Thanks to everyone who commented on my previous post about slavery and slaveowners. If anything, it kicked off some great discussions and dialogue about the country’s worst and most contentious period of history. I’ll leave that topic with one quote from one of our greatest slavery historians, Ira Berlin:
No understanding of slavery can avoid these themes: violence, power, and the usurpation of labor for the purpose of aggrandizing a small minority . . . The murders, beatings, mutilations, and humiliations, both petty and great, were an essential, not incidental, part of the system. [emphasis is mine]
Today I want to talk about something that I constantly stress to researchers. I say it a lot: you’ve got to learn methodology. But what do I mean when I say that? What is methodology and how does it relate to genealogy? When I say it, I mean take the time to learn “how to use the records.” In genealogy, we use many different types of records, but there are are many ways to use each kind of record. And there are a set of best practices that optimize your use of the records.
Let’s take a few simple examples. You may find your ancestor on a census, and gather relationships, marital status, occupation, ages, etc. That’s one way to “use” the census. But another way—another method—is to use it to recreate your family’s “FAN club”–their Family, Associates and Neighbors. This is the principle that cluster research utilizes. People usually married people who lived nearby, so if you refocus your efforts on the community at large, you stand a better chance of identifying spouses and parents of individuals. You can take also the census, which identifies landowners, and pull deed records for those landowners in order to plot the land on a modern map. This is again taking the information from the census a step further. You can look at migration patterns in the census—what states are people coming from? What states were the children in the family born in and what states does it say their parents were born in?
For probate records, you may look for a will and if none exists for an individual, you may think your work there is done. But what about looking for records of people who died intestate, without a will? What about looking for probate records of extended family members, neighbors and in-laws? What about looking at probate guardianship records to discover people’s ages? What about using estate distributions to discover the relationships of people where none is given?
Like the old adage says, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and some of my best discoveries have been made by using traditional records in multiple ways. I have used deed records to find out a married woman’s full name, and I have used them to find out when a man took a new wife when marriage records did not. I have used vital records to research cemeteries and I have used census records to show that a woman’s name on her marriage record was incorrect.
As mentioned above, I also use “methodology” to mean that you know and use genealogy best practices. That you know the importance of and use source citations and that you know the difference between an original and derivative source and the importance of examining all relevant evidence. That you know how to analyze evidence. That you understand that most genealogy research still takes place in person at archives, libraries and courthouses. Do you know how to pull every piece of evidence from every source? Do you use all those other columns on the census that can help you? Can you extract all the information possible from a probate or deed record? Do you check the instructions given to the enumerators so that you are clearly interpreting each census year? Do you have an artificial brick wall?
These are just a few examples, but I hope they hint at how important methodology will become to your research once you get past what I call the “low-hanging fruit” of easy discoveries. That’s usually the first year or two.
Learning genealogy methodology takes a conscious effort by reading genealogy how-to books and blogs, taking classes, on or offline, attending learning conferences and reading case studies of how others solve problems. All of these expand your skills, give you new ideas on how to attack those real brick walls and enable you to notice bits and pieces of evidence that you may have previously overlooked. EVERYONE involved in serious research needs to have books like The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy by Val Greenwood, Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills, and The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy by Loretto Dennis Szucs in their personal libraries. These types of books (and others) will teach you good methodology. Some are huge books, but you can get used ones for great prices. *Absolutely everyone* should have the newest book out on Genealogy Standards. It’s easy to read and simplified and designed for everyone, not just professional genealogists.
I have a somewhat new philosophy that finding genealogical information for others does not really help them. It’s nice, and in some instances I will do it out of my own curiosity. The problem is, it doesn’t teach others how to research themselves—it doesn’t help them to develop their own skills. They often just return when they’re stuck again and ask someone to help them solve the next problem. Now, I try to give clues—to give hints—to encourage people to find the answer themselves. So instead of pulling a census record someone else couldn’t find, I might say, Have you tried alternate spellings? Have you searched the neighboring counties? Have you searched for just the names of the children?
I believe there is a much sweeter satisfaction to this research when you make discoveries independently. It also helps to belong to a group of others who are researching their families–it will keep you inspired.
Another word that comes up pretty often and is related to methodology is “strategy.” What is your approach to a particular problem? Do you have a research plan? Most of us can easily get lost in researching records, especially online, and then a few weeks later, we can’t remember what we already looked for. Write down a plan of attack–it doesn’t have to be complicated. For example, there are several well-known strategies for finding the last slaveowner (LS) of a former slave. One is to search for any slaveowners nearby with the same surname. But we know that some slaves did and some did not carry the surname of the last LS. So, another strategy is to find landowning slaveowners living nearby of any surname. Yet another strategy is to research whites who had associations with the family in freedom, like those who sold the family land. And so on.
When I suggest to someone stop and they read a certain book or two if they are just starting, it sometimes takes all the excitement out of the research process. But taking the time to learn these things will save you time–years–that some of us only wish we could get back. It will make your research more efficient; you won’t spend time spinning your wheels in a direction that is unlikely to pay off. I wish these books had been available when I first started researching. I didn’t know a hoot about source citations, and I didn’t know didley about how to conduct an oral interview. I can’t get those people or that time back. I remember distinctly pulling pension records for men who ended up being white simply because I didn’t know that only those listed in the index cards as serving in the Colored Troops were likely to be African-American men. Oh the stories I could tell.
So, here’s a link to my list of recommended books. I’ve also posted a list of my favorite slavery-related journal articles. Start building your library.
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.
This is very helpful and also confirms that my idea of using census an vital records to find who else is buried in two cemetaries that no one seems to be able to locate just might work! I also recently used marriage records to determine what year my 2x great grandmother transitioned so that I could obtain the swath certificate.
Thanks so much for your detailed post. I am just a beginner following up on my Mom’s research. Mom traced our roots back to 1822 in Newberry County South Carolina i@1985…before the internet. As a newbie I will admit to being mesmerized by the internet but I soon learned that is just a start. As you stated just getting the primary documents will reveal starting facts and verify oral history. For example I had always heard my uncle died of “bad blood” the doctors did not know it was sickle cell anemia. Sure enough when I received the official death certificate there was sickle cell anemia listed as the official cause of death. Now the next question what is his real name? Abraham or Rufus