June 1939, Tennessee

(You can download a copy of this article here)

I spend a fair amount of time at Reclaiming Kin posting “mini-lessons” about genealogy skillbuilding, particularly regarding sources and research strategies. Many of these lessons tie back to what I call my ten “key” genealogy principles.

I did not invent them, but they are the principles that always guide my research.

Our goal is to document the lives of our ancestors, but we need to be careful and meticulous in that task or we risk conveying erroneous information. That’s what skillbuilding is all about.

Census Records

Census records form much of the skeleton of our research, and they are a favorite topic here. I hope to encourage us all to be diligent about extracting every clue from each census.

We don’t want to fall into the habit of just copying names and ages and missing the valuable clues buried in those other census columns.

1870 Census

The census is well known for its inaccuracies, especially regarding age. Even a small mistake in a census can cause us to miss whole branches of our family tree.

How we counter that as researchers is to use the census along with information gathered from other sources.

As a general statement, we should never fully trust any source independently. All sources, even original sources, can be wrong. Only by correlating and comparing the information found all the relevant sources can we begin to arrive at accurate reconstruction of our families.

Census records are filled with traps and tricks. For example, we have to be careful about what I call the 1880 census “donut” hole—the 20 year gap between the 1880 and 1900 censuses.

Family members can be missed entirely when a child is born after 1880 and is living out of the household by 1900. We also cannot assume the wife in a census household is the mother of all the children.

The relationships provided in a census (after 1870) are only to the head of the household. We must verify the wife’s relationship to the children in the household separately using other sources. Obituaries, death certificates or deed records may state her relationship.

Vital and Other Records

Vital records come in a close second to census records in terms of genealogy research. Part of building our skills is learning how to deeply analyze each type of source. This is why we need a good genealogy reference library (here are two books we should have).

In one post, I provide an example of deeply analyzing a death certificate.

William Barnes Death cert

Death certificates are a tricky source since quite a bit of information they contain is secondary. (I just dropped some genealogy terminology with that word ‘secondary.’ We have to learn the language that genealogists use and what the implications are for our research)

Reclaiming Kin discusses other common sources genealogists rely upon:

World War Draft Registrations
Marriage Records
Land Records
Probate Records
Family Photographs (dating and scanning/storing)
Court Records
Bible Records
Oral History

Little-Used Sources

Reclaiming Kin also includes many posts about what I call little-used sources (Perhaps I should say lesser-used). These sources may not have as wide the applicability of other sources, but are also worth taking the time to explore. These include:

Published Family Histories
Petition for Letters
University Theses and Dissertations
Bastardy Records
Historic Trust Inventories
The Application for a Marriage License
Southern Claims Commission Records
Ancestor’s College Records
Extension Service Records
Family Postcards
Genealogical and Historical Societies
Fall in Love with Libraries Again
Digital Library on American Slavery
The Artifacts of Our History Part 1
Voter Registration Records
Convict Records
Account Books
Records of Antebellum Slave Plantations
Sharecroppers in Deed Records
Rosenwald Schools

Our Research Process

John and Mary’s Children

Just as important as the quality and breadth of the sources we use is our research process. When we first begin genealogy research, we should interview the elders in the family as soon as possible.

Don’t wait until you can visit in person. Call them on the phone. I can’t tell you how many people passed away before I could get to them in person.

Although oral history is important, memory is fallible and imperfect. Like any other source, we cannot accept every statement as gospel. We’ve got to verify the oral history.

Core to developing a good research process is understanding how and why we need to properly cite our sources. I did not understand this early on and I paid the price, since today I have no idea where many of those early records came from.

Proving identity is a key concept. How do we know the David Jones in Montgomery County, Maryland is the same David Jones who was born in Adams County, Pennsylvania?

We cannot just assume since they have the same name and are of the same age, that they are the same person. Identity is much more than just name.

In my earlier years of research, I often just assumed someone died, when often the person had migrated to another area. I have now learned not to jump to that conclusion.

It will inevitable that we will eventually get stuck but we should most genealogical problems are not brick walls. They are simply problems we haven’t done enough work on yet to solve. Many of our toughest problems, in my experience, will take years of research, not weeks or months. Be patient.

Stay Organized

Once we start gathering records, it’s very easy to become overwhelmed. Paper and files and folders stack up quickly. Don’t underestimate the power of disorganization to blunt our research entirely.

Reclaiming Kin contains posts that discuss research processes to help with organization and analysis. These include creating charts, using census trackers and creating tables to sort people with the same name.

I know firsthand the excitement of searching for new records. However, we have to stop gathering sources at some point and start trying to understand and do the analysis on what we already have.

Writing up your research is a great way to do this. Writing forces us to clarify our thoughts, and place events in context. It makes it easier to see where the gaps are in our research.

Specific research questions should always guide our research. For example, “Who were the children of David and Amy King of Nashville, Tennessee?”

The questions are important because they help to focus our research on the sources most likely to help us answer the question.

Questions also prevent us from searching randomly and haphazardly, which often simply leads to frustration. That frustration can cause people to give up their research entirely and declare a brick wall.

Research Strategies

Matilda Marriage

Our ancestor’s activities can bedevil us when we aren’t conscious of our assumptions. Some married two or three times, and present-day descendants may have no knowledge of previous marriages or children.

Affairs of the past (literally) may have resulted in other children. Brushes with the law, stints in prison, or even murders in the family may not have been passed down, for obvious reasons. People carried shame about many life experiences.

Our ancestors may have stayed in one place their entire lives, only to move with their children in their elder years.  Thinking through what would have been commonplace or likely at each stage of a person’s life can help guide us.

Instead of just researching our direct ancestors, we must broaden our scope and research each generation of our family, including all the siblings.

Siblings remembered different things about their parents. The information you need may be in the records of an aunt, cousin, or great-uncle.

Expand your research lens to the community where your ancestors lived, and you will often find them surrounded by their relatives. This is why using the research strategy often referred to as “cluster research” is so successful.

April 1930

Cluster research is the concept that researching the group of people associated with our ancestors will lead to greater success.

Using cluster research, I found one ancestor’s sister and discovered the parents and origins of another. I have followed the witness in genealogical sources and found relatives.

Cluster research can be utilized in a wide range of sources and can be applied to all sorts of problems. It has been, for me, my single most successful research strategy.

Online Research

The Internet provides instant access to records and has been a boon to genealogists. But it also has drawbacks. The search box means fewer people will view the document image and other original records in search of ancestors.

You will miss so much important information when you overly depend upon the search box.

Beginners often do not realize that using sites like Ancestry.com require that we do more work to understand the underlying sources of their large databases.

Moreover, most sources are not and will not be available online. Success in genealogical research depends upon your willingness to go out and explore cemeteries, state archives, local libraries, and genealogical and historical societies.

Many of their records can only be discovered in person.

When we find indexes, transcriptions and abstracts online, we must to be in the habit of reviewing the original source. The transcriber or indexer may have made a copying mistake.

The original source may have more clues the discerning researcher can glean. Every clue counts. This requires that we either visit a repository in person or write and pay for a copy of the original source. Sometimes we may need to hire a researcher to retrieve a record for us (which I have done many times).

Closing Thoughts

Genealogy is a learned skill that improves with study and application. After 20 years, I am still taking lectures, attending conferences, and reading journal articles and genealogy books.

Reading is not as exciting as the big discoveries we have in research (like this DNA bombshell), but that’s how you improve.  I suggest it to every beginner. I’m continually learning from other researchers and I encourage everyone to do the same.

Genealogy has brought such joy to my life. The things I have learned about not just my family, but also the communities they created has been soul satisfying.

I’ve met many new cousins along the way and thought more deeply about history in general.

I’ve got a sneaky feeling that this feeling is not mine alone.

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