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Analyzing records for family history

by , CGSM, FMGS, FUGA

Your daily mail has arrived. It includes Great Aunt Martha’s obituary, ordered from the library's newspaper archives in the town where she lived. You immediately read it and your mind is hopping with ideas of things to research further. But it’s time to make dinner, change laundry loads, or mow the grass. Several days later you take time to reread that obituary and figure out what to do with the clues it provides for your family tree. Unfortunately some of those neat ideas you had during the first reading have disappeared. Read on to learn how to preserve your family's history and for tips on how to best analyze common records that we encounter in our family history quest.

Family history records - How to analyze your findings

  • Always jot down those immediate ideas when looking at a family history document for the first time. We often lose some of the ingenious research angles when we come back to a record later. Eventually, you can type these ideas as part of the "written analysis" needed with any new ancestry record, and continue adding to them during any in-depth analysis.
  • A good way to fully grasp all a record has to offer is to type it up word-for-word for further family research later on. Transcribing is a way to get the specifics ingrained in your mind. At the very least save the core details, such as from a census schedule, which is more difficult to type word-for-word.
  • Pay attention to what the document tells you. What is new to you? Are there parts that oppose what you already know about your family tree? Details that confuse you? New localities to learn about and continue your research?
  • As you analyze family history documents, consider the source itself and how/why errors might occur. Is it from a microfilm, courthouse, or from someone’s memory? It’s ok to ask where someone got their information. Conversely, you need to let others know where you got details and documents when you share them.
  • Why was the ancestry document created? Who created it? When was it created? All this affects the reliability.
  • If the handwriting or printing is difficult to read, compare with other items on the page or from the same record volume.
  • Create a brief timeline from this document and add some previous findings to put the details in perspective. The timeline might look like this: [These are not real people and these are not full source citations.]
1. 1822, January 18 Akron, Ohio Martha Q. Smithton born [per Martha Q. Smithton Griffin obituary]
2. 1835 Fort Wayne, Indiana Smithton family arrives [per Martha’s obituary]
3. 1845, June 24 Fort Wayne, Indiana Martha Q. Smithton married Harold Griffin [per her obituary]
4. 1850 Des Moines, Iowa Smithton/Griffin families on census [in my files]
5. 1860 Des Moines, Iowa Smithton/Griffin families on census [in my files]
6. 1864   Harold Griffin dies in Civil War [per Martha’s obituary]
7. 1885, January 4 Des Moines, Iowa Martha Q. Griffin dies [per her obituary]
8. 1885, January 6 Council Bluffs, Iowa Martha Q. Griffin buried in Fairview Cemetery [per her obituary]

Benefits of record analysis

The timeline and document transcription draw out questions and suggestions for further family history research. Put it away for several days and then look at it again to bring up other ideas.

Questions to ask: If Martha died in Des Moines, why is she buried in Council Bluffs? Was there a family member in Council Bluffs? Does the obituary list children and where they resided? Another possibility is that a sibling lived in Council Bluffs. Don’t forget the family of her husband, Harold Griffin. He may be the one with family connections to Council Bluffs.

Maps are vital

Include map correlation in your analysis. Maps show that Des Moines is about 127 miles from Council Bluffs and that Council Bluffs, Iowa, is adjacent to Omaha, Nebraska. Look also at maps from the time period when your relatives lived there.

Expanding your family tree research

Now that you have the Des Moines newspaper obituary, there are clues to other possible obituaries. There might be one in a Council Bluffs or Omaha newspaper. Might there be family there who attended the funeral in Des Moines? Were there still relatives back in Fort Wayne? Did any kind of notice appear about Martha’s death or last illness there? A relative may be included in a local news column as having gone to visit her at some point or for attending the funeral. Keep in mind that a relative from Council Bluffs might have moved into neighboring Omaha.

To verify the marriage date, determine if Fort Wayne, Allen County, Indiana, has marriage records for that time period. Many websites provide such information, and indeed, there is a likelihood of finding proof of the marriage date.

Find a location to best perform your research

Think about the spot where you generally sit and work on your family history documents. Some of us sit on the couch with family members around, at our usual spot at the dining room table, or our messy desk surrounded by lovely stacks of paper. Take the new family history document to a different place for the analysis. It might be the local library study room, coffee shop, or a picnic table at the local park. Bring along your laptop computer, iPad, netbook or a tablet of paper. Reviewing the document in a new setting often helps with deeper analysis and culling of details.

Ask help from fellow family historians

If you are confident a record is pertinent to your family history research but it has some points you don’t understand or that seem to conflict, it might be time to call in reinforcements. Collaboration and a fresh set of eyes can make a big difference in the analysis of the record. Call upon a local genealogical society or a relative who is also interested in the research. It might cost you a lunch at their favorite restaurant or involve you in the reading of one of their documents.

Another route is look to the professionals. Join the conversation at the findmypast.com blog or the findmypast.com facebook. You may also want to hire a professional genealogist in an ancestral locality to do a separate analysis of the item based on their knowledge of the area and records.

It’s our job as family historians

Whether it’s an obituary, deed, church record, or marriage record, we need to look at the document from a variety of directions as we analyze it. We can’t take it just at face value, we need to glean hidden material, judge contradictory details, deduce clues for further research, and make sure the record pertains to the correct individual or family. We need to give ourselves a variety of opportunities to absorb all that a family history record has to offer.

About the Author
Paula Stuart-Warren, CG, FMGS, FUGA, lives in Minnesota but is an internationally known for her genealogical and historical consulting, lecturing, research, and writing. She coordinates courses at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy and the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh, is on the Board of Directors of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, and is co-chair of the FGS 2013 Fort Wayne Conference. She may be reached via her blog paulastuartwarren.blogspot.com