What’s Your Problem?

In the first “Editors’ Corner” for their first issue as editors of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Nancy Peters and Allen Peterson give some fundamental research advice to their readers: Start with a plan. More pointedly, start your plan with a focused question based on known information.[1] The first real step for any research project, then, is to formulate that focused question. Simple, right?

Simple, however, is not always obvious.

Half or more of the inquiries I get from potential clients ask questions far too broad to efficiently address:

  • I’d like to join the DAR; could you find out if I had ancestors who served in the Revolutionary War?
  • My grandfather said that we’re descended from European royalty; can your verify that?
  • Who was my earliest immigrant ancestor?

And the most dreaded:

  • I’d like a book on my ancestry; how much would that cost?

Try developing a research plan for any of those requests. I dare you. First, none of these questions are based on known information. They are, instead, based on idle curiosities. Second, while some of the inquiries are specific to Revolutionary War service, or European royalty, or immigration, none of them are specific to a person. Hundreds or thousands of ancestors may need to be discovered and verified before getting to the gist of the question.

If our research plan is intended to direct us from point A (a focused question based on known information) to point B (the answer to that question), the ill-conceived questions above leave us totally lost, knowing neither where we are nor precisely where we’re headed. It’s akin to telling someone, “You are somewhere in the Western Hemisphere. Plot a detailed course for Asia. Go!”

Effective research questions that truly guide us in formulating effective research plans are specific above all else.

  • Did Rev. Thomas Atchley (1755–1836) of Middlesex County, New Jersey, and Sevier County, Tennessee, serve in the Revolutionary War?
  • Who were the parents of Jasper Moon (1783–1852) of Sevier County, Tennessee, and Morgan County, Missouri?
  • Who were the reported three wives of James Harvey Yoachum (1840–1917) of Taney, Stone, and Lawrence counties, Missouri?
  • When did Samuel Gregory (1765–1838) of Ireland; Greene County, Pennsylvania; and Delaware County, Indiana, immigrate?

But back to NGSQ. Peters and Peterson’s March 2019 issue features several examples of fellow-researchers cracking stubborn cases by starting with focused questions like these.

Melinda Daffin Henningfield’s subject is Mary (Jones) (Hobbs) Clark of Carroll County, Arkansas. Her focused question? Who was Mary’s family of origin? Unfortunately several challenges immediately stood in the way: a common maiden name, illiteracy, marital abandonment, and a courthouse fire that destroyed pertinent records. The remaining paper trail suggested that her parents were likely John Mallory Jones and Elizabeth Catherine (Caudill) Jones but there simply wasn’t enough recorded evidence to make a final determination. So Henningfield turned to DNA and got her answer.[2]

Pam Stone Eagleson’s research question was two-fold: Who were the parents of Adam Cosner (1760s–1849) of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Wayne County, Ohio? And where was he born? The two questions are intertwined enough that a single record (a baptismal record, for example) might answer both. If such a record is not located, as was the case here, the answer for one question will certainly aid in answering the other. In the end, a will and a deed were key to solving the mystery.[3] (More evidence that deeds can often solve problems of identity and relationship!)

Worth Shipley Anderson had a same-name/different-place problem. Were Bathsheba (Morris) Johnson of North Carolina and Barsheba Johnson of East Tennessee the same person? Anderson answered that question by identifying a unique set of characteristics (uncommon first name, religious denomination, and husband’s occupation) and creating timelines.[4]

Ronald A. Hill’s focused question was not directly about identity, relationships, or events. Instead, his focused question was about the significance of a particular record: “Were those sequentially enumerated on a census page always next-door neighbors?”[5] What follows is a fascinating study that compares the 1860 federal census for Hanover Township, Ashland County, Ohio, with two 1861 plat maps for Hanover Township. The answer he discovered may surprise you.

If you ever find yourself getting lost on your research journey, as I sometimes do, just pull over and stop. Take a deep breath, and go back to the basics. What is your question? Is that question focused? Is that question based on information that is truly known? If not, revise your question until it is. Then plot your course in the form of a thoughtful, directed research plan, and go.


[1] Nancy A. Peters and Allen R. Peterson, “Editors’ Corner: Start with a Plan,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 107 (March 2019): [3]; PDF, NGS Quarterly Archives (www.ngsgenealogy.org/ngsq/ngsq_archives/ : 22 May 2019).

[2] Melinda Daffin Henningfield, “A Family for Mary (Jones) Hobbs Clark of Carroll County, Arkansas,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 107 (March 2019): 5–30; PDF, NGS Quarterly Archives (www.ngsgenealogy.org/ngsq/ngsq_archives/ : 22 May 2019).

[3] Pam Stone Eagleson, “The German Parents and Birthplace of Adam Cosner of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Wayne County, Ohio,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 107 (March 2019): 31–42; PDF, NGS Quarterly Archives (www.ngsgenealogy.org/ngsq/ngsq_archives/ : 22 May 2019).

[4] Worth Shipley Anderson, “Recovering the Identity of Barsheba (Morris) Johnson of North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 107 (March 2019): 44–54; PDF, NGS Quarterly Archives (www.ngsgenealogy.org/ngsq/ngsq_archives/ : 22 May 2019).

[5] Ronald A. Hill, “1861 Plat Maps and the 1860 Federal Census of Hanover Township, Ashland County, Ohio: A Comparison,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 107 (March 2019): 55; PDF, NGS Quarterly Archives (www.ngsgenealogy.org/ngsq/ngsq_archives/ : 22 May 2019).

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