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Focusing ancestral research yields better results

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 23, 2013 at 11:19 PM

Family historians love to hear from distant cousins searching for a common ancestor.

Many of us, at some point, will hear from someone asking, "Can you send me everything you have on my great-grandfather Joe Smith?"

Such a question is a signal that this is a new or untrained researcher, and more experienced genealogists might ignore such a broad request. (I would hope we all take the time and have the patience to educate and work with this newfound relative.)

Asking good research questions is a learned skill, and it starts at the very beginning.

Many people head into their genealogical quests with a determination to "do my family history." An ambitious goal like that almost always guarantees frustration and failure. Focus, on the other hand, can lead to surprises and success.

Every person initially has two lines: paternal through the father and maternal through the mother. Each line splits with each generation, and each split adds another surname to the research list.

A wise researcher will pick one line and stick with it as far as possible before starting another. That doesn't mean good information about another line should be ignored; instead, it should be stowed away for future use. Stay on track with the current project before embarking on a new one.

When research focuses on one line, it will continue methodically backward through many generations, one generation at a time. That can be daunting, however, if the researcher is unable to formulate good questions to keep the work focused and directed toward logical places to find specific answers.

For example if the question is, "What year was my great-grandfather John Whiddon born?" the researcher won't waste time looking at records that will not provide a date of birth. For the sake of simplicity, assume the researcher knows when John died and where he is buried in Alabama.

To find John Whiddon's birth date, the researcher develops a plan of logical places to search. It might look something like this:

1. Visit the cemetery where John is buried. His tombstone likely will have a date of birth and date of death. Take photographs of the tombstone.

2. Determine when the state of Alabama began keeping birth and death records. If his date of death falls after the state began keeping records, order the certificate. (Most death certificates have the person's date of birth, but the information is provided by a secondary source. So the search for an original birth record, or other information to corroborate the birth date, should continue.)

3. Begin with the 1930 census and look for John Whiddon in each decade. (A census will not give a full date of birth, but information from different censuses allows researchers to piece together indirect evidence to get an approximate date of birth.)

4. Try to locate a family Bible where dates of birth, marriage and death usually were recorded. (Be sure to look at the Bible's publication date to determine whether it was published before the event dates entered by the family. That will indicate whether a date of death was entered at the time of the actual event or several years later. Dates entered long after an event aren't as reliable as those entered contemporaneously.)

5. John Whiddon could have been of age to serve in the Civil War. Check Alabama's military pensions to see whether he applied; officials would have asked for a date of birth.

6. Determine if the area had a newspaper at the time of his death and check for an obituary that might give the date and place of his birth.

Once a researcher has formulated specific questions, he can approach other researchers with the same questions. Then he's more likely to get a response that he probably would not have gotten with a wide-open request for "everything you have."

With good focus, researchers can connect and exchange very specific questions and perhaps even become research partners.

Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Getaway, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or stmoody0720@


mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching specific individuals.

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