Success in genealogical research usually is measured by documenting critical junctures of birth, marriage and death; by identifying an ancestral couple’s children; and by linking each generation to the one before it.
Sometimes we think we’ve made all the connections and are sure of our information, only to have someone else point out to us that we’ve fallen short of proving those critical milestones. That’s frustrating and embarrassing.
Even the most conscientious of family historians can get lost in the data, but here’s a simple procedure to help sort and assess information and cull the worthless junk.
First, open a blank document (with landscape orientation) in your word processing software. At the top of the page type the name of a single ancestor. You should start with a parent and work backward to his parent (your grandparent), etc. Go ahead and save the document before you start your work. For example, I named one document “McCollough, John Allen Summary Table.”
Then create a table with four columns. Label the first column as “Event,” the second as “Dates,” the third as “Source” and “Assessment of Information” as the fourth.
Time to start the entries.
My first event for John is his birth. In the date column, I enter 4 January 1884. As a source I enter John Allen McCollough World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918: accessed at www.ancestry.com from original records of the United States Selective Service System. World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. M1509, 4,582 rolls.
Under assessment of information, I state that the information on this record was provided by John under oath — it probably is accurate because he would know when he celebrated his birthday and he had no reason to falsify the sworn record.
I have multiple other sources that provide the same date of birth for John and also give his place of birth, so I create additional rows and enter the date and places, identifying an additional source and assessing it.
I continue through this process, entering his marriage, the births of his children, his education, civic activities, employment, military service, different places he lived, etc., concluding with death as his final entry.
You can use this table format not only to help you sort and assess your information but also to direct additional research. When I have entered all the events and dates for an ancestor, I have a time line of his life and the evidence I used at each point. If I entered “Death” in an event column but entered nothing in the other columns, I have a glaring hole in my research.
I now can begin a “To Do” or “Research Plan” on which I will list all the documents I might be able to use to determine when my ancestor died. The most obvious will be to find a death certificate or tombstone. But suppose he died before a state kept death records and is buried in an unmarked grave? In those cases, what records could I search to find a date of death or indirect evidence from which I can project an approximate date of death? I might use probate records, census mortality schedules, Social Security death indexes, obituaries, marriage records showing his widow remarrying, etc.
If you’re overwhelmed with the materials you have or just aren’t sure where you stand, I’m confident this table exercise will help you clarify and focus.
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She regrets she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching individuals. Past Heritage Hunting columns are available online at tbo.com, search words “Sharon Tate Moody.”