The Genealogy Research Process: The WANDER Method

Have you ever felt lost in your genealogy research? Running into brick walls, falling down rabbit holes, following the latest “bright shiny object”? If so, it’s time to take a look at what the research process really is and how you can use the WANDER method to stay on the right path.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 40

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 14 minutes.


The Genealogy Research Process

Much of genealogy focuses on the finding and evaluation of records. But if our underlying process for finding answers to our questions is flawed, we’re going to end up frustrated.

Genealogy research isn’t a matter of just getting more and more records. The drive to continually add more records leads us to going down rabbit holes, only to surface later with not much more than a bunch of downloaded records and piles of photocopies.

The genealogy research process usually isn’t a straight line. It isn’t just “find records → fill in the blanks.”

So if the research process isn’t just going in a straight line, gathering records along the way, what is it?

The WANDER Method

My family used to vacation at a lake in northern Michigan. The owners of the cabins where we stayed lived at the top of a wooded hill; there was a trail that led from the house down to the lake. You couldn’t even see the lake from the house. The trail twisted and turned through the woods until finally you down at the lake. It wasn’t the shortest way down to the cabins, but it was the easiest and fastest. (No fallen trees to climb over or old creek beds to fall into.)

So it is with the genealogy research process. Rather than it being a straight line, it’s more like that trail through the woods. The research wanders… not in the sense of being lost, but in the sense that it takes an indirect path.

WANDER is also an acronym that I’ve come up with to help describe the genealogy research process:

  • What do you want to find?
  • Analyze what you already have
  • Note what is missing
  • Discover new records
  • Evaluate everything
  • Repeat as necessary

What Do You Want to Find?

One of the most common mistakes in genealogy research is diving in without a goal in mind. Make sure that you start with a question. What do you want to find? Are you trying to find your great-great-grandmother’s maiden name? Are you trying to find when and where she died? Are you trying to figure out who her parents were? Each of those questions will lead you down a different path. Without a question, you quickly become lost because you don’t know what point you’re aiming for.

Analyze What You Already Have

This can be thought of “What do you know and how do you know it?” Before you go off looking for more records, analyze what you already have. It might turn out that you already have the answer waiting in your notes. Going back through your previous research will also help you get more “grounded” in what you really do know. Sure, you may have added Robert as William’s father on your ancestor chart, but does your research really back you up on that?

Note What Is Missing

As you’re analyzing what you already have and you have a question in mind, make note of what is missing that could help you solve the problem. If you’re looking for Susan’s maiden name, do you have her birth record, her death record, and all of her marriage records?

This is also the time to note improvements that you can make to your records. For example, if the documentation that you have for Susan’s marriage is from a book published by the local genealogical society, you could look for the actual marriage record.

Discover New Records

Now we can start looking for new records! Keep an eye out for alternative or complementary records. If you find the civil marriage record and it lists a minister as the officiant, look for a corresponding church marriage record.

Evaluate Everything

It probably isn’t a surprise that evaluating sources needs to be part of the research process. In addition to evaluating those new sources for accuracy, evaluate them against what you already have. Are there any conflicts or discrepancies? If so, you’ll need to resolve them.

That brings us to the last phase, which is…

Repeat as Necessary

Research is rarely a straight line. If you haven’t answered your original question, then go back to whatever phase you need to. You might need to discover new records. You might need to analyze all of your research again and identify other gaps in what you have. It’s possible that you’ll have to ask a new question in order to answer the first one. (This happens a lot when we have conflicting information and we have a theory. It also happens when we have a question that isn’t going to be answered by a single document.)

How the WANDER Method Can Help You as a Researcher

When I presented the WANDER Method to members inside the Generations Connection membership, one of them said, “Your WANDER method seems like something we inherently know, but just don’t use it effectively. This class reinforces the ideas.”

Taking a step back and thinking about the genealogy research process — not just discovery of records and not just evaluation — can help us focus our efforts, lessen our frustration, and make more discoveries in our family history. The WANDER Method gives us a path to follow so we don’t get lost.


Posted: January 17, 2020.

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  • Taking a step back is a good idea. For me recently, this meant re-reading an 80 page probate document I found in the beginning of my research four years ago. I’ve found out so much since then, that the re-reading revealed new avenues of specific info to follow up on – namely two specific pieces of property named in the probate. The first time I read the document, I wasn’t concentrating on this – I was looking for minor children names and birth and death dates.

  • I agree with the Wander method and have found it useful. Genealogy is like being a cold case detective. Rarely is your intuition completely accurate and the dots don’t usually allign. I have to develop theories and pursue each to see if it is true or false. Along the way I find things that support a theory or are of such significance that it leads me to adapt and revise. The problem is often getting too deeply on a rabbit trail and forgetting the initial objective. But therein lies the fun. Sorry for too many mixed metaphors:)

    • One of the things that I like about WANDER is that when we keep the main question in mind, it can help us avoid those rabbit holes. Yes, we’ll have additional questions come up as we “Repeat as necessary” while we’re working through some theories. But if we remember why we’re asking those questions, it can really help keep us on track.

  • Love this thank you. Been getting into Gene for a while off and on. Now that I’m retired, will be getting certified and go deep into MacLean family tree. Spent a few months in Nova Scotia Canada gathering records, made some progress. My grandfather and his family came down from Canada into Maine USA. Mac Mclean