5 Questions Genealogists Should Always Ask

By Vanessa Wieland

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Genealogy research isn’t just about finding records of your ancestor’s existence or building a pretty family tree. What can we learn from the records we find and how can we use that information to understand our past? Asking some questions of the records you’re using can reveal a lot of hidden details.

1. Who is the informant?

Who is the person providing the information about your ancestor and how much do they really know about the event on record? Do you know who the informant is? And do they have reason to fudge the truth? A firsthand witness is going to be more reliable than someone who heard about it through another source.

For example, say you’re trying to determine a birthdate for your ancestor. In a census record, the informant could be someone in the household, or a neighbor. Without knowing who the source is, we can’t be certain that the information is correct. Perhaps it’s an estimate? Or perhaps they had reason to lie about their age?

Death records, on the other hand, contain the name of the informant, which can be very helpful in determining the reliability of the information. A spouse or parent is more likely to provide accurate information than a son- or daughter-in-law.

That’s why it’s important to find as many resources as possible to determine the accuracy of the information. When you have conflicting accounts, determining who provided the information can help determine what’s more likely to be true.

2. What information is included?

When we’re focused on answering a specific question, it’s tempting to fall into the trap of only looking for information that provides that answer. Don’t fall into the trap of overlooking other details in the record! Those can support or refute your answer, and even provide clues to other records.

Also, what is the record about? A death record’s primary function is to record a death, but it also may contain plenty of other information, including home towns or villages, names of parents, birth dates and spousal information. Those tidbits, while not the primary function of the record,
provide supporting evidence and additional details that can be just as useful.

In some cases, the record may not even be primarily about the ancestor you’re researching, but if it contains any relevant information, it’s still a piece of the puzzle. For example, the only record I have right now of my great-great grandmother’s name comes from her son’s marriage record.
It’s not about Anna Krouse, but because it provides evidence of who she was and where she was from, it’s a lead. You can also ask yourself, what is NOT included in the record?

Sometimes, missing information can be just as illuminating as what’s included. If you know your ancestor had three sons, but only two of them are included in the will, you may want to look into what transpired for them to be excluded.

3. When was the record created?

Dates matter. When looking at the record, it’s important to note the date of the event itself and the date the record was created. A memory of an event from two hours prior is fresh and far more reliable than a recounting of an event ten years later. Over time, details fade or are remembered differently, and two people can remember the same event very differently.

4. Where is the event recorded?

The “where” also matters. Not only where did the event occur, but where in the record is the information you are seeking, and where is the record itself stored? Counties and boundaries change, so knowing where the original record is can provide additional clues to finding other records, as well as determining the accuracy of the facts contained within it. And within the
record itself, sometimes the placement of the information is significant and can provide additional clues.

5. Why is it important?

My grandmother always said, “the devil’s in the details.” One of my great-granduncles was born in Louisville, KY while his older siblings were born in Wales and his younger siblings born in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. That little detail indicates that our ancestors may have lived
in Louisville for a few years, so when I’m searching for records around that time, I know to look for records in Louisville.

That’s not the only “why” question you should ask. In many cases, asking “why did the event happen?” can also provide some significant context, especially when it comes to migration. Knowing why an ancestor emigrated or moved from one city to another will add details to your understanding of your ancestor.

Last updated, October 2017

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