Getting an Answer to Your Genealogy Research Question
By Robin Foster
Many places like Genealogy! Just Ask! can help you get answers to your genealogy research questions. This does not work like magic, however, you could actually be standing in the way of the help you are seeking.
One found help, one did not
You cannot expect the person helping you to pull up the answer like a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat. Last night in the family history center, we were swamped. I had set an appointment to help someone find more information on his ancestor. Everyone knows this takes concentration, but I was able to answer the people who stopped us to ask quick questions and still focus. If the person whom I was helping was not prepared to provide answers to the clarifying questions I had, we would not have had the success we did.
We found a descendant of one of his ancestors who posted a death certificate on Find A Grave along with a photo. We found his ancestor on each consecutive census going back from 1930 to 1880. When he left after one hour, I knew enough about his ancestors for three generations that I did not need copies of the records he brought or the ones we found.
He brought in records to show me who he was searching for. I did not have to rely on his oral account. Another person in the center asked me for help the same night, but that person could not give me a starting place or a name of someone to start tracing ancestors for. There was not that much I could do to help, and not doing your homework is one thing that can keep you from getting help.
Be prepared to ask your question
Here are some basic principles for asking a genealogy research question that will ensure you have greater success:
Figure out what you already know. Make sure you base this knowledge on reliable records that can be proven like birth, marriage, and death records or the census. Any record could have errors, but you can usually find an additional record to prove or disprove a so-called reliable record.
Please do not take information from an index. Go to the original source to extract information. You may actually learn more.
Do not neglect asking relatives about what they have like funeral programs or obituaries or other records. Find out what they know too, but use reliable records to prove or disprove what they know.
Figure out what you want to learn. You can more easily do this if you have entered your information in some kind of database or chart. The blanks will be there for information that you do not know. Choose ONE thing at a time to research. When you ask a question to get help, focus on that one thing, and do not give more details than are needed.
Be ready to clarify what you know. When you ask Jan or me a genealogy research question, we will always seek to understand what you want to learn and what you already know. We will look at the resources you have used to see if something was missed or if we could suggest more resources. In this process, we may ask a lot of questions. Your answers will only help us help you.
Be open to suggestions about errors in your research. If you had no research errors or oversights, then you would have no brick walls. Jan and I are good at what we do. We cannot answer everything, but we have good friends who know the strategies and resources in their areas. We may discover something that you overlooked.
One big mistake that stumps people
One of the most common mistakes people make is not searching for every reliable record that exists to document a person before moving back to the previous generation. Records mention the generation that came before. Only move back to the record that can be proven to be your ancestor using other documentation. Do not jump ahead by looking around for records that say “John Smith” on them and find one that has a wife named Mary with a child with the same as your ancestor and try to prove it to be your ancestor. You would not believe how many records that might exist that only look like they tell about your ancestor.
When you run out of resources to prove another record or disprove another record, just ask!
If you cannot find even the first piece of documentation on your ancestor, just ask!
I cannot tell you the joy I have had as I have researched several of my lines. In most cases, I started with only oral history, but I have worked to find every piece of documentation that exists on each ancestor. I set out to prove or disprove stories that reached back to the 1800’s. I grew up knowing the stories, but I began my quest wanting historical records to document the people and stories. Many times when I have been stuck not knowing which way to look, a person’s name or place where they owned land or lived came into my mind while pouring over records. I would search the name in the right location, and there they would be plain as day. I have never taken an oral account verbatim, but they have been very useful to me in finding proof.
We can help you too, if you also are careful to do the best you can to be prepared to ask your question.