Taking Back What Was Once Lost

Formulating Research Questions

Following a repeatable process to guide our genealogy research can make the difference between success on the one hand, and being  lost in papers and files years later with no where to go. There are so many things I wish I could whisper to my 1997 self when I first set out on this path, although there are some things I’m proud that I did the “right” way, like interviewing relatives and reading everything related to genealogy I could get my hands on.

All of our research should start with a specific research question. These questions help us to create a focused plan of attack, and help us to focus on records likely to hold the answers we need. I want to use something from my own research to illustrate how to formulate those questions.

Daniel George Waters

Daniel George Waters

This wonderful photo is my great-grandfather Daniel George Waters, born in 1875 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in Somerset County. He was a minister with the Methodist church, as was his grandfather & several uncles & great-uncles. My father has told me many stories of him, mainly of how everybody was so afraid of him because he was very stern. Looking at this photo, I believe it! Ministers moved as their assignments changed, so my grandmother grew up in towns all over the Eastern Shore of Maryland & Delaware. You can read about his Waters lineage on the “Paternal” tab above, then scroll down to Waters.

While I have amassed plenty of information on his paternal side, his mother’s side hasn’t gotten much attention from me. As a little background, Somerset County, Maryland had a large number of freed blacks before state emancipation in 1864.Daniel’s mother’s name, Mollie Curtis, was passed down via oral history. I found her in several census records with her husband Samuel Waters, and I located their date of marriage. Recently I pulled Mollie’s death certificate:

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Mollie Waters

Her parents on the certificate above are listed as George and Maria Curtis. Fortunately, George lived to be 90 and I was able to pull his death certificate as well.

George Curtis

George Curtis

This places George Curtis’ birth at ca. 1814. I was able to locate the family of George Curtis on the 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880 and 1900 census records for the county. Now, while I’m pretty sure these are the right people (there are no other George Curtis’ who are black and free in that county at that time), I still have a lot of research to do. That research begins by formulating questions. Here are several questions these two records, in addition to the census records, have led me to ask:

1) Does Manokin Cemetery, Somerset County, MD, have existing headstones or burial records?
2) What is the relationship, if any, of Clinton Collins, the informant on Mollie’s death certificate?
3) Mollie is listed as a widow; does a death certificate exist for her husband Samuel Waters?
4) What is the relationship, if any, of George Hill, the informant on George Curtis’ death certificate?
5) Mollie was born ca. 1859 according to this record; was she recorded as a freed black in the freedom certificates of the county?
6) Were George and his wife Maria recorded as a freed blacks in the freedom certificates of the county?
7) How did Mollie Waters obtain her freedom?
8) How did George Curtis obtain his freedom?
9) What was the maiden name of George Curtis’ wife, Maria?
10) When did George Curtis marry his wife Maria?
11) Is there a death certificate for Maria Curtis?
12) Are the family of George and Maria Curtis found in the records of the local black church?
13) Did John Curtis (white), with whom George Curtis is living in the 1850 and 1860 census, own and later free George Curtis?

I’m sure I’ll have more over time, but notice how specific the questions are. Some will involve more work to answer, but each question builds upon the others, and allows me to gather the information I seek in a focused way. For some questions, I may be unable to find the answer. Those “negative” results should also be recorded. Using my knowledge of the available records for Maryland in general and Somerset County in particular, I can put together a list of repositories and records I need to search to find the answers. As I research these answers, I’ll include them here on the blog.

Have you created specific genealogy research questions? Tell me in the comments if you’ve been practicing this already, and if you haven’t, choose an ancestor give it a shot.

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About Me

I blog, teach, write and lecture about family history research and it's just as rewarding today as it was when I began 18 years ago. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my past and I've taken back--reclaimed- my kin and some of that lost memory.  

Post History

What I Talk About

Locations and Surnames

Hardin, Chester and Lawrence Counties, TN
Holt, Barnes, Harbour, Bradley Springer and Fendricks
Lawrence County, AL
Springer and Fendricks
Montgomery County, MD
Prather, Simpson
Somerset County, MD
Waters, Fountain, Curtis
Duval and Madison County, FL
Smith, Harris, Garner

Favorite Family History Quotes

"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."
-William Faulkner

"Call it a clan, call it a network, all it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one"
- Jane Howard

"Friends are God's apologies for relations."
-Hugh Kingsmill

"No matter what you've done for yourself or for humanity, if you can't look back on having given love and attention to your own family, what have you really accomplished?"
-Elbert Hubbard

"Families are like fudge; mostly sweet with a few nuts."
-Unknown

"If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you might as well make it dance!"
-Unknown

"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city;)"
-George Burns

"Where does the family start? It starts with a young man falling in love with a girl. No superior alternative has yet been found."
-Winston Churchill

"The great gift of family life is to be intimately acquainted with people you might never ever introduce yourself to had life not done it for you."
-Kendall Hailey

"If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all the generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people."
-Thich Nhat Hanh

Geneabloggers