The ABCs of Genealogy

Who, at some point, has hit a brick-wall in their research?  I know I have, many a time!  It’s in these situations that I have to remind myself to go back to basics.

We all have our own methods of research, some log all their findings in electronic spreadsheets, some prefer good ol’ fashioned pen and paper.  Some take the disciplined approach of a step-by-step research plan, some (like myself) are easily distracted and lose time down rabbit holes.  But any good family historian will follow the fundamental groundwork, that I like to call my ABCs.

A is for ASCERTAIN – Listen to stories.  Speak with relatives, ask questions, get an idea of the people in your family tree and WRITE THINGS DOWN! (or record conversations – with permission of course).  Determine who you are going to concentrate on, including their immediate family.  Draw a chart to make it easier to view relationships.  Make sure you include every little detail, no matter how vague; there are often threads of truth in even the most inaccurate family tales.

B is for BACK-UP – Do some research.  Get evidence to confirm (or even disprove) what you’ve been told.  Record your findings, and catalogue all records/sources you examine.  We’ve all made the mistake of not recording negative searches, and then wasted time repeating work when we go over the same source at a later date.

C is for CORROBORATE – Locate more documents to confirm what you’ve discovered, to prove you have the correct individual.  There are many people with the same name, maybe with a spouse/child/parent of the same name, and sometimes even in the same place!!  Naming patterns throughout history meant that offspring were often named after parents/aunts/uncles/grandparents, so it is quite common for cousins to be born around the same time, with the same name, in the same parish.  So make sure you are using documents that are relevant to the specific individual you are focusing on.  Don’t forget to cite all the records you use.

This strategy is something we use in our everyday research; but by going over these steps again from scratch, we might spot something we missed or even come across new information that wasn’t there before.  Perhaps talking with relatives and asking questions jogs a memory, or maybe a record has been catalogued and/or digitised since we first searched.  There might not have been a corroborating document to confirm our initial findings, but now we might discover something that reveals our first record was for the wrong person. 

On the rare occasion this method is not effective in solving a mystery, I pause my examination of that certain individual, and focus on somebody else in the family (and yes – you’ve got it – perform ABCs on this person too).  Sometimes, the new study sheds light on the first individual, and I’m able to smash a brick wall.

So next time you’re faced with a challenge in your research, take a moment to consider the ABCs.