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Getting Back to Basics

In our zeal to research our families, sometimes we forget that the best path for research is often not a straight line. However, the tangents that one is able to veer off on when researching means that if we are not careful to keep track of where we've been, we may not end up where we would like to be.


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In our zeal to research our families, sometimes we forget that the best path for research is often not a straight line. However, the tangents that one is able to veer off on when researching means that if we are not careful to keep track of where we've been, we may not end up where we would like to be.

How do you ensure that your research stays on the beaten path? The next time you are stuck in a phase of your research ask yourself these questions:

1. Do I have all vital records and have I accounted for the ones that I do not have?

It seems like an obvious question, but one most people have not answered. Vital records—birth, marriage, and death—are available from a multitude of sources. There are civil registrations at the town, county, or state level; religious registrations at the town where the ceremony took place; family Bible records; compiled genealogies; historical journals like the New England Historic Genealogical Register that have transcribed records; regional collections such as the Corbin Collection for western Massachusetts; and the list goes on and on.

There are cases where there is no information for your ancestor except a guesstimate of when they were born or were married or died. However, the conclusions drawn to make that guesstimate were based on something, even if that something was as vague as your ancestor appeared in the 1910 census with their spouse, and in 1920 the spouse was listed as a widow. Do not discount the value of negative results when researching your family. Documenting this type of information is crucial to prevent repeating the same research over and over again.

2. Have I investigated the vital records of ALL the children of my ancestor?

Broadening the search to include all the vital records for all the children can highlight many things including migration patterns if the children were born in different towns or states. One of the children's birth records could indicate the place of birth of the parent. Some researchers are stunned to find the children may have different mothers. Clues to the financial situation of the family may be noted in the change of occupation for the father listed on the birth records. Marriage records both civil and religious can also be a wealth of information. Witnesses listed in a religious marriage return may be related to either the bride or groom. Knowing who the children later married will also help you when dealing with the next set of records: probate.

3. Have Iinvestigated the probate records for my ancestor, including spouse and children who were alive at the time of his/her death?

When someone dies, whether testate or intestate, there are heirs to the estate. Intestate estates many times have more information as all related individuals appear to try to obtain a part of the estate. Check not only for the deceased's name in the probate indexes, but for the spouse as well, particularly if there were minor children involved. The spouse may have applied for guardianship for the minor children and their portions of the estates that would be held for them until they were of age. When the children reached their majority, the case would be settled producing another court record. If they were female, another record may be produced using the husband's name once she married. If the spouse of the deceased was the step-parent, the children may have been sent to live with relatives who would have filed guardianship papers for them. It is a good idea to check within 20 years of the death of an ancestor to cover everything that may have happened within the family over time.

4. Have I traced the family through all the applicable census records, both Federal, state and city?

If you have located your ancestor in the 1850 census and suspect he died in the 1880s, have you traced him through all the relevant censuses in between? Are you sure? Check out the neighbors of your relatives. Many times these neighbors grow up to be the spouses of their children. They can also be the co-workers and witnesses to baptisms, marriages, wills, and other life events. Check the locations of adult children; oftentimes after one parent died, the other went to live with one of the children. State censuses that were taken less frequently than their Federal counterparts can lessen that ten year gap by five years in some cases. Massachusetts had a state census in 1855 and 1865. The city of Boston had six city censuses between 1820 and 1855.

5. Have I looked through every year of city directories for my ancestor?

City directories are a great way to track the movement of a family and often list the deaths of residents at the end of the directory, and where residents went or where they came from. Although it can be tedious, tracking your ancestor through every year of city directories can yield other treasures such as relatives who came to stay for a year and left. Of course, the year that they were there was not a census year!< p>


Keeping your research on track means thoroughly investigating ALL sources even though it seems like no new information will be found or that it is not worth the effort. If you are not looking at every document for every year that it is available, you are missing out on many clues that can help you locate your ancestors and help you leap over those brick walls.

Good Luck!

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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