Following a repeatable process to guide our genealogy research can make all the difference in how successful our we are. The always-waiting alternative is burial among all the papers and files that accumulate over the years.Nobody wants that.
There are so many things I wish I could whisper to my 1997 self when I first set out on this path. I did some things “right,” like interviewing relatives and reading everything related to genealogy I could get my hands on.
The Waters Family
All of our research should start with specific research questions. These questions help us to create a focused plan of attack, and help us to focus on records likely to hold the answers we need.
The wonderful photo below my great-grandfather Daniel George Waters, born in 1875 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in Somerset County. He was a minister with the Methodist church, as was his grandfather and numerous other family members.
My father has told me many stories of Daniel, mostly how everybody was afraid of him because he was very stern. Looking at this photo, I believe it!
I want to use an example from his family to illustrate how to formulate research questions.
The Curtis Family
While I have amassed plenty of information on Daniels’ paternal side, his mother’s side hasn’t been as productive. As a little background, Somerset County, Maryland had a large number of free blacks before state emancipation in 1864.
Daniel’s mother’s name, Mollie Curtis, was passed down via oral history. I found her in several census records with her husband Samuel Waters. Recently I found Mollie’s death certificate:
Her parents on the certificate above are named George and Maria Curtis. Fortunately, George lived to be 90 and I also found his death certificate:
This places George Curtis’ birth at ca. 1814. I was able to locate the family of George Curtis on the 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880 and 1900 census records for the county.
Now, while I’m pretty sure these are the right people (there are no other George Curtis’ who are black and free in that county at that time), I still have a lot of research to do.
What Specifically Are You Trying to Find?
That research begins by formulating questions. Here are several research questions I formulated based on the initial research into the Curtis family:
1) Does Manokin Cemetery, Somerset County, MD, have existing headstones or burial records?
2) What is the relationship, if any, of Clinton Collins, the informant on Mollie’s death certificate?
3) Mollie is listed as a widow; does a death certificate exist for her husband Samuel Waters?
4) What is the relationship, if any, of George Hill, the informant on George Curtis’ death certificate?
5) Mollie was born ca. 1859 according to this record; was she recorded as a free black in the freedom certificates of the county?
6) Were George and his wife Maria recorded as a free blacks in the freedom certificates of the county?
7) How did Mollie Waters obtain her freedom?
8) How did George Curtis obtain his freedom?
9) What was the maiden name of George Curtis’ wife, Maria?
10) When did George Curtis marry his wife Maria?
11) Is there a death certificate for Maria Curtis?
12) Are the family of George and Maria Curtis found in the records of the local black church?
13) Did John Curtis (white), with whom George Curtis is living in the 1850 and 1860 census, own and later free George Curtis?
I’m sure I’ll have more over time, but notice how specific the questions are.
Each question builds upon the others, and allows me to gather the information I seek in a focused way. For some questions, I may be unable to find the answer.
Some will take more research than others. Those “negative” results should also be recorded (i.e., when your search did not find anything useful).
I will use my knowledge of the available records for Maryland in general and Somerset County in particular. That will allow me to compile a list of repositories and records I need to search to find the answers.
Have you created specific genealogy research questions? Tell me in the comments if you’ve been practicing this already? If not, choose an ancestor give it a try.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
I think developing focus is essential and admit for me it’s difficult to achieve. I may too often let myself “off the hook” by suggesting there is a method to my madness.
The photo is wonderful. I’m not sure how old George is…20-ish? I become emotional thinking about the circumstances of our ancestors having their photos taken. Today, this just happens. I imagine how they made a conscious decision, saved money, carefully selected clothes, sat without moving for a ‘long’ time and WAITED, WAITED, WAITED to see the photo and likely got only one or maybe two.
I would suggest that researchers not overlook the writing in the corners of the photos. The writing advertises the location of where the photo was taken. I was waiting in an Apple Store for an iPhoto workshop. I spent time looking at a photo of my 4ish year old grandmother who was born in 1904. I noticed the business address in the corner and realized the photo was taken in the exact same building I was currently sitting in. Some photographers work is archived in local historical societies and museums. You might find more. See…this is the kind of thing that that sets me off!! So instead, I should just add it to my list! Thanks for the post.