Family history research is fun until you run into an ancestor you know little about. However, there are genealogy research methods that can help you learn more than you thought possible.
While such ancestors are best reserved for family historians with intermediate level genealogy research skills, anyone with a research plan can succeed.
What Are The 5 Step Genealogy Research Plan For Someone You Know Little About?
Follow these steps to investigate ancestors when you have little to start with.
Review What You Know
Do a Preliminary Assessment for the Ancestor
Develop a Quality Research Question
Organize Your Research and Discoveries on FamilySearch
Evaluate the Your Search Results
Step 1: Review What You Know
Believe it or not, you have more than you think to begin your investigation. The first step in a genealogy research plan is to record your background information. What information and evidence do you have?
Start by recording the basics of names, dates, places, and relationships. It's okay if you have the wrong facts. You need something to start with.
For instance, my husband quickly researched a man named Larry Elder, who taught at Union High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The only other relationship he knew about Mr. Elder was that he was a member of the Sons of the American Revolution.
I won't spoil the research process for you, but let's just say there Andy had enough to build Mr. Elder's family tree out four generations even though one of the initial facts was incorrect. (You can access his lecture by becoming an FHF Xtra member and then clicking on the webinar "Finding Strangers in Your Pajamas."
Start with what you know. Every snippet of information will help you in your research.
Step 2: Do a Preliminary Assessment for the Ancestor
When a consultant prepares a proposal to take on a client, they often will conduct a preliminary investigation of the project's situation. In traditional genealogy research methods, your next step involves writing a quality research question. However, when you are researching someone you know little about, you will have too many questions to resolve.
Instead, do a preliminary assessment on two websites - Google and FamilySearch.
Not only are these free websites to do family history research, but you might be surprised what you will find about your ancestor.
Utilizing strategies from the blog post Googling Your Way to Great Genealogy Research Discoveries, type in the person's name and location, name, and occupation, or name and association into Google.
Let's say all you know about a relative is the following:
Zula J Offord
died 1929, in Ohio, United States
You should also know who they are related to you. Right?
Add that to your fact list as well. (In this case, great-grandmother.)
On Google, you can type in Zula Offord 1929 Ohio. When you do, you'll actually find this blog post again.
When I removed 1929 from the search, I saw several entries on MyHeritage and Find A Grave. These are genealogy websites that can help you explore Zula's family tree. Go ahead. Click on Google and key in Zula Offord and see what you find today.
Next, visit the FamilySearch website.
Click on the Search tab, and you will see this screen.
On this form, type the name of the person you’re researching. In this case, key in:
”Zula Offord, ” leaving the middle initial off.
Use the range 1865 - 1875 for the birth year of 1869.
Use the date range of 1928 - 1930 for the death year of 1929
Now press the Search button to see what is available on FamilySearch.
When I search for Zula, FamilySearch offered the following record hints:
3 death records
1 Find A Grave record
1910 US Census
1920 US Census
Death record for a possible spouse named John
Death record for a possible child named Grayson
The possible spouse name of John and a child named Grayson might jump out of you. You know that Zula is your great-grandmother and had a child named Grayson. Now, it's time to get more serious with your genealogy research methods. In fact, why don't you use my free genealogy research plan to record your process?
What happens if Google and FamilySearch Strike Out?
No worries, you can still move on to step three. Step 2 was just to find out if any work was already completed for you.
Step 3: Develop a Quality Research Question
Based on what you know from step 1 and what you discovered in step 2, it's time to focus on one question. Experienced family historians have more success when they focus on one specific question at a time.
Research that one question until you have resolved it.
Discover the three common types of research questions in this video.
In the video above and the blog post Developing Quality Research Questions, I walk you through the three types of genealogy investigations. We're going to focus on possible questions based on the results for Zula above. You might wonder:
Where was my ancestor born?
Who was her spouse(s)?
Who were her parents?
Where did she live in childhood or as an adult?
What was their economic status?
How many children did she have?
What religion did she practice?
Rank such questions in order of interest, and then pick one to put in your genealogy research plan. This action will help ensure that you methodically climb your family tree.
Step 4: Organize Your Research and Discoveries On FamilySearch
When you find a fact or record that documents your ancestor, where should you keep that information? Should you add everything to a research log? Should you write the details in pre-printed forms?
I would actually advise you to add your discoveries to the FamilySearch family tree and make notes in your research plan.
Not only can you keep your research organized, but the computer algorithm will begin scouring the FamilySearch databases looking for additional records that might document your relative. In short, you get a free genealogy research assistant!
As you attach sources to a person on FamilySearch, you will be asked to complete a box with a title similar to "Reason This Information is Correct." If you have trouble explaining why you think a record belongs to your ancestors, I have an entire series focused on helping you write better reason statements on FamilySearch. Begin with this one, Guiding Principles for Writing Reason Statements.
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Step 5: Evaluate the Your Search Results
Before you attach a possible record for your ancestor, you first need to evaluate it. Does the source actually document your relative?
To learn the basic principles of evaluating records, I have written the following posts:
If you're a beginning genealogist, you might make several mistakes, which this post, Don't Make These Mistakes While Climbing Your Family Tree, will help you avoid.
One of the strategies that professional genealogists use to investigate for their clients is to know what records answer their questions and whether those records existed for the time and place they are researching. The FamilySearch Wiki can help you gain some insights that experienced genealogists have.
However, as you piece together the clues from all of your records, you want first to add notes to your genealogy research plan. But you might also want to leverage a few research tools, including
Using this simple research method to tackle a difficult research ancestor, you may quickly learn about their entire life story. Or, you might discover you have a genealogy brick wall. In that case, then you will want to learn how I researched my own brick wall ancestor step-by-step.
Best of luck climbing the tree of someone with whom you know very little. May you soon find out much more.