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Overheard in GenForum: Need help on genealogy research
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

June 29, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I've hit a big brick wall in my research and now I don't have a clue as to where to go or what to do! I've gotten as far as my great grandparents and their children. I've looked up census records, cemetery records...etc. I've looked up names on CDs, websites, etc. And yes even posted on GenForum. Now what? Where do I go from here? -- Stacy

A: Very often when we reach a brick wall, it becomes necessary to step back for a moment and review where you are in the research and how you got there. There are times that this may seem like an effort in futility. On the contrary, it often serves to call attention to an overlooked research step.

The best way to do genealogy is to work from the known to the unknown. Very often people will say they have done that when they really haven't. It is also important to get away from the tunnel vision of concentrating only on the direct lineage.

It is important to always work from the known to the unknown and to branch out in your research.

From the Known to the Unknown

Genealogists have often heard that they should work from the known to the unknown, but few of them really understand what this means. Many think it only means to write down what they know about each person from themselves back as far as they can go, getting records only when there is a question about an individual or an event.

In reality though it means that the researcher must gather paper proof, records, to support what he or she thinks is already known. For instance, if they know the birth information for their father, they may not think that they need to get the actual birth certificate. However, this is a mistake. First it sets a bad precedent, putting the researcher into a bad habit. Second, it could contain a valuable clue to the next generation back.

Always Get the Records

If you get in the habit of not getting records on everything then you will eventually find yourself with many unanswered questions and no understanding of the records and how to proceed. While this may not be what has happened to you, it is something that every researcher should keep in mind.

Many times you do not need to spend a lot of money to get the records. People often overlook their local Family History Center as a major source for these records. For the price of the rental of a film, which is currently about $3.25 per film for a one month rental, you can sometimes find more than one record and satisfy yourself that you truly have exhausted that resource. Contacting county courthouses and state vital record repositories will cost $10.00 or more per certificate needed.

Branching Out

Another habit that researchers get into is in concentrating only on their main lineage. For each family that you are working on, there are a number of siblings that researchers tend to overlook. Oh sure, they may add them into the database, but they do not really concentrate on these people beyond getting their names and some dates. However, it may be these very individuals that hold the clues to get you further back in your research.

When each of the siblings are born, married, or die or have some other life event there will be witnesses and informants that may know more about the parents or individual in question. By collecting the records on these people, you increase your chances of getting a well-rounded understanding of not only your individual, but also the family as a whole.

In Conclusion

When you can't seem to get back any further, begin to look at the records you have. Go back and gather records for any event you don't have them on. If that still doesn't help look at the other individuals in the family, making sure to get records for each of their life events. And it doesn't hurt to look at the family names that married into your family. Sometimes their names will appear in more records or help you to see a pattern in the settling of the family.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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