When You Are Stuck: Some Thoughts

  • Write up every piece of information you know about your “lost” ancestor. Every piece.
  • Include a source citation for every piece of information you know about your ancestor–if it came from an interview of a relative, so state. If it was on a piece of paper or a digital image of that paper, cite it. Make certain you have transcribed the information completely and accurately from that source.
  • If you don’t have a source for a piece of information–indicate that. That doesn’t mean the information is wrong, just that you don’t have a source for it.
  • Are there any relatives of the “lost person” who have not been fully researched? And if you think they are fully researched, have you really confirmed that?
  • Are there any words or terms that you have encountered while searching that person that you are not completely certain you understand?
  • Have you shared your write up of your “lost person” with a researcher, genealogy group, message board, etc. who might be able to give some insight?

There are other things one can do as well, including learning about the time period and location of the “lost person,” their religious affiliation, occupation, educational level, etc.


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What Gaps Do You Have?

I began my genealogy research when I was in junior high school. As a result my funds for copies of genealogy documents was limited–very limited. As I got into high school, I performed local research for others to earn money to support my genealogy habit. But my budget was very tight.

I was selective about the items I would pay to obtain a copy of–very selective. I also wouldn’t obtain copies of records that had information “I already had.” As I review my files a few decades later, I realize that there are things on some families that I never obtained. That is the case with the death certificate of Jans Janssen who died in Illinois in 1929. I knew the names of his parents and his date and place of birth (from his baptismal record) and his tombstone, obituary, and probate file all provided the date of death. Because of that I decided I didn’t need his death certificate.

Of course the death certificate is the best document for his date of death, but there’s little doubt about the veracity of the date from the other records that I have. But there could be something on the death certificate that I don’t already know and I need to decide if I should obtain it.

Sometimes early in our research we don’t get certain documents for one reason or another. Could it be time to review the research you did in the “early days” to see if there are things you didn’t get because you “didn’t need them?” Is there any chance they contain information you may be missing out on?

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What Keywords Distinguish Your Person?

Internet and digital newspaper searches for individuals with common names can be difficult. John Smiths and Mary Jones are everywhere. Searches for individuals whose last name has another meaning, such as Lake, King, Noble, etc. can be just as challenging–if not more. Elizabeth Lake, William King, and John Noble create their own search problems.

For some searches, location keywords based on your ancestor’s life can facilitate finding the person of interest, such as: place of birth (town, county, etc.), place of death, other residences, etc. Names of states or territories may be too common and not effectively narrow your search. Or they might perfect–if just depends.

For other individuals, searches that include a specific part of a residence (particularly a street name for urban relatives), an occupation, or names of other family members may be helpful.

Looking for specific events can be helpful if searching for just the name results in too many results to manually search through. Consider:

  • obituary,
  • funeral,
  • death,
  • wedding,
  • married,
  • birth,
  • child,
  • etc.

Think about what words likely appear next to your relative’s name in the type of article for which you are looking–if it’s newspapers for which you are looking. Think about what distinguishes your ancestor from others with similar names. Those distinguishing factors may also be effective search terms as well.

Keep a list of the words you use for an ancestor when searching the internet, digital papers, etc. Then you have a reference when you begin working on another relative.

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Searching the Trees of DNA Matches for Names

Searching the trees of your DNA matches for names can be a way to sift through some of the low-hanging matches that are easier to figure out. Of course many DNA matches do not have trees so this approach only looks at those trees–a definite limitation. There are other things to consider as well:

  • The tree might not be correct and the name is wrong.
  • The shared name (and the connection to that family) might be too far back in the tree to share any DNA through that family.
  • There might actually be other connections you have with that person (through spots currently blank in their tree or yours) and while you share an ancestral name on your paper genealogy tree, your shared DNA is through another family.
  • The name might be more common than you think and you might not even be related through that family–either on paper or via DNA.

Searching for shared names is a great way to get started. But like every analytical technique, being aware of the pitfalls is important. Knowing the limitations of any procedure does not mean we ignore the technique–it means that we use it carefully.


The recording and handouts for my AncestryDNA 2020 webinar have been released. More details are on our announcement page. The presentation, handout, and color chart (PDF and editable word file) can be ordered at the introductory rate for $20. Download immediate.

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There’s Thinking and There’s Thinking

One of the best ways I eliminate some errors in my reasoning is to go back and look at a conclusion that I have written and look at every part of it that is based on “what I think I know” and what I have some documentation for. Thinking when doing genealogical research is advised. That’s entirely different than thinking we know. What we “think we know” may be based on:

  • misconceptions,
  • our own experience (when it doesn’t apply to the problem at hand);
  • facts we have remembered incorrectly;
  • assumptions;
  • stereotypes about the family being researched;
  • and so on.

Any of these things we “think” we know can be hindering our research.

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DNA Practice?

If the first genealogy DNA test you’re going to have done is for someone who was adopted at birth with unknown biological parents, consider working on a test for someone who was not adopted and whose parents, grandparents, some great-grandparents, and the basics of family structure are perhaps already known.

This will allow you to practice and to build your analytical skills. That can be easier to do for a testee where the paper genealogical tree already partially exists. You may be less overwhelmed, less stressed out about the results (because it’s not your own family), and gain some additional insight into your own search. That experience will help you when you analyze the results for the adopted individual.

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Your Own Memories and History

When was the last time you wrote some of your own personal history and memories? It’s always ironic to discover a genealogist who has worked up many of their families and spent years searching for personal ephemera from their own relatives only to not leave any such record of their own memories, life, and experiences.

A Facebook fan mentioned that she keeps a Word document open so that whenever a personal post I make reminds her of something she can immediately go and write about it before she forgets. That’s an excellent idea. Working on such writing is an excellent idea when you are stuck and at a seemingly impasse in your own research. The diversion may give the subconscious parts of your mind to contemplate your problem while you are leaving behind a little something about yourself.

Don’t forget to leave behind for others that which we wish others had left behind for us.

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Genealogy Tip of the Day Book

We’re still excited about the release of Genealogy Tip of the Day–the book. Repeat tips, time-sensitive items, and marketing material has been removed. It’s just tips–and a few pictures. Purchase options include:

Thanks!

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Don’t Forget: Funeral Home Websites

Online newspapers and obituary websites are a great way to find obituaries of recently deceased individuals. Do not limit your search to only the individual online newspaper and compilation sites of published obituaries like www.legacy.com. View the funeral home and view their version of the website. That obituary may be different from the one published in an online newspaper, particularly dependent upon the newspaper’s charge.

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Nearest Relatives on Draft Cards

I always make it a habit to search for World War I and II draft cards for just about any relative who was of an age to have registered. Besides the details on the registrant, the name of the person “who will always know your residence” can be helpful as it may give addresses for individuals who are otherwise difficult to trace.

You may even discover someone listed when you do not expect it. My uncle had been married for near twenty years when he registered for the World War II draft. Instead of listing his wife, he picked his sister Fannie–my great-grandma.

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