The Question You Need to Ask When You’re Stuck on Your Genealogy

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.

[bctt tweet=”If you can’t articulate what it is you’re trying to find, chances are you won’t find it.”]

Genealogy and Road Trips

road-mapI 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.

The question you need to ask when you're stuck on your genealogy

Posted: November 5, 2015.

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  • I enjoyed reading your suggestions. I am trying to find a missing link to connect our Gulluscio family from the U.S. to those in Italy. I have created a spreadsheet with more than 400 names between 1800 to 1900, in Italy, connecting many ancestors to one another but can’t get find how to connect us with them.

    • I would suggest focusing first on the family in the U.S. Find all you can about them — civil records, church records, obits, etc. Identify their neighbors, so you get a sense of the community. Those neighbors were often related somehow or, at least, neighbors back in the old country as well.

  • I suspect an anglicized version of a German name is the reason for my brick wall. Any suggestions?
    I have marriage certificates for two brothers each with different names for the parents and which are all different from what family members had told me. Ugh!

    • My best advice is to keep paying attention to the variations of the names in the records, as well as paying attention to the other people around them. Who are the godparents when the children are being baptized? Who is witnessing their wills and deeds?

      How “different” are the parents’ names on the brothers’ marriage records? Is it a matter of a spelling variation or nickname or is it vastly different? If the names are vastly different, are you sure they’re brothers? (Just throwing that out there 🙂 )

      • Thanks or your ideas. An obit lists them as brothers and since I haven’t been able to locate any records before their NYC marriages I thought maybe there was a name change. Oh well, I guess this is what makes the process fun or at least
        rewarding when you finally make a break through!

        • Have you looked in city directories?

          I agree completely about the process — it feels so good when the pieces all come together!

        • I was told when I was first starting out not too put complete faith in the information contained in death certificates. The sam could be said of obituaries. Death notices, certificates and obit are all obviously written AFTER the person died! So the information used may be only what the writer knew about them heresay not necessarily facts unless they can be backed up by other sources.

          • All records are dependent upon the knowledge (and truthfulness!) of whoever gave the information. It’s always a good idea to gather more sources.

          • Thanks! The only pieces of information from the obituary that I am assuming are accurate are the name of the deceased’s daughter and brother there by linking the families. Do You think that it is too much to expect that the person writing the obituary would get that right?
            Dates and places of birth I could understand getting wrong but I figured I was safe relying on the accuracy of the names of family members as close as a daughter and brother. What do you think?

          • Generally speaking, I’d say that the children and siblings are accurate. I’ve seen cases where their names got butchered somewhere along the way, but by and large those relationships are usually accurate.

        • Hi, Pam – I have a great grandfather’s obit that lists a sister that was not blood-related… I believe she might have been taken in by my gg-grandparents… but not necessarily adopted.

  • Many of your thoughts here resonated with my own approach to researching my family history which is to try and focus on a question at a time. It’s for that reason that I spend a lot of time on the Genealogy and Family History Stack Exchange ( If you have not visited. I hope you will, to see whether you like its approach. There’s a good explanation of what differentiates it from discussion forums, bulletin boards and other Q&A sites at

  • My Husband’s Grandparents were to have met in an orphanage that, unfortunately, later burned down..destroying all of their records. Is this or is it not a brick wall?

    • It’s tough, but there could still be other records that could name their parents (if that’s what you’re looking for). Are there court records that would have been created either when they were placed in the orphanage or when they were adopted out?

  • I’m looking for my father’s 4th grand father. I have his child’s death certificate that states his mother’s name but for the father it says unknown. The child didn’t take his mother’s last name. I have looked at census, death, marriage and have come up with nothing.

    • Does child have any siblings? If so, have you looked at their birth, marriage, and death records. What about court records? If the father was out of the picture, perhaps the mother sued for child support (yes, it happened back in the day). If the father died when the child was young, there could be probate records naming a guardian.

      • The child did have siblings, a brother and a sister. Could not find birth, death, marriage or probate records for the siblings. The only record I found was a marriage for the child but I didn’t name the child’s father just mother.