How can you go to a specific place if you have not determined the destination you’re headed toward? In genealogy, your research should be headed somewhere if wish to conduct quality research. The destinations you head toward always begin with a research question.
The fundamental step in quality genealogical research is to develop a research question. What are you hoping to find out?
Now many of you want to prove your lineage to someone on the Mayflower or a First Settler in an area. Some of you want to just find new names. Others, like me, gather ancestors methodically like we open a can of Pringles -- once you pop, you can’t stop. In other words, we can never stop making new discoveries and new relative connection.
No matter our objective, and I’m including myself in this, we should develop a research question so we know what we’re hoping to discover, which will lead us to the records we need to resolve our investigations.
There are Three Basic Types of Research Questions:
- When and where did an event happen in an individual’s life?
- To whom was an individual related to by marriage or genetically?
- What biographical details can be found about an ancestor?
There are few questions in genealogy that don’t fit into these categories. Let’s dive into them just a little bit deeper.
When and where did an event happen in an individual’s life?
- When and in what location was Christian Christopher Hoppe, husband of Anna Margaretha Kalsberger, born?
- When did Delbert Hanks, of Altus, Oklahoma, die and where was he buried?
To whom was an individual related to by marriage or genetically?
- Who was the first wife of Edward T. Rang of Akron, Summit County, Ohio, and when did they marry?
- Who were the children of John Marr and Laney Shafley who lived in Wainfleet, Monck, Ontario, Canada?
What biographical details can be found about an ancestor?
- Did William Townsend serve in the Civil War?
- Did Matthew Lepley sell a property to the federal government to become part of the national forest?
Write a Narrow Question
The above sample questions are a good start, but they are still too broad. We want to narrow them down by adding details about our questions. But first, do you wonder how I came up with these questions? I know I did when I was starting out as a beginning family historian.
Every question you have is based on previous knowledge or research. This is why experienced educators always tell you to begin by recording information about yourself and working backward from that point.
Regardless of whether you follow that advice or not, your questions will come to mind as you examine a family tree, look at documents, and attempt to piece together aspects of an ancestor’s life.
What was the trigger for your question?
Let’s walk through a few questions that I shared earlier and how they were generated:
When and in what location was Christian Christopher Hoppe, husband of Anna Margaretha Kalsberger, born?
- This question was triggered by the marriage record of Christian Hoppe and Anna Karlsberger. I knew the couple married, but the marriage certificate for Anna and her groom triggered the thought, “how old was Christian and where was he born?” I didn’t want to add Christian to my family tree just as the groom of Anna, but as a complete person.
Who was the first wife of Edward T. Rang of Akron, Summit County, Ohio, and when did they marry?
- Edward married Nancy Cole. On his marriage license, a note indicated that he was previously married, but did not include the name of the previous wife. Thus, I know have the question, who was that first wife?
Writing a Quality Research Question
Now that you understand where questions come from, let’s work on making our questions better so that we can recognize the answer when we find it.
Let’s add to the question:
When and in what location was Christian Christopher Hoppe, who married Anna Margaretha Kalsberger, born?
We want to add all the specifics we know about Christian or Anna.
- Christian and Anna married on 12 April 1859 in Franklin County, Ohio
- Had the following children:
- Christian Christoph Hoppe b. 1859 in Ohio
- Marguerite Hoppe b. 1861 in Ohio
- Anna Hoppe b. 1869 in Ohio
We’ll revise our question to look something like this:
What is the birth date and place of Christian Christopher Hoppe, who married Anna Margaretha Kalsberger on 12 April 1859 in Franklin County, Ohio, and father of Christian, Marguerite, and Anna Hoppe?
With this question, we have narrowed down all of the potential Christian Hoppe’s to the one we most want to discover -- the Christian who lived in Franklin County, Ohio and had this family structure. As such, any document we may uncover will have to be compared to these facts to determine if the source is applicable to our ancestor.