A common complaint in beginning genealogy is, “I can’t research someone I know little about.” Or it’s phrased in this way.
“I want to learn more about my great-grandmother, but I don’t know much about her. How do I begin?”
Today I will walk you through the beginning steps I take to discover research someone when I have little to start with.
Step 1: Explore a Home For Genealogy Clues
Believe it or not, you have to start with SOMETHING in order to research someone you know little about. Chances are that ‘something’ began in your home. It might have been a family story, a family legend, a photo, a letter, etc.
Before I look for records, I have to investigate the foundation of what I knew and how I will recognize the answer once I see it.
In my book Reimagine Family History, I stress the importance of preserving the perishable that helps your family history. This includes photos, papers, possessions, and people! Many of the clues you need to research someone you know little about comes from.
Step 2: Build a Tree on FamilySearch.org
Using the clues gathered from step one, organize your information into a family tree. Skip handwritten charts and head straight to the online family tree websites.
Begin with FamilySearch.org. It’s a free website. Also, the website will not bombard you with multiple variations of the same person on a variety of trees. When you find someone in the family tree, it’s typically the same version everyone else is viewing.
Sign up for a free account and then add yourself into the Family Tree. Then add additional ancestors.
When you attempt to add a deceased ancestor, FamilySearch will search its database for someone similar to your entry. If it finds one, you evaluate the result.
When the record hint is about your ancestor, then you can quickly add them to your family tree!
If the possible ancestor is not your ancestor or FamilySearch doesn’t find a match, you can add your relative and move on to the next one.
Step by step, FamilySearch will attempt to find possible matches in your tree that already exist in the database so it can link you into the world tree.
The tree isn’t full proof, but it’s a great start. If you need help starting your family tree, watch this video.
Step 3: Develop a Research Question
When you are researching someone you know little about, you will likely have one of the following questions:
- Where was he/she born?
- Who was their spouse?
- Who were their parents?
Develop a research question ensures that you methodical climb your family tree.
In this case, I want to know, “Who are the spouse and children of Zula Offord?”
For more assistance developing research questions, check out this video:
Step 4: Begin to Search
With your clues in an online family tree and a research question in mind, you can begin looking for records about the person you know little.
Let’s say you know these bare-bones facts:
- Zula J Offord
- born 1869
- died 1929, in Ohio, United States
You know this person was related to your great grandmother. Now what?
On FamilySearch, click on the Search tab and you will see this screen.
In the entry for, type the name for the person you’re researching. In this case, key in”Zula Offord, ” leaving the middle initial off.
For the birth event, expand the year 1869 to the range of 1865 -- 1875. Many records will be off by a year or two and yet still apply to Zula. Therefore, use a decade range. You can always narrow the dates if needed.
For the death, use a narrower death range. Instead of 1929, add +/- 1 year making the range 1928 -- 1930 in Ohio, United States. You can always broaden the range (or alter the location) if needed.
Now press the Search button to see what is available on FamilySearch.
Step 5: Evaluate the Results
Based on the search terms, FamilySearch returns potential records naming a Zula Offord with that birth year, or death year. You will need to evaluate the following to determine which apply to the Zula you’re researching.
- 3 death records
- 1 Find A Grave record
- 1910 US Census (not shown)
- 1920 US Census
- Death record for a possible spouse named John (not shown)
- Death record for a possible child named Grayson (not shown)
The possible spouse name of John and a child named Grayson triggered a memory about this family and from your great-grandmother’s photos and documents (from step 1).
As you explore the various records for “Who are the spouse and children of Zula Offord?” you will look for patterns on records that would link Zula to great-grandma’s files.
Soon, you will discover that John Offord is buried beside Zula in the Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio (the Find A Grave hint on FamilySearch). This typically suggests that they were married.
Now you can start researching the children of Zula and John.
Final tips to research someone you know little about
Now I could write volumes about how to research someone you know very little about, but I’ll leave a few final tips for now:
- Vary how you spell a given name or surname. Spelling isn’t consistent.
- Create a clue web of your discoveries to make sense of it all.
- When I find a record that relates to my ancestor, save it to a person in my tree, and write a quality reason statement.
Best of luck climbing the tree of someone with whom you know very little. May you soon find out much more.