RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees No. 7 [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Frog RootsWeb's Guide to
Tracing Family Trees


Guide No. 7


What is the Question?

Tips for solving those brick-wall and other research problems




History Channel:
This Day in History Day in History


Today in History



The Learning Center:
Time Line of History




Quaker Corner


Other type record sources to check:

Church Records

Fraternal Organizations


City Directories and Newspapers


American Land Records


Court Records


Adoption and Orphans Records


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What is the Question?

Tips for solving those brick-wall (and other) research problems


"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."


SherlockGenealogy is part history and part mystery.
Genealogical research involves detective work and that is 99 percent of the fun for many of us. Once we learn the answer to one question, that answer opens new doors and often we find ourselves faced with a dozen new questions. There is no end to it. The more we learn, the more we want to know. Perhaps that is why many of us become so animated that the uninitiated look upon us in amazement — until their eyes begin to glaze over.

Push Pin 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 andBloodhound 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.

Push Pin 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.

Push Pin 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.

Push Pin "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.)

Push Pin 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.

Push Pin 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.

Push Pin 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?"

Push Pin 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.

Push Pin Military Records: Worldwide
Push Pin Military Records: USA

Push Pin 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?"

Push Pin Find the answers to those questions, access the records (not everything is online—use 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.

Push Pin 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.

Henry and Anne


What in the world was going on during your ancestors' lifetimes? Knowing about those historical events can help you find genealogical information about them. Remember genealogy and history are first cousins.

Cyndi's List
Historical Events &
People Worldwide


Effective Online Communication

Push Pin 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.

Push Pin 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.

Push PinOnline 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.

E-Mail ButtonClarity 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.

Push PinKeep these things in mind and you will discover that mailing lists, message boards, and e-mail exchanges will have more fruitful results.


Cranky LadyListen up: Certain pieces of information should be paramount in each and every query that you post. They are:

Push Pin Full names with maiden names for women—not just "my great-grandmother" (remember you have four of those).

Push Pin Dates for events (at least what is known or suspected) — "back in the 1800s" is way too broad a time frame; say ca (circa) 1885. You should be able to estimate some sort of a time frame for any ancestor you're researching. If you can't, back up a generation and do more research on those ancestors.

Push Pin Full place names (towns, counties, states and countries, where appropriate) — "came from Germany" or "went to Missouri" are not as good as saying "he sailed from Hamburg, Germany and arrived in New York in 1868." or "they lived in Mercer County, Missouri in 1870."
Spell out place names as your cousins in New Zealand might not be familiar with where Bugs Hollow, AR is located or what you mean by KC, John.Co.KS.

Push Pin Specific questions regarding your research — don't say "looking for anything or everything"; define exactly what event, date, or information you seek. Of course, you want to know everything; we all do, but focus on one goal at a time.

Push Pin Mention records already researched — this allows others to know you have checked censuses, vitals, passenger lists, etc., and prevents them from wasting their time and yours suggesting records that have been searched. Be sure to indicate if you checked an index, an abstract, a book, or the actual record.

Push Pin Offer to share and exchange information. Don't just ask for information — share what you have. You might have the missing piece to the family puzzle.

Push Pin 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.

Push Pin 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

Push PinMiscellaneous Pages at RootsWeb
Push PinMessage Boards (by surnames, localities, and topics)
Push PinU.S. County Resources at RootsWeb



Books Suggested Reading
& References

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.




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Dot RootsWeb Guides to Tracing Family Trees are written & compiled by professional genealogists Julia M. Case, Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG & Rhonda McClure

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