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Basics of Research: Step 6 - Genealogy Detecting

DNA and fingerprints, crime scene photographs, opportunity, blood-spatter patterns, evidence and motive are steps in crime investigations. Just for fun, they can represent the actions in Step 6 of the research cycle, Searching Original Records, as well.


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DNA and fingerprints, crime scene photographs, opportunity, blood-spatter patterns, evidence and motive are steps in crime investigations. Just for fun, they can represent the actions in Step 6 of the research cycle, Searching Original Records, as well.

Like criminal detectives, genealogy detectives first want to precisely identify the one whose body lies on the living room rug or on the next line of the pedigree chart. This identification must belong to only one person of the billions who have lived. That kind of positive "I D" requires knowing plenty about an ancestor, especially those with common names like Mary Banks and George Ashton.

A criminal detective would use DNA testing, fingerprinting and dental records. Genealogy detectives use names, dates, places and relationships. Sometimes, researchers don't have enough data to positively "I D" an ancestor, so they must back up and flesh out his or her children until that person is clearly known.

Next, crime detectives ask: what happened? And they let the crime scene tell them. Genealogy detectives zero in on the "scene" as well. They discover what happened through death, marriage and birth records, in that order, and turn first to Vital Records to find them. For instructions on how to find Vital Records in the twentieth century, they look at or buy the pamphlet from the government printing office.

When did it happen? Detectives ask thirdly. The answer to this question determines who had the opportunity to commit the crime. Opportunity is important to genealogists too. For example, could Asa Smith be the father of Joel? No, he had no opportunity because Asa was only ten years old when Joel was born. And what about Elizabeth Allen mothering Abigail? Probably not, since Elizabeth died two years before Abigail was born.

But sometimes, odd things do happen. Joshua Perkins, age 28, married his cousin Mary, age 12, about 1756. Does this fit within the realm of possibility? Just barely.

Fourth, can the blood-splatter patterns reveal where the crime actually happened? Was the victim killed elsewhere and dumped here? In genealogy detecting, ask the same question: was the sought person in the place where someone with the same name died? Or married? Or gave birth?

Migration routes, census counts and immigration records reveal the scatter patterns of ancestors. Many sites cover each of these topics. Here is one site for each: for migration routes, for census records and for immigration records.

Fifth, detectives seek evidence to discover the truth. Family history detectives seek evidence as well by asking what records are germane to this mystery in this time period? Each area of the world, and each time period has its own, unique records. This is because the records genealogists use were not created for them. The records were created by government, church and other entities to meet legal requirements; to determine the flow of wealth, titles and land; and to record membership.

Sixth, both genealogy and criminal detectives look for motive. Most people behave in ways that will bring them some kind of gain �" financial, spiritual, emotional, for example. Families often moved to increase employment opportunities. Pilgrim children were born in New England because their parents wanted to worship as they pleased. Ancestors married, believing it would increase their happiness as well as their economic position. The records in courthouses most often reveal motives.

To answer crime puzzles, detectives put on their gumshoes and go to work. Genealogy detectives find themselves draped in aprons in courthouses, up to their dusty necks in land, probate, marriage and yes, even criminal records. Or they send away for death certificates. Maybe they use indexes to locate their families in censuses, and then they look at the originals on microfilms.

How do researchers know where to look? They read genealogy how-tos such as this column. They attend classes and seminars. They take free classes offered on the Internet. And there are many. Start with those offered at Brigham Young University at They buy texts and follow the instructions found inside.

Yup. Step 6, Search Original Records is the most exciting detective work of all.

Other Articles in the Series:

Step 1: Genealogy Can Be A Cheap Hobby
Step 2: Documentation Saves Pedigrees
Step 3: Family Records Are the Best!
Step 4: Survey Sets Up Research
Step 5: How Many Marys Did David Merry Marry?
Step 7: Publish Or All Your Research May Perish
Step 8: Evaluate and Decide

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

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

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