others, but the fact of the matter is that you probably keep on schedule better when you are keeping some kind of calendar. It is a very rare person who can keep all their appointments and to-do lists in their head, collated and cross-referenced with all the relationships and demands placed upon their time. So, why do we think we can keep someone else’s life from a hundred years ago– every fact, document, and migration–  sorted in our heads at the same time? If you calendar your own life, it makes sense to “calendar” your ancestor’s life.

Start your timeline simply

There are four options, and we will discuss some pros and cons of each.

1) Paper and pencil.

Pro: If you aren’t comfortable with computers, at least you’re getting it done.

Con: Hard to adjust if you find new information.

2) Word document on your computer. Use a simple document to enter facts into a table you’ve created, or use easy-to-read bullet points. Use the footnoting option to cite and document each fact.

Pros: Easy to adjust, print, duplicate, and share.

Cons: None (in my opinion), unless you hate using the computer.

3) Create a spreadsheet.

Pros: Many people find this format familiar, and easier to refer to.

Cons: Harder to transfer the information when you are ready to write a report or narrative. Don’t forget to include a column for citations.

4) Use your computerized genealogy program to create a timeline for you.

Pros: Quick and easy.

Cons: You may not own a genealogy program. And make sure that your generated timeline cites the source of each fact.

What are the elements of an effective timeline?

Regardless of which way you decide to create your timeline, it must have five basic things: Dates, places, descriptions of the events, people involved, and citations of where the information came from. Keep it simple or make it complicated, it’s up to you. Dates can be the whole day-month-year or a simple year reference. A place should be as complete as possible, including a town (if known), county or parish, and state. Descriptions of the events vary widely from voter records to birth of a third child to an obituary. Having a list of people involved is an often-missed section of timelines; knowing who witnessed the deed or who else was in the household that census day can help with future research. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: the citation. How can your judge between different pieces of events if information is conflicting? Using citations and applying common sense to questions like “Which document was made closer to the time of the event or created by a witness to the event?” A mother’s letter about her baby’s birth is probably more convincing than a granddaughter’s recollection. When I have a big project ahead of me, the timeline becomes my main organizational tool. I can chronologically look for clues and patterns. Do I have two men named John voting in different wards of the city on the same day? I may have two Johns, and have to watch that I keep their records separate.

Try it

Build your timeline now with the background information you collected on your focus family from last month. What do you notice? Are there gaps? Contradictions? Now go back and include major events, such as wars in that country, famines, or anything you think might reasonably have caused changes in your focus family’s lives.

Map Your Timeline

Mapping out your family’s chronology wil be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. There are two types of maps you may find yourself needing. First, large maps of multiple counties or states that show migration patterns. Second, detailed maps of cities/counties or plats of deeded lands, created with descriptions of chains, links, compass points or cadastral survey map subdivisions. Your choice of map depends on how far your ancestor traveled or what you are looking for.

An example of how mapping out the family answered a question. Look at the map at the top of this blog article, complete with some county names. The question was “Where were Jane and William married?” Here are some points from their timeline (simplified, and without citations for this example):
• 1845 – William was born in LaSalle County, Illinois
• 1850 – Jane born in Jo Daviess County, Illinios
___? – Married in an unknown place.
• 1873 – Missouri, daughter Emma born
• 1876 – Iowa, daughter Sophie born
• 1879 – Missouri, daughter Mary born
• 1880 – Census in Nodaway County, Missouri
• 1883 – Gentry County, Missouri, son Willie born

In mapping this family’s migration,  I learned something very important. I learned that Iowa, which had been later in my timeline (where daughter Sophie had been born), turned out to be an much more important place. Using the two lines from Jane and William’s birth places to places they were known to be later, I ended up finding that they had married in Louisa County, Iowa, smack in the middle. I even found the name of Jane’s step-father on the marriage record!

Now it is your turn – What could you find out with timelines and some creative mapping? You’d be surprised. Give it a try and let us know what new information you discover!

Next month: Research Plans

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: New Year, New Genealogical Project

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.

To summarize:
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.