Many good genealogy programs can help you get started crafting a good research question with their to-do features. RootsMagic has a good one, illustrated below.
The questions to ask before adding a new task are:
- Who are you going to research?
- What do you want to learn about the person?
- Where was the person you are researching?
- When was the person there?
Additionally, you might ask: Why was the person there at that time? This might seem like an existential question, but it is a good idea to add context to your family history.
These five questions get you started on the way to learning more about your ancestor.
The who is simple enough. The what can include any number of items like where/when were they born, when did they immigrate, where did they emigrate to, and who did they live with/marry/divorce, and so on. Where and when are a bit more complex due to the possible lack of information.
For instance, Lydia Peirce Gorton was born on 28 January 1822. I’ve got her birth date but no birthplace. I want to know where she was born, so I ask, “Where were Lydia Peirce Gorton’s parents, Daniel and Lydia (Peirce) Gorton, when Lydia was born in 1822?” The who, what, and when parts of this question are answered, but the best part is still unanswered: “where”?
The records I’ve got so far say different things, that she was born in Massachusetts, born in New York, born in Vermont. Most likely she was born in Vermont, though. I can make this hypothesis because her older brother was born there, and a few original records say so. This leads me to focus my question even more on Vermont records. Massachusetts records are very complete for the time and there is no indication her siblings were born there. New York state records on the other hand, are problematic, so they will have to wait for a while.
In this particular question, I ask why weren’t the parents in the records for Lydia’s potential birthplace? Were they there, just not recorded anywhere? These questions lead me to ask about the area where they may have been, to find out more about possible record sources. I also learn about the culture in that area, why the records may not exist, and what the economic conditions were during that period.
The process of crafting a specific question to be answered is key to great research. Answering the question is done during the research phase of the project. I’ll write more about the research project later this month.