Archive for the ‘Research Skills’ Category

Upcoming educational opportunities you can’t miss!

It has been a while since I have posted—too long—but other duties have been occupying much of my time. I would like to take a moment to tell you about three educational opportunities with which I am involved.

Virtual Institute of Genealogical Research

First, the Virtual Institute of Genealogical Research, which was announced last fall, has met with great success! We have recordings available for seven (7) past courses, and registration is currently open for five courses coming up this summer and fall.

This Saturday, 20 June 2015, Billie Stone Fogarty and Rick Fogarty will be teaching a course entitled “Verifying the Family Legend of Native American Ancestry.” Registration is still open, so don’t miss it! This is a great opportunity to learn from a nationally recognized speaker and her son, a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation. Click here to register.

Courses on various topics from other nationally recognized experts Blaine Bettinger, F. Warren Bittner, Donna Moughty, J. Mark Lowe, and Maureen Taylor are currently available for purchase in the Virtual Institute store. Future courses will be presented by Bettinger, Craig Roberts Scott, Angela McGhie, and D. Joshua Taylor, among others.

Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy

Registration for the 2016 Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy also opens this Saturday, 20 June, at 9:00 am MDT (11:00 am EDT). Click here for more details.

I will be teaching in several courses this year, including Course 2: Researching New York: Resources and Strategies, coordinated by Karen Mauer Jones, CG, FGBS; Course 3: Research In The South, coordinated by J. Mark Lowe, CG, FUGA; Course 11: Writing A Quality Family Narrative, coordinated by John Philip Colletta, Ph.D, FUGA; and Course 13: Advanced Evidence Practicum, coordinated by Angela Packer McGhie.

Perhaps most exciting for me, however, is my opportunity to coordinate my own course this year: Course 9: Solving Problems Like a Professional. This course focuses on practical problem solving skills used by professional genealogists, designed to meet standards of genealogical proof as defined by the Board for Certification of Genealogists. Myself and all three of the other instructors are full-time genealogists, each with our own experience and professional focuses. The course will also have short homework assignments for the first three nights, allowing students to take advantage of the Family History Library and apply the lessons learned during the day.

Students for this course do not have to be professional genealogists or have any desire to be so. The lessons learned will be applicable to all research problems, during any time or place.

BCG Webinar Series

Last but certainly not least, the Board for Certification of Genealogists has finally made the leap into the webinar world, presenting webinars on a monthly basis—usually the third Tuesday of each month.

So far, I have presented one lecture, and we have had a top-notch lineup of other instructors, including Thomas W. Jones, PhD, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA; “The Legal Genealogist” Judy G. Russell, JD, CG, CGL; F. Warren Bittner, CG; James Baker, PhD, CG; Jean Wilcox Hibben, PhD, MA, CG; Jeanne Larzalere Bloom, CG; and Teresa Steinkamp McMillin, CG.

Most of the recordings are available for viewing or download on a dedicated page on the BCG blog, on a pay-per-view basis. Click here for more information.

“Reasonably exhaustive” research as a process of elimination

One of the most difficult concepts to grasp, when we strive to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard, is the “reasonably exhaustive search.” This requirement demands that we conduct thorough research, scouring every possible source of relevant information touching upon our research question.

The following steps present one way to think about this requirement, as a process of reduction, beginning with a large pool of possible sources and systematically eliminating those that cannot hold relevant information.

(1) Imagine every possible source for information (meaning every written record or artifact that holds information from any location or time period throughout history). This initial pool contains billions (or more) possible records.

(2) Eliminate records that could not possibly hold information about the subject–for example, a record from ancient Egypt or medieval France could not possibly hold information relevant to the life of an African American born in the late nineteenth century in Charleston, South Carolina.

(3) Eliminate records that are unlikely to hold information about the subject–for example, records in states that neither he nor any of his family members (including hypothetical ancestors or descendants), business associates, neighbors, ever visited.

(4) Identify what records remain–what records ever existed in the times and places in which the subject lived–which of these records are currently accessible, and how and where.

So far, this process of elimination still leaves a large pool of possible sources. Examining all of them would clearly constitute exhaustive research. Exhaustive research, however, is not the standard. The standard is to conduct thorough or reasonably exhaustive research. Another way to phrase this standard would be to substitute the term “reasonably” with “rationally.” In other words, we should think rationally about our research question, our research subject, and the historical context of the problem (time and place).

(5) Systematically examine every record within this pool of potential sources. Start with the most common records from the remaining pool–census records, vital records, land records, probate records, etc. As more information about the subject becomes available you may have to add or subtract records from the pool. Be liberal in adding and conservative in subtracting. For example, a deed from 200 years later could provide a title history that includes an originally unrecorded transaction. If three census records provide three separate states of birth for the research subject, expand the pool of potential sources to include all three states.

Again, we must use our ability to think rationally and reasonably to build a case. Several points should bear directly on our use of sources:

  • Be sure to examine any record suggested by information in any examined record. So if a census record states that someone owned land or served in the military, check the land records and military records.
  • Give priority to original records and records holding primary information. This is not to say that we should ignore derivative records or authored works, nor that we should ignore secondary information. During the process of analysis and correlation of the collected evidence we will determine which information appears most reliable.
  • Ease of access is not the deciding factor when considering what sources we use. Records that do not appear online may be available on microfilm that can be rented from the Family History Library or borrowed through interlibrary loan from another repository. Original records that have not been microfilmed may be obtained through the mail directly from the repository or through the use of a local hired agent.

Finally, how do we know when we have completed the process? Is it when every single item on the list has been crossed off?

Sometimes. Again, we have to use our reason and rational thought. If we are trying to identify the father of John Smith and we have conclusive evidence that his father was James, then we can stop the search. For example, suppose we have found the following records through our initial research:

  • A death certificate identifying John Smith’s father as James Smith–the informant being John’s eldest son William;
  • A marriage record, informed by John Smith himself, identifying John’s father as James Smith;
  • Three federal census records, in which John was aged 2 years, 12 years, and 22 years, respectively, living in households headed by James Smith;
  • A will written by James Smith in which he identifies his son John Smith;
  • A church baptismal record that provides John Smith’s date of birth and identifies his father as James Smith;
  • A tombstone, containing the date of birth as presented in the baptismal record and the date of death as presented in the death certificate, thus connecting the two records as pertaining to the same individual.

It is probably safe, in this scenario, to stop searching. We are unlikely to locate further information that will contradict the conclusion that John Smith was the son of James Smith. We do not have 100% certainty of course. A court record or DNA testing could reveal that John Smith had been adopted. Perhaps it is reasonably (and therefore necessary) to search these additional records, depending on the collected evidence in the case. On the other hand, it may exceed the standard, depending on the collected evidence, and therefore be unnecessary. Some of the other relevant evidence that should be considered in this case are the norms of the location, family oral tradition (if any), the socioeconomic status of the family, the birth order of John among the other children of James and his wife, etc.

The successful genealogist must have a developed sense of reason. Most problems that we encounter will not be as clear-cut and simple as the case of John Smith son of James Smith. Far more often we will encounter families where these relatively reliable sources of direct evidence were never created or do not survive. These cases require thoughtful and insightful use of vast amounts of indirect evidence. For these more complex cases, we will have to search many more sources to meet the standard of reasonably exhaustive. We often have to collect and correlate material relevant to every aspect of our subject’s life as well as investigating the lives (and records) of known family members and associates. We must be able to recognize when we have examined enough evidence to make a reasoned conclusion possible.

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 ( : 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 ( : 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.]

Genealogical fallacies in logic

When I was in high school I took a course called “Theory of Knowledge.” I may have enjoyed this course more than any other course I had ever taken up to that point and since (right up until I took Course 4 at the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research).

One of the course units dealt with classical logic, and logical fallacies. I recently found a handout on “Logical Fallacies” that I received in the course. Sadly I cannot produce a “full and accurate” citation to this handout, as I can’t remember details from nearly twenty years ago.

Much of scholarly genealogical research involves the use of logic–deductive and inductive reasoning. Many of the errors that occur in research similarly result in fallacies of logic. I would like to discuss the most common fallacies, as described on this twenty-year-old high school handout, here.

First the definition of a fallacy:

Fallacies are mistakes in reasoning.

A fallacy is an error in reasoning or in an argument. As such they are not rational in the true sense of the word. Most people who commit fallacies do so out of carelessness or haste. Many people who use fallacies are trying to side-step pure reasoning and manipulate others through psychological techniques. There are hundreds of different fallacies, but a few are listed below:

Not only does this definition address fallacies in a simplified way, it also demonstrates that many of the most common genealogical mistakes are directly caused by fallacies. The small selection of fallacies that I have extracted from the handout for this blog post below further demonstrate this connection between genealogical error and poor reasoning:

1. Hasty generalization – Drawing a conclusion (inference) on insufficient evidence.

2. Dicto simpliciter – Not taking genuine exceptions into account.

. . .

5. Circular reasoning – Going around in a circle – using the premise as the conclusion and vice versa – sometimes called “begging the question.”

6. False cause – supposing that two things that are connected by coincidence somehow cause each other.

. . .

8. Ad ignorantium – drawing a conclusion with no evidence one way or the other.

. . .

11. Appeal to authority – trying to get your position accepted because an authority says so when the authority is irrelevant to the issue.

12. Composition – Assuming what is true of the parts is true of the whole and vice – versa – what is true of the whole is true of the parts.

To demonstrate some of these fallacies, let us examine a few scenarios a genealogist might come across:

1. Hasty Generalization. Susan Smith, age 12 years, appears in the 1860 federal census in the household of Richard Smith, age 36 years. The fallacious conclusion would be that Susan Smith is the daughter of Richard Smith, with no further evidence to support it. The 1860 federal census does not provide family relationships, so any conclusion involving family relationships based on this evidence constitutes a fallacious argument.

2. Dicto simpliciter. Alexander Brown, an African American man, appears in the 1870 federal census in Mississippi. A genealogist falling prey to this fallacy would not even look for Alexander in the 1860 federal census, assuming that he was enslaved until the Civil War. The presence of free people of color in Mississippi (though relatively few) constitute “genuine exceptions.” The possibility that Alexander Brown was free in 1860–perhaps in another locality, migrating as a soldier during the War itself–exists.

8. Ad ignorantium. This fallacy is probably the most rampant in genealogy. Suppose family tradition says that your great-grandfather James Lee was related to Robert E. Lee. No connection is found. Or you great-great-grandmother Beatrice Jones was a “full-blooded American Indian.” Again, no evidence suggests this conclusion. Believing what you want to believe despite a lack of evidence is this fallacy in a nutshell.

11. Appeal to authority. A published family history says that William Mulliken came from  West Virginia. The fallacious conclusion would accept this statement as gospel, without further research. Just because it’s in print–even if the author is a well-respected authority–doesn’t mean its true.

We are all guilty of nearly all of these fallacies at one point or another in our career.

Do you have any other examples that immediately come to mind?

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “Genealogical fallacies in logic,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 19 December 2012 ( : 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.]

The most important thing you can ever prove

This blog has spent a lot of time discussing the Genealogical Proof Standard, especially focusing on the use and analysis of multiple documents.

The most important fact that you can ever prove—the basis of all of our research—is the identity of the subject of each record. When you find a marriage record for John Smith, how do you know it is the same John Smith that you are looking for? No matter how unique you believe a name is, you still have to prove that the record actually pertains to the subject of your research.

Several situations make this determination extremely important:

Same name, same place, same time. This is the most common issue of identity. One of my ancestors, Henry Hait, was one of three men named Henry Hait or Henry Hoyt living in Stamford, Connecticut, during his lifetime. Learning about my Henry involved being sure that the Henry Hait in each individual record I found was mine, and not some other one. This dilemma is so rampant that it is even commonly called the “same name” trap.

Same name, same age, same place, different times. I believe that this situation may have resulted in more inaccurate family trees than even the more well-known trap mentioned above. Imagine that a man named George Burgess (fictional name) shows up in records from his birth in 1830 through early adulthood in 1850, all in the context of his immediate family. Then another man named George Burgess born around 1830 shows up in records in the same jurisdiction from his marriage in 1851 through his death in 1900. The two men never show up in the same records at the same time. If you don’t take the time to thoroughly examine all available evidence, it is easy to conclude that all of the records pertain to the same George Burgess. Never mind that the reality is that the younger George Burgess—with the rest of the family—moved out west, the year before the older George Burgess moved into town from the next county over. Regardless of which George Burgess you are researching, falling prey to this trap would create an inaccurate family history.

Same name, different place, different time. I call this the “Shaky Leaf” problem. No serious genealogist should ever fall for this one. Just because a shaky leaf (or any other “intelligent” automatic search feature) tells you that a family tree has someone with the same name, doesn’t mean that you should attach it to the tree. (But if you are reading this blog, you probably already know this.)

How do you establish identity?

Each record should contain both internal and external clues as to the identity of the subject. To prove identity, you can use these clues with clues in other records to form a solid body of evidence.

Internal clues are those attributes about the subject that tell you more about their lives: their age, wife’s name and age, children’s names and ages, occupation, birthplace, religious affiliation, etc.

In a recent case, for example, I was searching for a man named Joseph Adams. I was able to reconstruct his immediate family based on later records of his children in adulthood, but had no information about him. Using the ages of his children, I was able to identify his 1830 federal census record among the records of other men of the same name.

External clues are those attributes about the world around the subject that tell you more about them: their neighbors and neighborhood.

Once I had identified Joseph Adams in the 1830 federal census, I proceeded to look for all of his neighbors in the 1830 city directory. Their addresses pointed me to the precise neighborhood that Joseph lived in. Using a map, this allowed me to identify the correct Joseph in that same city directory, which provided his street address and occupation. This then allowed me to locate the correct Joseph in earlier and later city directories. These facts about Joseph’s life begin to form a portrait of the man that will help in resolving identity issues in other records.

Another case study that I am currently revising for possible future publication in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly involves the second problem described above. Without giving away too much detail, I can describe the problem here.

  • A man (“TB2″) lived in Baltimore County by 1783 and died there in 1836. Federal census records prior to his death estimate a date of birth between 1740 and 1750.
  • Another man (“TB1″) lived in Baltimore County by the 1740s, and recorded the births of his children in one of the three parishes that covered then-Baltimore County—including a son named “TB2″ born in 1747.

The full case study not only disproves that TB2 was the son of TB1, but uses other attributes of TB2’s life to identify TB2’s parents and grandparents. No direct evidence connects TB2 to his other family members. It is only by using the internal and external clues in all of the records of both TB1 and TB2 that the true relationships are revealed.

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “The most important thing you can ever prove,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 18 December 2012 ( : 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.]

The “literature search” in the Internet age

Many genealogy guides advise that we should first conduct a literature search when researching a new family. Traditionally, this has meant examining published work. The Internet has changed both the nature of “the literature” and how (or if) we conduct these searches.

Before the Internet,  compiled genealogical work products appeared in self-published books and society journal articles. To a certain extent one might even consider the examination of published queries in society journals as part of the literature search. In this way, researchers could “gather clues” from and build upon the previous research of others.

Another part of the process—especially if researching a family that had not been previously researched and published—was looking for ancestors in published indexes, abstracts, and transcriptions. Some of these were printed in books, others in society journals.

The early days of Internet genealogy (the mid- to late-1990s) reproduced the traditional literature search online. There were a few sites that allowed uploading of GEDCOM files, where researchers could connect through the online publication of their research. The USGenWeb system of sites published genealogy indexes, abstracts, and transcriptions of records. Conducting a literature search then consisted of looking at both print and online sources.

It is now 2012. The nature of what we find online has changed. I recently had a discussion with a fellow genealogist about whether the literature search is still necessary.

To answer this question, we must review the two main reasons for conducting a literature search.

First, we would look at previously-published research. There is a lot of this online now.

As I discussed in an earlier post, we can’t ignore it. On the other hand, a lot of it—especially the public trees—would not qualify as genealogy. I recently discovered that one of my ancestors, born in the mid-nineteenth century in New York, had been attached as the mother of a woman born in North Carolina in the eighteenth century. At least in the days of printed research, the mistakes were at least generally geographically centered. No “shaking-leaf” mistakes.

So how much of the online trees should we bother to look at?

There are a few wiki-based family tree sites. In theory, the collaborative nature of these sites will make them more likely to be accurate. Many families, however, have only one member-contributor, so there simply is no collaboration. The accuracy is only as good as the researcher.

Nearly every search will bring at least a few public trees. As already noted, many of these are simply examples of bad—some might say nonexistent—research. One way to find the better research is to look for “Public Stories.” These often contain user-transcribed records or personal memories. The trees that contain them are usually the work of genealogists who are trying to put together a good family tree.

Online trees of course suffer from the same weaknesses and shortcomings as their offline equivalents. Not all researchers have the same level of skill. This is as true now as it ever has been. The only way to know how reliable a published tree is, is to evaluate the evidence. Unfortunately, very few online trees have source citations. Even fewer have proof arguments that explain the reasoning behind the conclusions that have been made.

You can of course contact the creators of most online trees. They may or may not respond. If they do respond, you might be able to ask for source citations (if they have them) or ask them for their reasoning for certain conclusions. This will help in the assessment of the research.

Second, we would find our ancestors in published indexes, etc. The most important aspect of this is to understand what records exactly have been indexed, and obtaining the original source record for the reference. The reason this is important should be self-evident.

Given the focus of this blog on professional research skills, I would also like to address the question from the perspective of a genealogist researching a client project. How much of a literature search is it necessary to conduct?

The Internet has changed every aspect of how we research. Because of Ancestry, FamilySearch, and the hundreds of other websites that have brought them online, we now have direct access to digital image copies of original records. In my opinion, the ease of access to these records makes much of the literature search unnecessary during the beginning stages of our research.

When we have direct access to the original records, why would we waste our clients’ research time looking at online family trees compiled by researchers of questionable skill? As skillful researchers ourselves, we should (presumably) reach the same conclusions based on the same records.

In my opinion, it is also too tempting to accept the conclusions made by previous researchers. For this reason, I generally skip the previous research aspect of the literature search. I prefer to look at the records themselves and form my conclusions based on these records alone. This removes the potential to be biased toward a previous conclusion.

This is not to say that I do not still conduct a literature search. The difference is that I generally do not look at previous research until closer to the end of the project. After I have found the records and reached at least tentative conclusions, I may go back to see how they match up with previous research, to see if I may have missed some crucial element of the subject’s life. If I get stuck on a line, an online family tree might provide me with the clue that gets me past it.

What do you think about the literature search in this age of the Internet? Is it still necessary?

Please leave your comments below.

Is primary information truly reliable for genealogists?

“Just how accurate are the memories that we know are true?” “All our memories are reconstructed memories.”

— Scott Fraser, in TEDtalksDirector, “Scott Fraser: The problem with eyewitness testimony,” online video, uploaded 10 September 2012, Youtube ( : accessed 12 September 2012).

As genealogists we often look for ways to categorize the records we are using. We call sources original or derivative, based on the generation of the format we are using. We call information primary or secondary, based on the involvement of the informant in the events being reported. These designations are arguably an important aspect of our analysis of facts and details that appear in the records we find about our ancestors.

But how important are these designations, really? How much do they affect a record’s accuracy?

Is primary information necessarily more reliable that secondary information?

Our first sense would be “of course.” Someone who was an eyewitness to an event would be a more reliable source that someone who did not witness the event. This may be true, but just how much confidence can we have in primary information? Can we consider the testimony of an eyewitness inherently reliable?

This is where we must be more careful in our analysis of records. As Scott Fraser explores in the video below, the memories of even eyewitnesses can be flawed in surprising ways. This is no less true in our family history research than in a murder trial. “The brain abhors a vacuum,” Fraser remarks. “The brain fills in information that was not there, not originally stored—from inference, from speculation, from sources of information that came to you as the observer after the observation. … It’s called reconstructive memory.”

Making the designation between primary information and secondary information is a useful exercise in our process of records analysis. It is important to consider the involvement of the informant in the event being reported. However, it is equally important to consider other factors, for example:

  • how much time had passed between the event and the creation of the record;
  • what was the mental condition of the informant at the time of the event;
  • what was the mental condition of the informant at the time of the creation of the record;
  • what potential biases may have affected the reporting of the event, either intentional or unintentional.

As genealogists, finding records may seem like the bulk of what we do. Yet I consider the skilled and knowledgeable analysis of these records to be just as important, if not more so. Finding a record is a small part of the process; understanding the record–what it says and what it doesn’t say, its reliability, its significance–is vital for us to achieve reliable and accurate results.

In other words, determining the reliability of even an eyewitness’s testimony is the only way to determine the accuracy of our conclusions. Part of this process is understanding and considering the nature of human memory.

Take a look at this video for a more detailed exploration of the subject:

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “Is primary information truly reliable for genealogists?,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 13 September 2012 ( : 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.]


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