Genealogy Sleuth Work: What's the Problem?


The first step is to identify correctly the problem.
- Click and Clack, The Tappet Brothers

An engineer friend of mine sometimes trains new employees, fresh out of college, in the work that his company needs them to do. He has found over the years that the biggest problem facing these young employees is that they have not yet learned to look at a set of data and identify the problem. They are proficient at taking a given problem to the computer to find a solution, but they have trouble seeing the problem in the first place. Learning to "see" becomes part of their training.

Even Hercule Poirot had this problem with young detectives. To one he said, "Ah - but it is impossible, the way you never ask the right questions! As a result you know nothing of what is important."14 Genealogists need this skill of questioning as well! That's why we talk about methods, sources, evaluating evidence, and planning the next step. If we can break down the information we have - including the holes and the blanks - and identify the questions, we are on our way to getting answers.

What are these genealogical questions? They work like a telescope, narrowing the view to address more and more specific issues. Initially, they are rather obvious because they address the holes in our information on family group sheets, pedigree charts, and chronologies. They generally ask who, what, when, and where:

* Who was his first wife, or her first husband?
* Who were the wife's parents? Or the husband's parents? Do you have names of potential parents and want to find out if they are indeed the correct ones?
* Who were the other children? Is the list of children complete?
* What was the wife's maiden name?
* When was the wife born?
* When and where did the couple marry?
* When and where were the three older children in the family born?
* Where was the husband really born? Do you have conflicting birthplaces for him?
* Where was this family in 1870?

These are the first kinds of questions we need to ask as we begin to define the research problem on which to focus. Two pieces of advice emerge here.
* It is usually better to work first on the nuclear family nearest in time to you to complete their entries on the charts before going back to earlier generations. In our rush to move backward, we often overlook our own parent and grandparent generations. When we study them, we often learn much, including information to send us more knowledgeably into research on previous generations.
* Choosing the next research focus depends, of course, on what we already know. When we say "what we already know," we mean "what we can prove" or "what we can back up with specific source information." Later chapters will discuss proof and documentation.

On a second level, the questions we must ask are specific to a given research problem, such as discovering a birthplace or a death date. These questions help develop a plan of research. Their answers actually direct the search. Our goal at this level is to identify activities in the ancestor's life, such as land purchase, jury or military service, appearance in censuses, or writing a will. Such events often created documents that may give us either our missing information or clues to help figure it out. Chapter two addresses this kind of questioning.

On a third level, the questions we ask help evaluate very specific parts of the search. These questions primarily focus on the why, how, and what if. If the research problem is to determine where Great-Grandpa was born, we may find ourselves asking questions such as these: Why did Uncle Henry swear his grandpa was born in Illinois? Why do the census records show him born in
Kentucky and Missouri? How can we explain the presence of the three states in connection with his birth? There is a reason. What if he was born in Kentucky and spent some childhood time in Illinois before moving to Missouri? These kinds of questions as evaluation tools are discussed more fully in chapters five through eleven.

In review, as we begin any new part of our research, we must
* organize for that specific search
* choose a focus person or couple
* update and study what we know about their lives and activities
* record the sources that back up these facts
* narrow the focus to specific missing information, i.e., identify the problem

My dear fellow, there lies the problem.
- Sherlock Holmes

     Emily Anne Croom, "Genealogy Sleuth Work: What's the Problem?," extracted from The Sleuth Book for Genealogists: Strategies for More Successful Family History Research, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008), Chapt. 1, pp. 9-11; digital edition, ( : posted 26 Jul 2012)

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