F.A.Q.’s of General Historical Research or Family Research
Generally speaking, Highlander.com is an educational website, focusing on historical research and family research projects. Acknowledging that purpose, however, the site also includes Blog and Forum sections in which users can read and write posts and respond to existing posts. And, if you get stuck on anything, try using the Contact Form to ask your questions directly. Note also, if you have one or more PDF documents that you feel is/are good references for others, and would like to have them posted on this website, submit them for review and subsequent posting. Highlander is always looking for new documents for its library.
When using this website for any research purpose, it is probably best to start out with search button found on most pages. Simply enter the search term you are looking for, and if a search tab has been used for that term, or if a stored article title includes that term, then you will see a list of documents that contain that term. When documents are listed, you should probably follow up by going to that document (or documents) for further detailed information. If, however your search comes up empty, you might try a variation of that term or try looking in a location document for details. All Highlander library documents are stored in PDF format and all of these documents include a searchable text layer as well.
For example, what if you are researching ‘Thomas Fox’ of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and there is no specific document for him by his name, you might also try using the search term ‘Cambridge’ and look through its document(s). Or, if you are researching ‘Sinclair,’ and there is no specific document for that family name, but you know the family originated in Scotland, then try searching with the term ‘Scotland’ or ‘Caithness’ and search through the results displayed for those terms.
Interestingly enough, when doing family research, there are often many questions that are not easily answered or which still need to be answered. OK, let’s look at a few of the questions that might pop up in your own research efforts. I’ll address this few and leave the rest up to you to ask and answer for yourself. Hopefully my new book (“ABCs of Family Research” – available on this website and in downloadable PDF document format) has asked and answered many questions for you already.
Q1. What’s the best way to resolve what looks like a rabbit hole or a dead-end?
A1. Great question. Running into dead-ends happens all the time. That’s a time when I often put everything down and take a nap, or go for a walk, or whatever. Dead-ends often mean that I am simply missing something, maybe something obvious, and I need a break in my search efforts.
I usually ask myself how important is this individual who has me stuck. If he/she is an important ancestral connection, then I will ‘dig in’ and continue the serious research until I find my answers. If he/she is on an ancestral side branch, then maybe I’ll be tempted to document what I know and simply move on.
Noting all of this, I consider my several family trees to be living documents (I keep them active and work on them off and on) and, because I subscribe to Ancestry.com, I get ticklers from Ancestry all the time. So, in that respect, and inadvertently, I have others also looking up data for me. And then, as I mentioned earlier, there are other researchers who will reach out for connections, and they often send me back into my original search pattern.
And let’s not forget that historical records are being added to genealogical databases like Highlander.com, or are being made available to researchers all the time, so maybe going back after six months will reveal new data on your individual. Historical research is invariably an ongoing process. It never ends. If you are serious, you will often find your answers.
Q2. What kinds of documents are the easiest to hunt down and are the most informative to find?
A2. Interesting question. Maybe there are really two questions here. The easiest documents to find are often the documents you can find online at Highlander.com, on Ancestry.com, on FamilySearch, or other perhaps online databases. These would include family documents, census reports, some earlier vital docs, etc. I also have found that old town histories are of great value, and many are now available online.
As far as the most informative documents to find, that is a much more complex question, and the answer depends on what information you already have in your possession. I like and look for birth records, marriage records, and death records (detailed death certs are my favorite). Sometimes cemetery records, funeral home records, and FindaGrave data are all of great value.
Regarding which documents are both the easiest to hunt down and also the most informative, may ultimately depend on where the person lived and died. I’ve noted that some states are better at providing vital documents than are other states. It’s kind of like fishing. Some water holes have more and bigger fish than do other water holes.
Q3. Where do I go looking for such things, and how much information do I need to have already?
A3. This is where I tell you to follow your nose and go where you think you will find your answers. The obvious trait that you mentally need is persistence. Stay with your search until you find the answers you are seeking. You can also send an inquiry to Highlander, and maybe we can help.
Q4. What are the different types of historical records, why they were created, what they are telling you, and what not-so-obvious clues you can draw from each of them?
A4. That’s a long answer, and I think I’ve addressed and answered this particular question in the body of the text in ‘ABCs of Family Research.’
Q5. What are strategies for linking bits and pieces of evidence from many sources to reconstruct each life and build a reliable case for each identity and kinship?
A5. I’m pretty certain that the best strategies will come from within you, not from within me. I wrote earlier (in ABCs of Family Research) about us all being different and that I would not try to manipulate you into conforming to my world. I meant that.
My own life experiences are computer related, technology related, legally related, and people related. All of my own experiences make me look at things in methods that are often different than others. Statistically, I’m an outlier – I’m outside the statistical normal curve box. Having noted that, I spent many years learning how the box works and what are the box’s limitations and boundaries.
Just do your best. That will suffice.
Q6. What are some basic legal concepts and how to find the laws that governed what our ancestors could or could not do — in a particular place and time — according to age, gender, race, social status and similar factors?
A6. Wow. Another interesting question. If you ask a lawyer, he’ll likely tell that you must go to law school, but I should note that in my own legal pursuits as a pro se litigant, I’ve ended up teaching a few lawyers some things that they were never taught in law school.
My answer would send you to history books, rather than law school. I’ve already mentioned town history books, and depending on how far back you are going, they may be of your best help. But the legal part of life was not ever as complicated as it is today – life was much simpler in earlier times. Not so many laws.
And then we have a problem of the government’s laws being changed in order to either ignore an existing law, or to put in place some new control mechanism. Let’s face it, laws are used by government to control the people, whether they like being controlled or not.
For example, we may all be familiar with the US Constitution, aka the ‘Constitution for the united States.’ Attached to the basic federal constitution, there are 25 functional amendments. One of those amendments (# 13) has been authorized and implemented by the federal government three times, with only the last one surviving. Why three times? Now we get into the question of who really runs this country. Hint – it’s not us.
This link takes you to a pretty good discussion and description of what the three 13 amendments story is all about.
By the way, it may be worth noting that law schools (at least Harvard Law School) no longer requires law students to study constitutional law as a degree requirement. Interesting eh? This fact should make us wonder if we are still a country that operates under constitutional law. Perhaps not.
I suspect that in order to understand more clearly what was going on in an ancestor’s life, we have to abandon our own modern way of thinking and just immerse ourselves into life in the past. Once we do that, things may become obvious once again.
Q7. What are some tips for finding “missing” ancestors on census reports?
A7. There really are a couple of areas that come to mind immediately. First of all, and as an example, one or more children may have died or moved in the ten year window between census reports. To validate that individual’s existence often requires some scratching around. I look at people buried in family plots. I look for different name spellings. I look for family histories and I try to match notes.
For example, on one family I researched, the mother died and one of the family’s two children (two boys) dropped off the father’s census report. Woops. What was that all about? What happened to the second son?
Well, it turns out that the whole living family of four had originally resided in Massachusetts, but the mother had been born in Maine. The family was recorded in the original family census while living in Massachusetts. But by the time of the next census, the mother, because of illness, had stayed briefly with her parents in Maine before she died, and she ended up dying and being buried in Maine. After the mother’s death, the father kept one of the two boys and raised him in Massachusetts. The second boy moved to Maine and lived with the mother’s parents (his maternal grandparents) in Maine. The second boy did show up on the next census in Maine. That next census year also showed the father and the first son living in Massachusetts. So, that was the answer. In the original family of four, the mother had died in Maine and was buried in Maine, one son had then moved to Maine to live with his grandparents, and the father and other son continued to live in Massachusetts. Mystery solved.
A second area that comes to mind immediately is that in earlier times, women got married at earlier ages, and once that happened, the new family often went off on its own, and the woman would show up on the next census with a new married name.
Resolving the disappearing people questions also often requires finding the burial grounds in which people were buried. Unlike today, when many people are cremated, many, if not most, earlier burials were full body burials. That is the great value of hard copy cemetery records and online cemetery databases like FindaGrave.
Q8. What are some work-arounds for lost or destroyed records?
A8. Find other records, or do without. As humans, we often leave behind many traces that show our existence. Put on your investigator’s hat and go find those traces. Sadly, and in some situations like the case of the burned US 1890 census records, we can never recover all of that information. It’s simply gone.
Q9. What are some techniques for correctly identifying and researching ancestors with common names?
A9. Now we may get into the question of name spellings, and where these people are from. For example, in some areas, like Southern California, there are huge Mexican descendants living, and their ties to their ancestors are tied in with the family names. Having noted that, if you are searching for Jimmy Gonzales, be prepared for finding many men by that name in areas like Southern California. Also, the question of legals vs illegals has caused many people to simply live below the radar, or to change their names.
For some of the earlier white man settled parts of the country, like Massachusetts, expect to find popular names like Collins, Smith, Brown, Sullivan, etc. – all names from England, Scotland, and Ireland. They were the original colonists who settled in the area. Unfortunately, the really original settlers (the Native Americans) have been largely wiped out, so you will not find many Native surnames in New England.
At this point, I should suggest that this specific name identification challenge may be one of the greatest you will come across. It is aggravated by the fact that many families chose to use the same given names as kings or biblical names, and sorting them all out often requires that you have to expand your research to include researching other, adjacent families with the same family name. And yes, this ends up being missionary duty, that is, you are finding and identifying people who are not in your own tree. This happens.
Did I ever tell you or promise you this research stuff was easy, or that it always worked out in the end? I didn’t, and it doesn’t.
Q10. What are some methods for finding ancestors who lived before 1850?
A10. In some ways, to answer that question, you have to understand more about what happened during that earlier time period in America. I made note earlier in the book ‘ABCs of Family Research’ about a free online Yale course dedicated to the time period of the American Revolution, and taught by Professor Joanne Freeman. I think programs like that are extremely helpful. I also believe that college courses in American history are of value, as are written histories from that time period.
Also, finding ancestors often depends on where the ancestor lived and died, and/or how common the family name is. I often look in the earlier printed town histories and family histories that are now available online at Highlander.com and other sites. This is often effective for families with common names, but of course, if the family name is something like Schmidlap, I probably would not expect to find a written family history. And, if one of the Schmidlap daughters married into a family that does have a family history book, then search in that family’s history book for clues.
Assuming that the individual (or the parents) you are looking for came from Europe, he or she came by ship, so it is wise to look through ships passenger lists. Note that, unfortunately, many early ship’s records have been lost, but this is still often a worthwhile search effort. Also, try to determine where the individual came from and may have landed, because many of the earlier ships worked on regular east/west trips.
Once you know one or more of these basic facts, then Ancestry.com may be able to help search for specifics. I suspect the Ancestry database focuses on ports of arrival in the United States, and will not include Canadian or Central American ports of arrival. But this could also change with time. Here is a link to their passenger list search function.
Be aware that there are other databases available online for passenger ship lists.
If you know the individual’s religious preferences, look for church records, including birth, baptism, marriage, and death records. The early US census reports were not very specific, but family heads were identified. And then can review cemetery records and databases.
Look for legal documents like wills and land grants. Look for early military records. Everything counts.
Q11. If I subscribe and then cancel my Ancestry.com subscription, is there any way to retain the family ancestry information I’ve created on Ancestry.com?
A11. This is really a question for Ancestry.com to answer. Briefly, the answer is yes. Here is Ancestry’s more complete answer to that question, as of October, 2018.