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:


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.

7 Ways to Jumpstart Your Research

DR_babes12 No, you’re not going crazy. This list started out as 5 Ways but has now grown to 7 Ways;)

I’ve been looking for an excuse to post this picture of myself with my older brother, so this is as good a time as any. It puts me in the Christmas spirit.

We’re headed into the holiday season and maybe you’ll have a week or so before the end of the year to do some last minute genealogy wrap-up. Here are some ideas to jumpstart your research and provide good ground to start with in 2014.

1.  Order any original records that you don’t have. Organize all of the data you have gathered on each surname. If you have the date of a marriage from an online database, write and get a copy of the original marriage record. If you have a death date, write away for the original death certificate. Get a copy of the original deed or court record or anything else you’ve gathered. Most can be obtained for small fees. These records can be obtained from either the state archives, state vital records office or county courthouse and you can easily go online to find out where you need to write. We must base our research on analysis of original records, and too many people settle for just having the date they pulled from a database. We will miss critical clues if we do that. Instead of this image:

Familysearch indexed data

Familysearch indexed data

Have this original record of Beatrice’s death (below):


Original death certificate

Some original records are available online, but this is why it’s helpful to go through your research and figure out which ones you don’t have.

2. Research the history of court records in one of your research states. You need to find out what the courts were called and what types of cases each one handled. For example, googling “north carolina court history” uncovered this PDF document. Other places to look are in Ancestry’s Red Book at the library, at state archives websites and several of the FamilySearch Wikis now have court histories included, like this one for South Carolina. Now that you have the names of the courts, you can make a plan to start researching each type of court in the new year. For example, in Tennessee (19th and 20th century) I researched the County Court records, the Chancery Court records, and the Circuit Court records for my counties. Court records contain amazing information not available anywhere else.

3. Identify the “cluster” of people associated with your families. I recently gave a lecture on cluster research and how it can be used to further our research. Humans live within social groups, and cluster research takes advantage of that principle. Pick a family or two and make a list of the people in their “cluster”, or as Elizabeth S. Mills says, their FAN Club (Family, Associates, Neighbors). A cluster should include all extended family members plus in-laws, neighbors, people living nearby with the same surname, witnesses and bondsmen on deeds and marriages and business associates, just to name a few. Researching the cluster will often lead to uncovering more information on your family/person/couple of interest and can often break through brick walls. It has worked for me. Now you’ll have a list of people to start researching in 2014; and remember you’ll never know where the road will lead until you try.

4. Make a list of microfilm you need to order and research from FamilySearch. Go to, click Search, and then click Catalog. In the “Search by: Places” box type in your research state, then county. A list will pop up of types of records that Familysearch has microfilmed. For example, this is the list for Edgecombe County, North Carolina:

Records List

Records List

Clicking on any category will lead you to the exact microfilm titles and numbers. For example, I clicked on Court Records here under Edgecombe County, NC:

Court records

Court records

Clicking on Bastardy Bonds brought me to this list:

Bastardy bonds

Bastardy bonds

This is what you need: exact film titles and the film numbers on the far right. Write them down; you can start by searching probate, land, or court record indexes. Find a Family History Center near where you live, take that list, and ask the representative to guide you through setting up your online account and ordering the film. Unfortunately, the website is not very intuitive and you’ll really need someone to show you how to setup and order, but once you’ve done that, you can now order from home & research records from Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, or any other state without leaving your home state! If you have yet to do this, it will launch your research to new heights.

5. Redouble your efforts to find living descendants. If you can trace someone to the 1940 census, and they had children in that census, find those descendants. First focus on the males since they would not have undergone a name change; for females you’d first have to find out if they married (and remarried). Search the Social Security database at Ancestry to see if that person may have died (common names will be harder to find this way). If the person did die, especially in the late 1980s and beyond, you may find an obituary in a newspaper at, or better yet, try the local library. Many local libraries have obituary indexes for the more recent years. An obituary should list survivors. Try online sites like zabasearch and white pages to see if you can get mailing addresses. I frequently send out brief postcards explaining the connection and asking for a phone call. Even if you get the death certificate of someone who died in the 1980s and beyond, you can try to contact the Informant listed on that death certificate. Also, later burials are more likely to have headstones (search Find-a-grave) and these are sources of death dates as well. Needless to say, the benefits of connecting with living descendants are endless.

6. Find special collections and manuscripts relevant to your research area. There are hidden gems in these collections just waiting to be discovered, but we often bypass these for more common records. These collections can contain those all-important slaveowner records, particularly for large slaveowners, but records of the local doctor and store merchant are also valuable as they can contain interactions with enslaved people. To get started, make a list of 4 or 5 major and regional universities in your research state, and then add state and county historical societies and the state archives to that list. Many of these repositories have descriptions of their special collections/manuscripts online. For example, for TN, I might examine collections at the University of TN, Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt University, and because I do black history research, Fisk University. I would include in that list the Tennessee Historical Society, the Tennessee Genealogical Society & the one for my county, the Hardin County Historical Society. The state archives is the Tennessee State Library & Archives. With this list of institutions, go to each website and search for description of their manuscript/special collections. Look not just for your surname or slaveowner’s surname, but search for anything from people who lived in your county. For example, this is Fisk University’s Special Collections page:

Fisk SC

Fisk SC

In 2014, with your list of institutions, and specific collections of interest, you can begin to order microfilm from the institution or plan a research trip to the facility. (Note: Colleges and Universities from other states may also hold collections relevant to your research, for example, University of North Carolina holds many records from all southern states.)

7. Make a chart to see what record groups you are missing. I have discussed before the benefit of using charts for your genealogy research. Staying organized and focused becomes harder and harder the more information we accumulate. Try this: in Microsoft Word or Excel (or just draw it by hand) list parents, one on each line, followed down the list by each child.  Then across the top, create columns with these titles: Censuses, Land Records, Birth, Marriage, Death, Divorce, Probate Records, Tax Records, Court Records, etc. (there are many types you can use). For each person, assess whether you have searched for their names in that record type. This is a simple exercise, but you may be surprised at the results. Here is a simple chart I did for my Simpson line:

simple chart

simple chart

Of course, I have a separate census chart where I break it out by year & make sure I have searched for each person in every relevant census year.

I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving & I hope these ideas gets you excited about your research & reignited for 2014.

Do You Have an Artificial Brick Wall?

MC900390920My friend Aaron calls them artificial. They can also be called self-imposed brick walls. We say this to mean we have labelled something a brick wall that really isn’t a brick wall. We call them that even though we haven’t done our due diligence in terms of careful research. Consider these examples:

We declare the brick wall of not being able to find an ancestor in a census year but we haven’t tried multiple spellings and pronunciations,
haven’t used wildcard searches,
haven’t searched surrounding counties,
haven’t searched other census websites other than Ancestry,
haven’t considered a migration out of state and biggest of all—
haven’t done a line-by-line search in the district or county we expect to find them in.

We declare a brick wall, but we have only been to one or two repositories in person, or worse still, have done all our research online.

We declare a brick wall,
but have used books and websites to collect information without ordering and examining firsthand the original record.

We declare a brick wall,
but we’ve only searched 2 or 3 TYPES of records such as census records, vital records and the “easy” databases on Ancestry (like World War I draft cards). We haven’t even tried to search land records, court records, church records, maps, city directories, probate records, newspapers and other record sets.

We declare a brick wall,
but we’ve only been searching for our direct ancestor and maybe his wife and children. We have not expanded to the group (or “cluster”) of people that were associated with our ancestors and would significantly increase our chances for success.

We declare a brick wall,
after jumping back several generations, and not doing extensive research within each generation on all the siblings and children of each sibling.

We declare a brick wall, but we’re wearing cultural blinders. We aren’t considering that people may have had children outside of or before marriage, or that they may appear in the records as a different race.

We declare a brick wall,
but have never actually analyzed and correlated the evidence that we DO have. In fact, we don’t know how to evaluate the evidence. We believe everything we see in print is factual, accurate and true. If two records give conflicting information, we have no idea which one is correct.

We declare a brick wall,
and have never tried to find living descendants of any of the family members.

We declare a brick wall,
but never stopped to consider our ancestor may have had multiple marriages. We also never actually verified the mother of each child separately from the father.

We declare a brick wall,
but have never expanded our search to less common but potentially valuable records stored onsite at universities, historical and genealogical societies. And-

(my personal favorite)

We declare a brick wall,
but have never actually read a book on genealogy methodology or any of the thousands of teaching articles published in genealogy journals. We have progressed mainly by asking others what to do next instead of taking the time to learn ourselves “what to do next.”

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Genealogy is a learned skill and a profession with defined standards. You get good at it by practice and by education. I define “good” as using best practices for careful research and ultimately being able to discern clues that don’t jump off the page. That’s what will set you apart from when you were a beginner. I look at evidence I gathered in earlier years and see things now I couldn’t possibly see then. You have to progress away from “looking up” people in databases and learn how to “look into” people’s lives, which is a different animal altogether.

I have been guilty of many of these artificial brick walls myself and have had to overcome my special tendency to declare someone dead when I can’t find them;) But I’ve gotten better over the years by constantly educating myself and learning about methodology and resources. I hope you will too. Tell me in the comments, which artificial brick walls you have been guilty of?

The Fleet Family of Washington, D.C.

MP900390424Sometimes—well, probably a lot of times—our research veers off into an unexpected direction. Usually its because we come across a person or a circumstance that is of interest.

My 3rd great-grandfather, Perry Simpson, married a woman named Margaret Fleet. I found her family quite interesting, even though she technically is not a blood relative.

After their marriage, they lived in Montgomery County, MD, but Margaret was originally from Washington, D.C, which is my own birthplace. Margaret can be found on the 1850, 1860, and 1870 census records in the 1st Ward of Washington D.C., a freed black woman before general emancipation came. By 1860 she had 7 children: Robert, Annett, Cora, Edward, Augustus, Willy and Mary. After those years, Margaret appeared in Montgomery County, MD with her new husband Perry Simpson.

This is the record that made me “turn left” (click image to enlarge):


1880 Census

  I was fascinated by the fact that Mary’s father’s birthplace was “Mexico.” Was this a fluke? Was he really Mexican? I started tracking this family through the available records. Although Margaret birthed many children before her marriage to Perry –9 according to the 1900 census—no known record documents a marriage to any other man.

In 1850, Margaret was a freed black woman in a city bursting with contradictions. Amid thousands of freed blacks living and working in the city, were enslaved “quasi-free” people, many of whom were working and living on their own while paying their masters monthly fees. Washington had been the site of an active slave trade, and a notorious slave pen making it an easy target for abolitionists looking to shame the young nation. In 1850, the slave trade was finally outlawed in D.C. During the next decade, events would continue to escalate around slavery, finally culminating in Civil War. In 1862, slavery itself was outlawed in the district creating a haven for thousands of enslaved people from the surrounding states. “First Freed: Washington D.C. in the Emancipation Era,” edited by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis is a good book to read to understand what life was like for African-Americans in D.C. at that time.

Margaret had been fortunate; she came from a family of skilled artisans. Her father was Henry Fleet Jr., a freed black shoemaker from Georgetown, who learned the trade from his father, the senior Henry Fleet. Today, Georgetown is a mecca of white wealth and privilege, but it had historically been home to a thriving freed black community. Henry Fleet Sr. purchased his wife Ann and “5 or 6 children” and later freed them, something many skilled blacks were able to do if allowed by the slaveowner. Henry Fleet Sr. was doing well enough that several boys were apprenticed to him in the early 1800s to learn the trade of shoemaking. An 1803 apprenticeship document notes that “He purchased his son Henry Jr. in 1812 and he is also a shoemaker.

In 1864, while living at K Street and 21st street, Margaret was assessed $25 in the brand new federal tax system as a “Retail Liquor Dealer”. In 1870, Margaret is still in D.C., and her daughters Annie (living with her) and Cora living next door are both dressmakers. This would have been one of the best occupations for a freed blackwoman of that era. I wonder if they would have known Elizabeth Keckley, the freed black dressmaker for Mrs. Lincoln?

In that same 1870 census, Sarah Carter, Margaret’s mother, is living with her and is 100 years old! Margaret also owns $1000 worth of real estate, no small feat for a black woman.


1864 Tax Assessment

1870 Fleet

1870 Fleet

In 1873, Margaret opened an account with the Washington D.C. branch of the Freedmen’s Bank, naming her new husband Perry and her children:

Freedmans Bank

Freedmans Bank

Her sons Robert (a policeman) and Edward also opened accounts. Most of Margaret’s children can be tracked through their marriages, vital and land records and city directories in D.C. The death certificate of her daughter Annett names a “Greg Jarvis” as her father. That man, Greg Jarvis, appears in the 1850 and 1860 Washington D.C. census also living in the 1st Ward. By 1860 he is married with children:

1850 Jarvis

1850 Jarvis

1860 Jarvis

1860 Jarvis

In these records, Jarvis is shown as being from Mexico and also New Mexico–it was probably the Territory of New Mexico (it was not a state yet). The Mexican War had just been ended by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the country was also reeling from the recent Compromise of 1850. I wonder what would have brought him East?

Jarvis also went from being a “mulatto” in 1850 to being “white” with an Irish wife in 1860. So what his racial background is exactly we can’t quite tell. This man appears to be heading two families, at least for awhile: one black, one white. It is unknown whether he fathered all of the children of Margaret Fleet, but documents tie him to at least 3 of her children.

A mortgage executed in Montgomery County in 1911 noted Margaret’s date of death and listed all of her heirs living at the time, who had inherited her land:

“Edward G. Fleet, Sr. & wife Lucinda William Fleet & his wife Blossie, Mary Fleet, widow Harry Fleet, unmarried, Anna Grant, widow Cora Lemos, widow Augustus Fleet & his wife Sarah, Mary Lemos & her husband Beverly”

Margaret, amazingly, lived into her early 90s, long enough to leave a death certificate:

Death Cert

Death Cert

Margaret’s life was pretty interesting and only goes to prove that sometimes veering off-course is absolutely well worth it.