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“Can you research my family?” Because of my job as the editor of Family Tree Magazine, I occasionally field genealogy questions from friends and relatives. And every once in a while, I’ll take them on to keep my sleuthing skills sharp. (My wife’s grandmother calls this a “postman’s holiday.”)
Though the research principles are the same, working on someone else’s family tree has some key differences from working on your own. For example, you don’t have the same information to build a research foundation on, nor do you have a lifetime of family stories to guide and inspire you. Because of that, it’s much easier to bark up the wrong family tree when the ancestors aren’t your own.
My most recent “client” is a friend (we’ll call her Morgan) whose family is scattered across the Eastern United States. She knew her roots went back to Italy, but didn’t have much more information than that. Another is May, who never met her birth father and wanted to learn about her paternal ancestors who have long been a mystery.
Based on research for those and other “clients,” I’ve put together a few tips for researching someone else’s genealogy that will help you have a successful consult—whether you’re helping a spouse, friend or paying client.
What’s in It for Me?
By researching someone else’s genealogy, you’ll open yourself up to new resources and better hone your skills. To track down records of another family tree, you’ll likely encounter a kind of record you haven’t researched, or learn how to tackle a problem you haven’t seen before.
Plus, you’ll be using your skills and passion to help someone else. Genealogy is all about collaboration!
1. Set a Goal
Creating specific, measurable goals for your research (both personal and for someone else) will give you clear benchmarks. Your goal will naturally evolve as you gather more information (and you can modify it as you go), but you still need a jumping-off point.
Work with your client to figure out what, exactly, he wants to learn about his family. This can be tricky, particularly if you’re working with someone who has limited knowledge about their family or doesn’t understand how genealogy research works. Still, you should press beyond “I’m just curious” or “I want to learn more about my ancestors” to determine what’s really motivating your client.
The SMART principle, which was first developed by business-management experts in the 1980s, is one popular guideline for defining goals. SMART is an acronym, with each letter standing for a different criterion. Applied to genealogy, SMART goals are:
- Specific: Goals should be narrowly defined, such as being about a specific event, time period, ancestor or family branch
- Measurable: Goals should have a concrete way of being evaluated and a defined “end” point
- Achievable: Goals should be attainable and realistic, taking into account limited time and access to records
- Relevant: Goals should be related to family history—i.e., something that genealogy research can uncover
- Timely/time-bound: Goals should have a deadline attached (Note: This may only be a factor if you’re doing paid client research.)
Some thinkers use different words to form the acronym, such as “strategic” instead of specific, “actionable” or “assignable” instead of achievable, or “realistic” instead of relevant. But the key features of SMART goals don’t change.
Let’s look at an example. “Find more ancestors” is not a SMART goal because it’s not measurable. There will always be “more” ancestors to find, so how will you know when you’ve accomplished your goal?
Likewise, “find all ancestors” isn’t a SMART goal either, because it’s not realistic. After all, your client has an endless number of ancestors, but (if you’re lucky, and assuming no significant record less) you’ll only be able to research those who lived in the past 500 years at most.
In addition, neither of those two goals is particularly specific: What does “finding” an ancestor mean? Discovering a name? Proving a relationship?
Instead, here are some SMART goals that are similar to those above, but better defined:
- Determine names and birth dates for all 16 great-great-grandparents.
- Name all direct-line ancestors who were alive in 1865, and where they were living at the time.
- Trace all members of the Smith household from the 1900 census to the 1910 census, and find death records for any of them who passed away between the two enumerations.
Other potential SMART goals include:
- Recover the name and location of the Smith family’s ancestral town in England.
- Determine maiden names for all eight great-grandmothers.
- Find WWI draft records for all male ancestors who were of fighting age in the 1910s.
2. Ask the Right Questions
Since you’re not researching your own family (who you likely knew quite a bit about already), you’ll essentially be starting from scratch. Given this challenge, you’ll need as much reliable information as you can get to jump-start your research.
To begin, interview your client to get some basic details. Our list of questions will get you started. Be sure to ask:
- When and where were you born?
- What were the names and birth dates of your parents?
- At what locations was your family known to have lived?
Write down everything, and ask your client for all he knows (and is willing to share) about family members. This will save you time in the long run, plus help you better understand the scope of your client’s family tree.
Also be sure to ask what research your client has already done. You’ll want to verify any names, dates and locations with sources, but having even the skeleton outline of a tree to base your research off of can save you valuable time. Many families have an unofficial keeper of old documents and photos—see if your client can get you in touch with the one in theirs, if possible.
3. Look for New Resources
No two family trees are the same, and the databases and strategies that’ve worked for your own research might not work for someone else’s. Others’ family trees will likely lead you to new places and force you to consult new kinds of records.
For example, both Morgan and May have relatives who served in the military, but I have yet to find documentation of any of my ancestors who served. Researching their families brought me into contact with Korean War service records and WWI veterans’ benefit applications, two record sets I knew existed but had no reason to work with previously.
Likewise, whole new countries might open up for you. My ancestors are almost exclusively from Germany, the United Kingdom and Ireland, but researching Morgan’s family took me to the shores of Napoli. With that new location came a need to understand a new country’s key records and access guidelines.
The FamilySearch Wiki has detailed how-to articles for thousands of genealogy subjects, including record types in different countries. In addition, Cyndi’s List has subject-level directories for just about every genealogy topic you can think of.
How-to books can be helpful, as well. For Morgan’s Italian research, I consulted The Family Tree Italian Genealogy Guide by Melanie D. Holtz (Family Tree Books). The book outlined the most important types of records, plus key websites and archives for finding them.
Even something as simple as researching in a different US state can require you to pivot to new resources. Due to differing privacy restrictions and research agreements, a website may have thoroughly digitized and indexed one state’s records, while having next to nothing of another state’s.
For example, I’ve come up dry looking for my Ohio ancestor’s naturalization records at Ancestry.com. But I found Morgan’s great-grandfather (who lived in Pennsylvania) on the site with hardly any trouble.
Our collection of state research guides will help you take your research across the United States. These quick, four-page summaries walk you through each state’s history, key record types, and tips for vital-records access.
4. Check in Often
As you research, touch base with your client periodically. You want to make sure you’ve been researching the right individuals in the right locations, particularly if your client has a common last name.
Checking in can also help springboard more memories. Even if you didn’t get much information initially, you’ll be surprised by how much your friend remembers once you find the right trigger. Perhaps all he needed was a name to jog his memory and remind him of something an aunt used to say. That, in turn, can lead you to new records and ancestors.
Lead off with statements like “I found the name John Smith in my research. Does that sound familiar?” Bring along photos of people and places, if you’ve found any. Ask follow-up questions to tease out details that you can apply to your ongoing research.
5. Share What They Want to Know
Research turns up all sorts of information. In fact, you may find yourself with more details and records than you know what to do with. Genealogists can manage all that data and sift through it to find the most important nuggets, but your client is likely not so savvy.
May, for example, is something of a Luddite. Presenting her with the dozens of digitized records that I found of her mother, aunts and uncles, and grandparents would have quickly overwhelmed her. Instead, I focused solely on records (and information) relevant to our goal—identifying her birth father’s parents and grandparents.
It’s your job to determine what information is the most important to share with your client—and not to overwhelm them with the rest. Of course, you’re not attempting to censor anything or keep your client in the dark. Rather, you simply want to summarize your key findings and continue moving toward your research objective. Start with what’s most relevant to the goal(s) you established in No. 1.
Having said that: You might consider sharing information you know will be meaningful to your client, even if it’s outside the scope of your project. For example, I found a high school yearbook photo of May’s mother, which I thought she might enjoy. She had never seen a photo of her teenaged mother, and appreciated being able to see her at such a young age.
6. Tread Lightly
Family history is incredibly personal, and you never know what potential landmines you might unearth in your research.
The fact that you’re not personally impacted by discoveries is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you, as a dispassionate, third-party researcher, can provide an objective view of a family’s history. And, in most cases, you won’t be as emotionally involved as a family member. You can more logically investigate fraught situations, such as unexpected adoptions, infidelity and “black sheep” ancestors.
But, on the other hand, you’re also something of an outsider. As a non-family member, you may be perceived as not having a “right” to participate in conversations about sensitive family matters.
Keep this in mind as you present your findings. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes—How would you feel if you were just discovering this information about your ancestors? If possible, consult with someone else in the family ahead of time to learn if any ancestors or subjects are considered taboo or too emotional to discuss.
This is especially true when embarking on genetic genealogy, since DNA is adept at unearthing long-buried family secrets. DNA expert Diahan Southard recommends deciding with a client ahead of time what kind of information they want to know, and forewarning them about the potential for new (even shocking) details.
A version of this article appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Family Tree Magazine.