2022.09.21 – Simple Research Strategies

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Simple Research Strategies
By Dale E. Lee
2022.09.21

Certain things in Family History are important to consider. They are called strategies. Each strategy I discuss below indicates something important to consider in order to reap the benefits and to avoid the problems attendant in not considering them.

Hopefully you’ll find them useful in your research efforts. They are not a comprehensive list of all strategies possible, but are a good start for beginners.


  • Use Surrounding Information

Surrounding information is information that may not be related to births, deaths and marriages, but which includes activities the person has been involved with during their lives.
For example, a family member questioned another as to why they thought they were able to
extend the family line past a time it was known the records had been destroyed in that country.
The other family member replied that she knew about the destroyed documents, but had used
land, title, and other records to get passed that period of time.
Don’t assume that since you can’t find records pointing directly there, no records exist.

  • Use Indirect Information

If you can’t find direct references to information you need about an ancestor, try using indirect information.
For example, suppose you don’t know the Marriage date or place, but you do know that the ancestor lived in a specific city at a marriageable age. By finding that piece of information, you may be able to search for marriage notices in a newspaper in that area. Knowing everything about the person may not be necessary, but finding specific things that lead us to the vital information will be.
Information about the family, friends, location, schools, etc. may be able to reveal things that can lead you to finding birth, death and marriage information.

  • Use the whole record

Old records sometimes include notations or additional information included in the margins or on a facing page. If you only look at the record itself, you may miss important supporting information that can lead you to discover places, relatives, etc. If you are looking on microfilm, look at the prior and next pages from the record itself.

  • Don’t let Branch Roadblocks stop you

If you run into a roadblock on a particular branch of your Family Tree, don’t let that stop you from addressing other branches in the tree. Working on those other branches could give you the experience and knowledge you need to solve the riddle on the blocked branch. Also see Reverse Genealogy below.

  • Use Reverse Genealogy

Many times while researching Family History we run into roadblocks where the information we expected to find about a particular ancestor is more difficult to find than expected. You need to be innovative in finding ways to get legally around, over, under, or through roadblocks.
When we think about Genealogy, we normally think only about going either forward or backward in time. However, there is another technique we can use, that of going backward, and then forward. For example let’s say that we can’t find information on a particular ancestor with our current knowledge. What we can do is to:

  1. Back up a generation to the parents of the ancestor in question. Look for indirect documentation about the ancestor, then go down lateral lines, in this case to the siblings of the ancestor. Sometimes documentation for siblings may mention the ancestor or the ancestor may even have been a witness to a sibling event. Even if you can’t find documentation that directly relates to your relative, you may find indirect information on documents related to parents or siblings.
  2. If you can’t find your ancestor by referring to documents relating to the immediate family, back up a generation to his or her Grandparents. Then start searching down the lateral lines of the family tree from there the same way you did for the siblings and parents. It may be that an Uncle or Cousin has a document that mentions your relative, such as those attending a funeral, mentioned in an obituary, attending a family reunion, a marriage, or other similar events.
  3. Etc., Keep backing up a generation each time until it is no longer probable you will find it.
  • Don’t be confused by spelling changes

Many families have changed the spellings of their names over the generations. One family came from a particular part of Great Britain, but wanted to work in another. They changed the spelling of their last name to better fit in with the people in that area.
Others have changed the spellings because of language translation issues, some translating it one way and others another.
There are also records where the target individual was spelled three different ways in the same document.
Whenever you run into spelling changes, always verify the change with additional surrounding and or indirect information.

  • Beware of abbreviations

Historically some people wrote text in records or databases to indicate that the information was unknown. Today this is confusing and may lead people to believe that an abbreviation is a real name or place. Things such as “Unk” (Unknown), “Mnu” (Maiden name unknown), etc. should have been left blank, but were not. Be watchful for other such abbreviations and if found be sure to do due diligence to see if they are really names or places or just abbreviations without meaning.

  • Beware of Duplication

Whether for a name or a family tree, duplication can be very confusing to use for research. If there are multiple versions of a family tree, the reviewer will have difficulty discovering which is the most recent or correct. If you have old versions, back them up and remove them, especially if they reside on Web Repositories, such as Ancestry.com.

  • Become familiar with handwriting

Handwriting tends to change over time.
Some periods of time tend to use more flairs and scrolls than others. Others are less stylish. Sometimes very strange foreign looking characters can turn out to be very common ones, solely due to handwriting differences. A good place to start getting familiar with handwriting examples can be found at FamilySearch in the link for helping with indexing at https://www.familysearch.org/indexing/help/handwriting#!/. This guide is for old English, but other languages have the same issues.
Note that even the letters in the alphabet themselves can change.
For example, the Declaration of Independence of the United States contains a single characters that looks like a funny backwards f to us these days, but back then it was used as an “s”. You can see instances in the Declaration in such places as the first “s” of a double “s” word like “assume”. It was also used as an “s” at the beginning of “s” words, such as “Sufferable”.
If you are not familiar with the handwriting of a particular country and time, you can definitely run into difficulties. However, even knowing the average usage of a letter may not be enough. The best way to discover what a character is, is to compare it to other characters in the same document. If you can determine what the same character is in a different word, you can apply that to the word you are currently working on.

  • Use Hints in FamilySearch

The following strategy is specific to FamilySearch, but other on-line repositories may have similar functionality.
When indexing is done in FamilySearch, a document which was not previously associated with a particular ancestor may be found to be a possible match using artificial intelligence or algorithms. When this happens, FamilySearch notifies the relatives of the possible match and asks them to research the document to see if it is true that it should be related to the ancestor. If the document does contain good information relating to your ancestry you can “attach” it to the individual in question.
But don’t stop there. If finding records is difficult for the country or region you are searching on, pay particular attention to the hints that are being sent to you. They may provide clues as to sources of additional information you may not have thought of. Knowing that the information is stored may be a clue to go to that archive or library and look deeper.

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