Have you ever been stuck on your genealogy? It’s ok if you have. It happens to everyone at some point. Whether it’s a brick-wall problem or simply not knowing where to look next, it can be frustrating when we feel like we’re not making any real progress.
Before you throw your hands up in despair, there is one question you need to ask.
A friend and I were discussing this the other day. I asked her what she thought the question was. “Have I reviewed my notes?” “Have I tried variant spellings?” “Do I have a timeline?” Those are all great questions, but they’re all follow-up questions to the one you need to ask.
The question you need to ask when you’re stuck is:
“What is it I’m trying to find?”
That one question will frame everything else.
Why You Have to Ask
Asking “What is it I’m trying to find?” doesn’t sound like much of a research question, but it forms the foundation for everything else.
There’s a scene I’ve seen played out countless times. Two people are talking about genealogy. It could be two friends, a librarian and a customer, or a speaker and an audience member. The scene goes like this:
Person 1: I am so stuck. Great-great-grandpa Starkey was born in Ohio and he died in Illinois. His daughter moved to Missouri. One of his sons fought in the Civil War. His second wife had been married before, but they didn’t have any kids together. I think they might have been Presbyterian. He was a farmer, but they say he also made coffins.
Person 2: Uh….
(Variation: Person 2 replies, “Is there a question in there?”)
Did you see what happened there? Person 1 has a lot of data and feels stuck. Person 2 can’t help because they don’t know what it is Person 1 wants.
Here’s the thing. If you can’t articulate what you’re trying to find. chances are you won’t find it.
Genealogy and Road Trips
I love road trips. Sometimes I get in the car with no particular destination in mind. When that’s the case, any road will do. But this doesn’t work with our genealogy.
When we have a destination in mind — when we know what it is we’re trying to find — we can get ideas about how to get there. When we don’t know where we want to go, we can wander around the back roads and take forever to get nowhere. The scenery might be pretty and we might find something just from luck, but we can also end up feeling like we didn’t accomplish much.
“What am I trying to find” as a Foundation
When we state what we’re trying to find, it sets the framework for our research. Thinking back to Person 1, maybe she wants to find his parents or where in Ohio he came from. Maybe she wants to identify his first wife or firm up her suspicion that the family was Presbyterian. Any of those questions are fine. She just needs to decide what her question is.
Let’s say that she wants to find his origins in Ohio. That makes me think of census records, his death record, obituaries, land records in Illinois (especially his first purchase of land there), and county histories.
That’s a bit different than if she’s trying to identify the first wife. Yes, I’d still look at those records for him (and for her if I have a first name to start with), but I’d also look at the children’s birth, marriage, and death records, as they could identify their mother. It’s a different research strategy based on what I’m trying to find.
Ask the Question
When you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed, take a step back. Breathe. Then ask yourself, “What is it I’m trying to find?’ The clearer you can get on that, the more focused your research will be.