Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 7
What is the Question?
Tips for solving those brick-wall and other research problems
Other type record sources to check:
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What is the Question?
Tips for solving those brick-wall (and other) research problems
Genealogy is part history and part mystery.
Enthusiastic beginning genealogists learn quickly that their family members, friends, and business associates are less than fascinated by their war stories. Someone once sneered as she commented; "You're the only person I know whose gossip is 100 years old." I had just related in gleeful triumph how I'd cracked the case of . . . well, never mind.
As we search for clues to unlock the past, almost by accident we learn much of the history of the time and place in which our ancestors lived. While it is not necessary to master the history of the world before beginning our research, the more we know at the start about conditions when and where our ancestors lived, the better able we are to think of ways to learn more. Thinking is key.
One of these days someone will look at you strangely and you'll realize that you've just been caught staring into space, working through possible solutions to the puzzle de jour.
So, what do you want to learn? At first you might ask "Did any of my ancestors perform military service?" That question is overly broad.
"Was great-great-great-grandfather ever a soldier?" That question doesn't identify the person, let alone provide information necessary to know where to look for records. (Also remember that a person's relationship to you is meaningless to everyone but you.)
Form the habit of referring to the subjects of your research by their full names and sufficient additional information, such as a date and place of birth, to distinguish them from others with the same name. Henry Grant (b. 1879 Georgia, d. 1935 Oklahoma) who married Jenny Henderson more clearly identifies YOUR ancestor. Your cousins might have several dozen Henry Grants in their databases; so make it easy for them to determine which one is yours.
What IS the question in this case? Let's try to work it out. Begin by making a timeline of the wars and other military conflicts in which the country of your ancestors was involved during the years you know they lived there. Next to that timeline, prepare another showing the years during which your male ancestors were of military age, approximately 18 to 45 but perhaps 16 or younger to 60 and older in the case of those defending their homes and communities.
Now, choose an ancestor, preferably the one your timeline demonstrates lived most recently and was of military age during a period that saw his nation involved in a war. Armed with his full name, the time frame, and knowledge that he might reasonably be expected to have performed military service, the questions become "what military records exist for that time and place?" and "what is their availability?"
In addition to major wars, conditions in a given time and place might have resulted in an ancestor's having seen other kinds of military or quasi-military service that could have generated records at a local level, perhaps in a court order book.
If your ancestors were Quakers or other conscientious objectors, records of fines paid for failure to report for military duty might exist in court records, so pay attention also to those who could reasonably be expected to have served but apparently did not, then think of places to look for possible answers to the question, "Why didn't they serve?"
Find the answers to those questions, access the records (not everything is onlineuse your libraries and archives), perform your diligent search, and either you will find what you are looking for or you won't. If you don't, you'll don your thinking cap and once again run the risk of being caught staring into space.
Narrowing down a broad and unanswerable question, and continuing to reduce it until you see what the fundamental question is, will be an approach you'll employ repeatedly in your research.
Effective Online Communication
Genealogists flock to the Internet much as they do to libraries. However, the strength of the Internet for genealogists is more in the people that are here than in the technology. It is in the volunteers that are uploading reams of information. It is in the message boards, Web home pages, mailing lists, and chats that are bringing cousins into contact like never before. Unfortunately, there are some disappointed researchers on the Internet they are the ones who expect to obtain instant genealogy. Successful information gathering requires that you will have to hone your research skills and learn not to expect instant answers to everything. The joy of genealogy is the fun of the research, putting all the puzzle pieces together, and finding cousins around the world not in how many names you can cram into your database.
Not finding information you seek? Hunting for your ancestors only by name is not the only way to find information about them. Perhaps you are not asking the right questions or have not yet learned to frame effectively your question so others can help you. It is surprising how unprepared we are for communicating via e-mail, mailing lists, and message boards. See: Posting an Effective Query.
Online global communication requires a give-and-take that is often not as necessary in other forms of written communication. We forget that those reading our messages cannot see the file folders of information that we have at an arm's reach away. When we write to cousins via traditional postal services, we often include family group sheets, pedigree charts, and other pages that provide details. When writing online, this is not usually an option, especially in mailing lists where a message is going to many who may not be interested in our particular branch of the tree. In an effort to keep things shorter, we tend to omit important pieces; or we go in the opposite direction and try to tell too much.
Clarity is imperative in online communication. This does not mean you need to send a 12-page e-mail message about your ancestor. It means be sure to include the important things: names, dates, and places pertinent to the question being posted. It also means giving a general idea of how much effort you have already put into the research of the problem and how long you have been searching this is especially true when you first join a mailing list or post a query on a message board. This gives those reading the message an idea of your level of expertise (beginner, experienced or advanced) plus an overview of the family in question.
Keep these things in mind and you will discover that mailing lists, message boards, and e-mail exchanges will have more fruitful results.
Follow these guidelines and you will be pleasantly surprised with the results and help you receive from others. Remember that asking for folks to send you everything they have on the SMITHs and requesting instant responses will not endear you to your cousins who may have the information you seek. Don't be unreasonable or greedy. Most genealogists are quite willing to exchange information and share their data, but it is a two-way affair, and the well-mannered researcher is the one who will be rewarded.
Learning to ask the right questions will open treasure chests filled with golden gems of your family's history.
Don't overlook these Resources at RootsWeb
Barraclough, Geoffrey (editor). The Times Atlas of World History. (London: Times Books Limited, 1978).
Burne, Jerome (editor). Chronicle of the World. (London: Chronicle Communications Ltd. and Longman Group UK Ltd., 1989).
Kirshon, John W. (editor-in-chief). Chronicle of America. (Mount Kisco, New York: Chronicle Publications, Inc., no date).
Langer, William L. An Encyclopedia of World History (fifth edition). (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, no date).
The Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FHL) has published Research Guides for many countries and for all U.S. states. Printed copies of these specific Research Guides may be ordered for a small fee (about $1 each). At its website, choose ORDER/DOWNLOAD PRODUCTS tab at the top, then select RESEARCH GUIDES.