Simple Steps to Solve Your Genealogy Research Problems

By Allison Dolan


A cousin I met online (one who attended my grandparents’ wedding as a child!) asked me to look at a research problem on a line we don’t share.

Her great-aunt Elizabeth Schalk was born April 4, 1893, married Wesley Thomas in 1910, and became a widow two years later.  Then she disappeared.

Was Elizabeth “lost” under a second husband’s surname? That’s not an uncommon situation with female relatives. In a similar scenario, you might know an ancestor by a spouse’s name, and have trouble discovering her maiden name so you can find her parents.

Our top-seller The Family Tree Problem Solver will help you formulate strategies to research this and other genealogy problems: unknown immigration, mysterious places of origin, missing from the census, your usual appeared-from-nowhere or dropped-off-the-face-of-the-Earth ancestors.

The workshop will show you how to use some of the same principles that led us to Elizabeth:

1. Develop a theory that could explain what happened.

Elizabeth remarried, began using her new husband’s name, and possibly moved away. This might involve doing research into what was going on in the particular time and place.

2. Determine what type of record would provide information about your theory.

Local research guides can help here. In this case, a marriage record such as a certificate, license, bann or newspaper announcement showing an Elizabeth Thomas getting married after 1912.

3. Look for the records.

Major genealogy database sites like, FamilySearch, Findmypast and MyHeritage are good places to start. But don’t overlook lesser-known sites, such as the local historical or genealogical society website, or resources you can find through the USGenWeb county site.

I came up empty on big genealogy sites, but the Hamilton County (Ohio) Genealogical Society website had an indexed 1915 marriage bann for an Elizabeth Thomas marrying Herman J. Bley.

You might need to look offline for published indexes, or if you have a narrow enough time frame, browse original records at a repository or on microfilm.

4. Find additional evidence.

Elizabeth Bley’s census listings and Social Security Death Index record were consistent with what we knew about Elizabeth Thomas. My cousin ordered Elizabeth Bley’s 1981 death certificate, which put the nail in the coffin of this brick wall, so to speak, with the right maiden name and parents’ names.

Find even more genealogy learning opportunities through Family Tree University.