Research strategies for 2021

E. H. Glidden’s Wendell Mansions in Washington, D.C.

A new year offers a new chance to look at old problems with a fresh eye – and to consider fresh methods for breaking through well-established brick walls. Here is a chance to put the word out: What are your favorite approaches to beginning new research or to resolving long-standing problems?

As the editor at Vita Brevis, it is my job to write up my own research successes (and failures), and to edit the similar – but invariably different – accounts of travails and victories from the blog’s 100+ contributors. Over the years I have recommended a variety of hints and how-tos, starting with pointers on how best to utilize Google searches.

Using a maternal great-grandfather as an example, I wrote:

“Above all, try not to think like a genealogist. In my great-grandfather’s case, he generally went by his initials and surname professionally, reserving his full names for his grandest [architectural] commissions, the ones that showed off his artistry. Google will only yield what is there, and, I have found, yield it somewhat grudgingly – hence the repeated attempts to find the same recalcitrant facts. For nineteenth- and early twentieth-century publications, Google gives what the compilers wrote, which is, in general, not what we as genealogists may naively expect.

Google will only yield what is there, and, I have found, yield it somewhat grudgingly…

“So, by all means begin by searching full names, but be quick to move on to partial name searches and Soundex-style searches. Use every scrap of information you can think of, and use it aggressively, searching all the name variants for people and for places and things. Repeat these searches until you have exhausted every possible combination.”

Last month, I wrote about triangulating a known relationship to fill in an unknown one:

“A recent review of the Livingston articles in The Scots Peerage offered me the chance to zero in a bit on one loose end: Was Marion Forrester, wife of William Livingston, younger of Kilsyth, a daughter of Sir Duncan Forrester? If so, which of Sir Duncan’s wives was her mother? — a conundrum, as at least some of Sir Duncan’s children seemed far too old to include Marion in their number.

And who is Thomas Forrester’s mother, in whose name he is acting?

“A footnote in the article on the Livingstons of Kilsyth provided the clue. On 21 July 1545, ‘Thomas Forrester of Arngibbon, for his mother and in her name, delivers to William Livingston of Kilsyth, her oye [grandson], a charter made to the deceased William Livingston, his father, and Marion Forrester, his mother, by William Livingston [elder] of Kilsyth, of the lands of Over Garwalls…’ on 7 September 1525. To explain: In July 1545, William Livingston – Thomas Forrester’s nephew – is the heir to Over Garwalls, in possession of the lands associated with the Livingstons of Kilsyth. His father (and, it is implied, grandfather) is dead; his mother (Marion Forrester) is evidently alive, as is his grandmother… And who is Thomas Forrester’s mother, in whose name he is acting? A Google search for “Forrester of Arngibbon,” which was a property associated with the Forresters of Carden, yields another instance of Thomas appearing with his mother … and her name.”

In the years between 2014 and 2021, I’ve published 306 other blog posts associated with my name. (Several are omnibus pieces covering the year in review; others are ICYMI – “In case you missed it” – posts. Still, that’s a lot…) If you have made it thus far in this post, or on the blog, please leave a comment offering your favorite research strategies.

It might start a trend at Vita Brevis!

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

8 thoughts on “Research strategies for 2021

  1. The year is still young in implementing strategies. I find it worthwhile to keep chipping away at filling in all details within families, both in connecting to newspaper references and DNA databases. Apropos of what you wrote, I search separately for first and last names because in newspapers they sometimes run on separate lines. And with tracking at DNA, it helps solidify some relationships for which the paper evidence is shaky.

  2. Never give up. After struggling for years to verify my line back to the Mayflower, I started looking at geography and migration patterns. I finally tracked my ancestor into Canada (he was a smuggler) and created a timeline that followed his travels and trade negotiations. Viola! The line is now verified!

  3. I lmake a spreadsheet time line of all the information (names & variant spellings, censuses, VRs, deeds, probate, etc) I have found so far along with a short citation (tied to a separate list with full citations) as well as a table with all the censuses the person(s) appeared in. I also do a list of county and town boundary and name changes with dates. With these I can see where I should be looking for more sources,what I am missing, and where there are gaps in time or place. I read journal articles and books that cover the history and families in the geographic area(s) and time frame(s) of interest. I also do searches on major on-line databases to see what clues pop up in the work of others and for background information on the location(s) and history.

    1. WOW. Seriously, wow! I’m just an end user of programs now, but I remember the mental and time elements needed to make spreadsheets work well. Congrats on your perseverance and developed skills. Would you be willing to share what you’ve done as a template? All three? I’ve got projects upon projects that need better working notes organization. But taking the time to do that organization takes time away from the writing.

  4. Sometimes patience is the only answer. This year, I have found the information on two brick walls that I have been studying for years. The data had not been digitalize until recently. I wept when I saw the information on my mother’s family back six generations. There are only four copies of this data in the world and one copy is available in the US. Thanks to Family Search, the Catholic Church records from a part of Romania have now been published. I only wished that my mother had been still alive. I always felt bad that my research was always of my father’s family (back to the Mayflower). Her family were immigrants and the only information I had about them was from limited oral histories.

  5. It is really difficult to find information about a person who has a very common name for the time when they lived. I have been researching for my maternal great-grandfather’s service during the Civil War and it is almost impossible. The military records often do not include birth dates or where they are from so, it is difficult to decide who is who. Thank you for your suggestions.

    1. No fooling about those names, particularly those which are common, everyday words. I descend from John BONE. My husband is even worse: Henry FISH married Hannah MARSH, and Sydney CROSS married Augusta HALL.

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