How many genealogists today start researching a family line by typing a few names into a website’s search box, hitting Enter and hoping for a bunch of hits?
While this 21st-century dartboard approach can net you some quick results, it may not be your best bet for solving research problems in the long haul. For what genealogists call a “brick wall” — a research question you can’t seem to answer — you’ll need a more thought-out approach. Just as you wouldn’t attempt to change the oil in your car without instructions or try to prepare a baked Alaska without a recipe, you shouldn’t even think about going on your ancestral journey without a good strategy.
A research plan helps you record the who, what, when, where and why of your family history quest. Think of it as a road map, or in modern terms, a GPS that provides a navigational system to your past. Try our simple five-point strategy to create a research plan and chart your own course for genealogical success.
Step 1: Identify your objective.
Write down as specifically as possible what you want to accomplish. Like most family historians, you probably have more than one genealogy problem you’re trying to solve. Perhaps you want to identify the name of the overseas town or village where your great-grandfather was born, or when he immigrated to the United States. For now, though, choose one or two to focus on.
Your objective should include both long-term research goals and the short-term steps that will help you reach your overall objective (note any steps you can think of now, but you’ll add more as you develop your plan). For example, a long-term goal might be to determine when your great-grandfather left home and the date he arrived in the United States. A short-term goal might be to locate him in a US federal census that asks for the year of immigration — the 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 censuses.
Step 2: List known facts.
Assuming you’ve completed a pedigree chart and family group sheet using genealogy software or one of our free forms, your next step is to list known facts about the person you’re researching.
You can use the free, downloadable biographical outline form here to record your known facts. Examine any genealogical records you’ve gathered and write down what they tell you. Include names of the person and his family members; any spelling variations of the first and last names you’ve found in records; dates of birth, death and marriage; dates of migrations; and places where his life events took place. For example, you may know your great-grandfather had three sisters and two brothers, and you may even have their first names from a family Bible or other book. Perhaps you have a marriage date or location, or a record that refers to a particular county seat or region in the old country. Think of these facts as your data points that you’ll plug into your genealogy GPS.
One caveat: Be careful not to blindly accept as truth family tales about where your ancestors went and why. You can treat these as clues and investigate their validity by tracking down records to document what happened.
Step 3: Formulate a hypothesis.
Based on the known facts you recorded in the previous step, make some educated guesses about the possible answers to your research question or problem. For example, say you know your great-grandfather’s date of birth, and that he was born in Germany, but his sister who was five years younger was born in America. That lets you estimate a date range — between the two birth dates — for their family’s immigration to the United States. If you’ve found their father in the 1900 census and then again in the 1920 census, but not in 1910, you could speculate that he moved. Or perhaps he was a “bird of passage” who came to the United States for a short time, worked to earn enough money to return home and buy land, and then came back to America later.
Step 4: Identify resources with related records.
Now it’s time for some web surfing: Become familiar with the types of records most likely to prove (or disprove) your hypothesis. Include both primary sources (those created at or near the time of an event, usually by a direct observer) and secondary sources (those created either much later than the event, or by someone who was reading or interpreting a primary source). Primary sources are generally preferable to secondary sources because they’re more likely to be accurate. Note that the same source might be a primary source of some information, and a secondary source of other information. For example, a death certificate is a primary source of the cause of death, but a secondary source of the deceased’s date of birth (reported years after the birth by someone probably lacking first-hand knowledge).
Among the records that would provide your great-grandfather’s US arrival date are passenger lists, naturalization records and maybe Alien Registration files (created from 1940 to 1944, when the US government required non-citizens to register as aliens). Do some research to find out what records are available for the time period you’re researching, where they’re located (such as your public library or the National Archives) and in what format (microfilm, digitized online, indexed in a book, etc.). There are many ways to learn this information, including:
- Use Family Tree Magazine‘s research guides, which cover US states and countries around the world, as well as a range of genealogical record types. They’ve appeared in past issues of Family Tree Magazine, and are available as PDF downloads and on CDs through Family Tree Shop.
- Search FamilyTreeMagazine.com and access the online how-to articles in our Heritage Toolkits and our records category.
- Consult FamilySearch’s Research Wiki articles or research outlines.
- Search Google on the type of record and the word genealogy, for example, immigration records genealogy.
- Consult a genealogy reference such as Unpuzzling Your Past, 4th edition, by Emily Anne Croom (Genealogical Publishing Co.).
- Run a place search of the Family History Library (FHL) online catalog. Enter the county or country you’re researching, and examine the results for records that might help you achieve your research goal.
Next, determine how you’ll access those records. Can you find them on a subscription website such as Footnote or Ancestry.com ? (And is free access to the site available at your local public library or Family History Center)? In researching your great-grandfather’s immigration, for example, you’ll find that Footnote (which you can use at many Family History Centers) has digitized naturalization records for many areas of the United States, and Ancestry.com has nearly all extant passenger lists for US ports and borders. The free websites CastleGarden.org and EllisIsland.org have information on passengers arriving at the port of New York.
If you can’t find the records online, you may need to order microfilm through a Family History Center, submit an interlibrary loan request or order the records from a repository, such as the National Archives.
Step 5: Define the steps for accessing resources.
Determine the order in which you’ll seek the records, and how to get to them. For example, you might decide it’s easiest to first check the passenger lists and naturalization indexes in Ancestry.com’s online immigration databases, then visit your library for printed resources such as Germans to America: Lists of Passengers Arriving at US Ports 1850-1897 by Ira A. Glazier and P. William Filby (Scarecrow Press), and go to your Family History Center to rent microfilmed naturalization records that you’re unable to find online.
To avoid repeating the same fruitless searches on the same websites again and again, keep a written record of all the sources you search, the date you search them, and what you find (or don’t find). You may be able to do this in your genealogy software, or use the free, downloadable Research Journal. When one resource points to another type of record you should check, note that in your research journal, too.
To see how all this works, check out the research plan I used to find birth, marriage and death dates for my great-grandfather Mihaly Fenscak. Don’t let a lack of direction be a roadblock on the route to your roots. A solid research plan is key to making ancestral breakthroughs and knocking down those brick walls standing between you and your ancestors.
TIP: To help you research record sources, type the record you want to find out about into the FamilySearch Research Wiki search box. In your search results, click a matching article title for how-to information on the topic. This article was a result of our search on naturalization.
TIP: For more information on evaluating primary and secondary sources, see the Board for Certification of Genealogists’ Guidelines for Evaluating Genealogical Resources.
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