When you find a document that may be about one of your ancestors …

On 13 January 2013 Nancy of the My Ancestors and Me blog, posted a question:

When you find a document that may be about one of your ancestors (or may just as well not be about one of them), what do you do with it?

She continues:

I have several documents (a will, a census record, etc.) about people who are probably my ancestors but I don’t have enough information (yet) to make a good case for a relationship. I haven’t been adding the names or documents to my genealogy program or to the notes section of my genealogy program, either. But then when I find some other information that might support this person, I have to go searching for the previous information/document I found.[1]

I will respond to this question from the perspective of a professional researcher.

It is important not to actively seek records that do not relate to the problem you are trying to solve. This will cut down on these “other” documents.

There is a very big difference between focused research, that is, searching with a purpose, and “random” searching.

Focused research begins by defining a specific research goal, like a question that you want to answer, and seeking records relevant to that goal, records that will answer your question. These records may provide information relevant to other goals or questions, but you should follow up on these clues by identifying them and pursuing them individually.

If you are researching in an organized, focused manner, you will never have records that “may or may not” be related to your research problem.

Sometimes, when appropriate, you may have to conduct a broad survey of specific records. For example, you may wish to find any person with a certain surname in a certain location at a certain time. This broad survey still fits within the process of focused research, as long as you:

  • Have identified a specific question that you are hoping to answer by conducting the survey;
  • Keep good records of what indexes or record groups you have searched and what specifically you have searched for;
  • Keep good records of all results;
  • Analyze each of the results, identifying what information may be relevant to your goal and defining any follow-up research that you may need to conduct in order to meet your goal;
  • Conduct all follow-up research in order to bring meaning to the results of the survey.

Searching broadly is not the same thing as searching randomly. Searching randomly produces far more “false positives” than relevant information.

Another aspect of focused research is that genealogy database software is most effectively used differently than many people currently use it. Many users use their software as a “shoebox” to store records that they come across that “might” be related to their ancestors.

I have found it far more effective to use a word processor to gather information and analyze evidence in a file related to a specific research goal. Once I have enough evidence to prove a fact or relationship, I can add that information into my database, either linking it to the separate file or copying the proof narrative into the Notes field. In other words, I use the database to record conclusions, not research-in-progress.

I hope that this explanation helps to answer your question. Please let me know if anyone else has any additional suggestions.


[1] Nancy, “You Genealogists with More Experience than Me, …,” My Ancestors and Me blog, posted 13 January 2013 (http://nancysfamilyhistoryblog.blogspot.com : accessed 25 January 2013).

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “When you find a document that may be about one of your ancestors …,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 25 January 2013 (https://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

9 thoughts on “When you find a document that may be about one of your ancestors …

  1. Michael, I like your response as far as it goes, although it does come across to me as a “there’s only one correct way” type of answer.

    Even in a focused search, it’s easy to come across other documents that might be useful in future, if not to the current task. This is especially true for those of us with unusual last names, more so when our interests extend to the entire family and not just a particular line. Certainly we want to keep these documents for future reference, rather than having to find them again later.

    The original question, of course, was how to keep track of these records, and I’d like to propose another method that I use. I have a separate data base in my genealogy program to track such things. I store only enough information to make it clear why I have it, and then of course I source it so I know where to look. Incidentally, I do the same for information that needs to be verified at some point (such as what I extract from a genealogy published in 1910 — it happens to be sourced, but not to today’s standards).

    Always enjoy your posts — thanks!

  2. Michael,

    I’m not sure I agree with one of your statements.

    “If you are researching in an organized, focused manner, you will never have records that “may or may not” be related to your research problem.”

    You certainly will have such documents if the research problem is not resolved.

    Separate folders within a client’s electronic folder work well for me in this regard. Labeled appropriately it is a good “resting spot” until proved that the document does apply to the ancestral line.


    • The most effective research process, greatly simplified, is (1) define a research problem, (2) look for records that contain information relevant to that problem. While you will often stumble on Record B while looking for Record A, it is important to stay focused on your research problem. Since evidence only exists in relation to a research problem, Record B cannot contain evidence unless viewed and evaluated under the auspices of the problem you have defined. The same record may contain evidence relevant to a different problem.

      Whether or not a research problem has been resolved does not usually, in my experience, affect whether information from a record is relevant to the problem. Sometimes relevance is defined by your plan to resolve the problem.

      Case in point: I recently used land records to identify the parents of a subject, where no other direct evidence of kinship was available. All deeds related to the parcel of land were relevant to the problem–regardless of the parties to each deed. Had other evidence been available, these same deeds may not have been used to solve the problem. However, my plan to resolve the problem defined which records I used, and determined the relevance of information to the problem.

  3. So, say you are trying to prove a person’s birth date. You find the death certificate that should have the birth date, but doesn’t, however, you will need the death certificate, because you will be proving the person’s death date later. That record is not relevant to the current problem, but is relevant to the next step for this person. what do you do with it? This is a little bit simplified, because it is dealing with the same person, but you get the idea. Afterall, sometimes what we expect to find isn’t what we find.

    • This is completely different from how I read Nancy’s original question–which I read as “what do I do with records I find that pertain to someone who may or may not be my ancestor?” However, you have posed a very good question about how to organize your files. I won’t go into that here. I have my own system of organization which may not be any better than anyone else’s system. Organization of your files is subjective, and the success of one system over another has everything to do with how the individual researcher thinks.

      With focused research, you will minimize the “maybe/maybe not” relevance of records you locate. Then organization of these records when you do find them is much easier.

      To discuss your example in relation to this post: what you describe is a negative search result. Because death certificates in a given time and place should contain the age or date of birth, it is a routine part of any research plan. The fact that the death certificate you found does not have the date of birth on it is information relevant to your research problem–negative evidence. Evaluate the record to determine why it does not contain the information you expect it to contain. This in itself may provide you with additional evidence. For example, the death certificate does not report the date of birth because the decedent died in a foreign town, where no one knew who he was or when he was born.

  4. Michael, thank you for responding to my questions. I know you are very busy and I appreciate your taking the time to write a post.

    When I first read your post last night I felt a little deflated: Oh, no, I’m doing this all wrong. Your responses and the searches I was thinking of when I wrote my post have been on my mind today, and then I reread your post.

    I may be wrong but I think my searches are focused but broad. One of my searches was this: Fred’s PA death certificate named his father as Christian. It was the first I’d heard his father’s name. Fred was born in Germany in about 1848, married and died (in 1920) in Butler County, PA, though lived elsewhere during his lifetime. I hoped to learn if there was a Christian of the appropriate age living in one of the western PA counties. I found one in a census, living in Allegheny County. The age was about right; Fred was not there but boy with the same name and approx. age as Fred’s brother was. That was my first search result. Mine or not? Next, I found a Christian in the census living in Butler County but the last name was a variant that was far enough off that I wasn’t sure he was mine. Then I found a death notice for Christian in Butler County with the same surname spelling as Fred’s but the obit didn’t mention family. Mine or not? That makes 3 sources and I still don’t know whether either Christian is mine or not. I ordered a FHL microfilm of Butler County wills for the appropriate year (the one in the obituary) hoping to find children and family listed. (I just ordered it so no news yet.) Would you say broad but focused?

    My second search was similar: Rebecca’s father was named in a 50th anniversary article in 1888: Thomas Smith. Census, cemetery, will, all searched. The will names his daughter, Rebecca, and her husband, “Dobson.” Unfortunately, Rebecca’s husband’s name was “Dixon.” I’ve searched Butler County census records for anyone named “Dobson” and have found no one with that name. Does that make it negative evidence or is “Dobson” an old man’s mumbling version of “Dixon?” Broad but focused?

    Maybe my searches are too broad or too unfocused. This is something I’ll be considering carefully as I move forward.

    In addition to pointing out the importance of a focused search, I think the best information you gave me in this post is in the 2nd-to-last paragraph where you recommend using a word processor to gather information and analyze evidence; and your emphasis on the importance of documenting all searches, keeping track of indexes and record groups searched, the reason for my search, and what was found/not found.

    Thank you again for this helpful information, Michael. I appreciate it.

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  6. Nancy,

    Your followup post contains a typical situation that I frequently run across as a volunteer at the local Family History Center. I.E., you do a broad survey to identify possible candidates for the parents of an ancestor, and then research each of those candidates hoping to either prove a connection, or to exclude one so as to focus on remaining candidates. The question is whether such a survey is appropriately broad, or too broad, both chronologically and geographically. And with a common name, even just the surrounding counties can provide so many possible families as to require hundreds of hours to sort out. Still there is a degree of focus in such research, and I believe it can be appropriate.

    A common situation though is with a trans-appalachian pioneer whose parents one is trying to identify in one of the original colonies. So a survey basically turns up individuals of the same surname in one or more eastern states with no reason to believe there is a connection in the first place. Which is different from a situation where from the records created by an ancestor and his associates, you have good reason to believe a common migration stemmed from a specific county in one of those states, i.e a focused search.

    In the situation with your Fred, I would personally say your survey for those in nearby counties with the given name of Christian is appropriately broad and focused, *as long as* you do enough focused research on each to attempt to prove or disprove a connection, instead of merely accumulating every random document you can for each of those men. And it sounds like you are doing that in ordering microfilm and presumably attempting to use land, probate and other records to identify the children of each of those men named Christian.

    But what if you either disprove all those potential candidates or the research is inconclusive (a not uncommon result when a man settled his own estate prior to death via selling his land and distributing cash to his children)? That is the point at which one can go astray and start accumulating data for every guy named Christian on the eastern seaboard. When actually you may need to delve deeper on the known local area of Fred to uncover every possible record for his surname in the area, and especially to revisit the name of his father in that death certificate, which could be totally in error, or contain only part of the truth (as in Christian being a middle name he went by in the family).

    To me, Michael’s point is that focused research is the result of focused research questions done in successive rounds rather than randomly accumulating documents having to do with anyone with the same surname, whether in nearby counties or not.

    One tip I will give is that all surrounding counties and states are not equal. In the 1800s people generally moved westward, even if by a series of short in-state migrations. So a wide fan going from north-east to south-east will provide the more likely path of migration unless an important river or trans-mountain route is to be preferred.

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