Research Like a Pro Week 5: Research Planning

Here is the latest instalment in my series about the Research Like a Pro process. I’m serving as a Peer Group Leader for this study group.

Our assignment this week was to plan our research phase, including:

  1. Summary of known facts based on our timeline
  2. Background information about the locality based on our locality guide
  3. Working hypothesis
  4. Identified sources
  5. Prioritized research strategy

During research planning, I discovered that I had not included everything I knew in the timeline phase. Since the James Stokers were often confused, I knew more about Edward Stoker, the father of a James Stoker, so I returned to my timeline and added information about Edward Stoker.

Writing up these sections forces the researcher to consider how they know what they know and what is needed to answer the research question. I’ve noticed that documenting middle name origins is particularly problematic. They seem to appear out of nowhere in authored sources. In a same-name project, they could be useful if records over time demonstrate consistent use. 

Writing a working hypothesis creates a tension between confirmation bias and keeping an open mind. It’s more likely that researchers do have a bias, so writing the hypothesis is one way to get it in the open. Since hypotheses are meant to be disproven, writing is the safest step for the researcher and a good reason to have peer review of finished products.

Prioritizing is valuable because it avoids the distractions that genealogical research so often inspires! I am not always certain of which sources will most efficiently answer my question and appreciate thinking that step through.

Research Like a Pro Week 4: Locality Research

A locality guide is an annotated list of records available for a particular region. It might be a state or a county. For this project, I chose to focus on Bourbon County, Kentucky, where my Stoker ancestor married in 1822 and where the other James Stokers also resided.

This part of the research process builds from the prior steps, particularly creating the timeline of known facts. Creating a locality guide guides the next phase (research planning) since record availability influences the research priorities. This phase of the process is a good reminder to research smarter and strategically. 

Locality guides are living documents, constantly being updated. A comprehensive locality guide is built over time, so I limited the time I spend on my locality guide to six hours. I also limited it to 1800-~1850 because that is the time period when the three James Stokers appear to have been simultaneously in Bourbon County. I also concentrated mostly on online sources.

I was grateful to discover there are tax books for all of the years I am interested in, wills are available online, and there may be newspapers available at the Kentucky Historical Society.  

I am using a GoogleDoc template provided through the course. I began using GoogleDocs a few years ago and also use GoogleSheets. I am growing to appreciate the formatting and accessibility of GoogleDocs.

Even though I am eager to start researching, the time spent on the locality guide will help me focus my research plan.

Research Like A Pro Week 3: Analysis of Evidence

The task this week was to analyze our existing evidence from our timeline. Elizabeth Shown Mills revolutionized genealogy when she described The Evidence Analysis Process Map. Another great way to consider the genealogy research process was developed by Marc McDermott based on Elizabeth Shown Mills’ process map.

I looked at each entry in my timeline and considered what question I was trying to answer with the information in that entry. Then I analyzed the type of source, the type of information and the type of evidence.

Sources: containers of information

  1. Original source describes a document or artifact (like a cemetery marker) created at the time of the event. A duplicate original was created by the same person at the same time as the original like a clerk rewriting a deed in a minute book, or the enumerator making a duplicate copy of the census. For some duplicate records, more detail can be found in the originals, such as loose papers for an estate. Image copies are photographic reproductions and are considered originals when you don’t detect any alterations and can see the entire image.
  2. Derivative sources include indexes, transcripts, or abstracts created from an original. Mistakes and misreadings may conflict with the original. Find the original whenever possible.
  3. Authored sources are written works that combine information. Examples include online family trees, biographical sketches, family histories, and research reports. There may be original sections in an authored source. Authored sources can point towards original sources.

Information: Details within the source

Within an individual source, many pieces of information can sometimes be found.

  1. Primary: firsthand knowledge. The person who provided the information was present at event. For example, a mother who provides her children’s dates of birth, a spouse providing information about their marriage date and place.
  2. Secondary: secondhand knowledge. The person who provided the information was told the information by another. The classic example is a child providing the birth date of their parent for a death certificate.
  3. Undetermined:  informant unknown. The person who provided the information cannot be determined.

Different types of information (facts) can be in the same source. The classic example of a source with mixed information is a death certificate with a child as the informant, and a doctor recording some information, and a clerk other parts. The child was not present at their parent’s birth, so the information about date and place of birth of the deceased is secondary. The death day, place, and cause were recorded by the doctor, who is considered to have been present. (As a nurse, I know it was likely the nurse who was present and gave the information to the doctor!) If the informant is blank, then the birth information may be undetermined.

Evidence: Meaning of the information in relationship to a research question

Evidence is considered in context. What question are you trying to answer with the information?

  1. Direct evidence: Clearly states the answer to a research question
  2. Indirect evidence answers the question when combined with other evidence
  3. Negative evidence occurs in the absence of an expected situation.

Using the death certificate example, the death certificate is direct evidence for date of birth and date of death. Date of birth will be less reliable in most situations. An example of when the birthdate would be primary information and more reliable is when a mother is the informant for the death certificate of a child.

Indirect evidence requires organization and analysis! The timeline is one way to organize the evidence to see if it provides an answer to the overall goal of the research.

Negative evidence is the most challenging to understand and this blog entry by Diana Elder, Speaking Negatively: The Difference Between Negative Results and Negative Evidence, provides clarity. An example of negative results is looking for your family in the census and not finding them (which is recorded in your research log, of course!) An example of negative evidence is seeing a name occur year after year in a tax record, and then the name disappears. This supports the possibility that the person moved or died. This sentence from Diana’s blog sums up the relationship between the two nicely, “Perhaps the negative results of the searches will lead you to a conclusion using negative evidence.”

Analysis serves many purposes. The primary purpose evaluate the reliability of the information. Analysis supports the resolution of conflicting evidence since information from primary informants has greater weight than information provided by people who weren’t present at the time of the event. Analysis can also point you to an original document and reinforce the need to see it, if the original still exists. For complex genealogical research objectives, it will be necessary to consider all the various sources together and write an argument to support your conclusion, sometimes relying solely on indirect evidence.

Research Like a Pro Week 2: Timeline and Citations

This is the second entry about my experience doing a research project while I serve as a peer group leader for the Research Like a Pro Study Group hosted by Diana Elder and Nicole Dyer of Family Locket.

Updating the Research Objective

With the assistance of my peers, I revised my research objective to be:

This project seeks to uniquely identify each James Stoker in Bourbon County, Kentucky from approximately 1820 to 1880. 

  • James Stoker filed a bond to marry Polly Ross on 9 December 1822 in Bourbon County.
  • Jas. Stoker, age 79, lived in the household of his son-in-law, Silas. Cleaver, in 1880 in Millersburg, Bourbon County. 
  • James H. Stoker, presumed age 40-50, lived in Bourbon County in 1830.

The task this week was two-fold: create a timeline of known facts and to cite them properly.


Creating a timeline involves taking everything already known about the research topic and arranging it in order. This provides an opportunity to see new patterns and identify gaps in the research. I am using Airtable to organize my research.

I entered the documents I had about the various James Stokers into the timeline tab in Airtable. My timeline has the following fields (columns): Event, Stoker as named in record, Stoker sorting tests (more on this later), Date (text field YYYY-MM-DD with as much information as is known), Place (Single-select field type written State, County, Town using 2 letter state abbreviations), Type (of event, another single-select field with choices like birth, census, death), URL (to the source document), Source citation (yes, the entire citation. This is the master location for the citation), Details (an abstract of the information in the source), FANS (link to the FAN Club table), Notes (thoughts about the source).\

I included all the known events for my ancestor James Stoker since I had eight census records for him (two are state censuses). I have a birth state, birth date calculated from his cemetery marker, marriage date and place, death and cemetery information.

Since this is a project to distinguish different people of the same/similar name, I am testing using two columns for name, one as it appears in the record, and the second column to try different ways to sort the James Stokers. Place and time will guide the sorting.


Complete source citations form the foundation for genealogical analysis. Fortunately, I formed good habits citing my sources starting in 1998 when I was enrolled in the certificate program in Family History and Genealogy at the University of Washington. Citations weren’t as exacting then as they are now. Citation is also required in my other field, health care, and I worked in research for several years and co-authored scientific publications. Transitioning to the professional genealogist role meant switching to humanities-style citations and meeting genealogical standards. I frequently refer to the Chicago Manual of Style to manage the mechanics of humanities writing and citations. I refer to Elizabeth Shown Mill’s comprehensive book, Evidence Explained, and Thomas Jones’ Mastering Genealogical Documentation as needed.

Using a template for genealogical citations made it easier for me to meet the genealogical standards. I have an Airtable Citation Guide accessible from my bookmarks bar. It is based on the Research Like a Pro templates. The fields in my base are Name (type of source, like Birth Certificate Original, FindAGrave, Pension File), Category (birth, cemetery, military, for example), template (see example below), Citation Example (a completed citation of that type), Short Form (when citing the source multiple times.) I tend to put more in citations than others (like complete dates instead of just years and complete stable URLs) because I can always shorten the citation if needed.

Here is an example of a template for FindAGrave:

Find A Grave, database and images ([Stable URL] : accessed [DD Month YYYY]), memorial [NNNNN], [Name As Appears], ([BBBB-DDDD]), gravestone photographed by [Contributor], citing [Name of Cemetery, Town, County, State].

And the 1921 Canadian Census at Library and Archives Canada:

1921 Census, [Province], [name] District [#], Enumeration Sub-district [#], page [#], dwelling [#], household [#], [Name as Written]; database with images Library and Archives Canada ([stable URL] : accessed [DD Month YYYY]); citing LAC microfilm [#].

Creating the timeline and the source citations supports the next part of the research process, analyzing the evidence.

A New Feature in the FamilySearch Family Tree: Other Relationships

In August, FamilySearch added a new feature: the capability to link non-relatives to someone in their Family Tree. The FamilySearch Family Tree is a shared family tree where everyone works on the same tree. WikiTree, one of my favourite genealogy websites, is another.

This feature benefits anyone doing FAN Club research. The FAN Club are a person’s friends, associates, and neighbours. Elizabeth Shown Mills coined the term and it revolutionized genealogical research. One of the best ways to solve documentary genealogical mysteries is to focus on others who interacted with our ancestor. Seeing the same neighbours, witnesses, bondsmen, and chain crews (people involved in surveying property) can help us be sure the person we are researching is the person we are interested in, or help us distinguish two people of the same name. To see another post on FAN Club research see here.

The feature can also associate people linked through slavery. The best effort to do this is the US Black Heritage Project at WikiTree, which I’ve written about here. The WikiTree effort differs from the current “Other Relationships” Feature at FamilySearch because there are standards and project teams working to support the effort. Nevertheless, FamilySearch’s “Other Relationships” Feature will benefit researchers.

Here’s where you find “Other Relationships.” First you need to be using the “New Person Page.” To find that, click on the upper right “Go to New Person Page” when viewing any person in the FamilySearch Family Tree as shown below. I’m using my 3x great-grandfather, Thomas Adam Walker, as an example.

FamilySearch Family Tree location of New Person Page link

The New Person Page features a new banner, is organized differently, and provides easier navigation. In the view below, I’ve collapsed the sections so that the “Other Relationships” is visible (red arrow).

“Other Relationships” Section in the New Person Page

When you click on “Add Other Relationship,” a dialogue box appears.

“Add Other Relationship” Step 1

Clicking the “Relationship” drop-down menu provides the following choices, shown below: apprenticeship, employment, godparent, household, neighbor, relative, slavery.

Relationship Options

My ancestor was an enslaver, so I wanted to add a slavery relationship. (I’ve already done this on WikiTree, which has a more robust system to describe relationships and categories. I decided to put it on the FamilySearch Family Tree because many people use it for their research. Thomas Walker’s WikiTree profile with the link to Mary Jane is here. ) When I choose “Slavery” from the drop-down menu, I see the the linkage shown in a diagram, below.

Slavery Option

When I click on “Save” at the bottom right, I get a new dialogue box and I can either add a new person, or use the FamilySearch Family Tree unique identifier to link to them. Since Mary Jane doesn’t seem to be on the Family Tree (and I don’t know if she survived to emancipation, or the surname she used after emancipation if she lived); I will enter her as a new person. She can be merged later if a duplicate entry in the Family Tree is found.

The next step is to enter what I know about Mary Jane, which isn’t a lot. It is enough to help someone who might be searching for her.

Dialog Box for Details

I’ve filled in the details I know below. I used Walker as her last name. WikiTree has the ability to provide multiple last names, which is another reason to make sure this information is on WikiTree. I decided to not guess that she was born or died in Tennessee, which is likely.

Details Complete

When I click “Next,” FamilySearch has checked their database and found someone with a similar name and dates.

Reviewing a Same-Name Person

Since I’m sure Mary Jane was not born in Ireland and I know Walker is a provisional last name, I click “Create Person” as shown by the red arrow. Another box comes up, providing me an opportunity to make sure I have the linkage done properly, showing Thomas Adam Walker as the “Slaveholder” and Mary Jane Walker as the “Enslaved Person.” (Perhaps FamilySearch will reconsider their terms at some point. Slave Holder doesn’t begin to convey the nature of this relationship. “Enslaver” would be a better term. I acknowledge they may be using this term to allow search engines to find this information. Our terms will continue to evolve over time. WikiTree has an explanation about terminology, and why they use the terms they have chosen here.)

Review the Direction of the Relationship

When I click “Save” in the lower right of the dialog box, I am taken back to Thomas Waker’s profile and I can now see the relationship to Mary Jane.

Other Relationship shown in the Profile

I haven’t been asked to add a source at any time, so I need to do that. The Bill of Sale between Thomas Walker and Holloway Key, another of my 3x great-grandfathers, is on FamilySearch, so I navigate to the document. The “Attach to Family Tree” button in the upper right is what I need.

Attaching a Document to a Person in the FamilySearch FamilyTree

This opens a bar on the right.

Creating a Source

I next add in some details about how this record is linked to Thomas Walker, as shown in the upper red arrow in the image below. When I’m satisfied, I click the blue button to choose the person in the FamilySearch Family Tree that I want to add this record to.

Creating the Source and Continuing by Selecting the Person

FamilySearch then asks me to enter the person’s ID (their unique identifying number, which appears near their name on their page) or if I’ve been working in FamilySearch, I will see a list of people below. Note: I’ve placed a grey box over the rest of the list to preserve the privacy of clients I am currently working with.

Attaching the Document to a Person, Select Person Step

I’m almost done. FamilySearch asks me to check my work and asks for an explanation next to the red arrow. This is an important step. Linkages form the foundation for genealogy.

Checking the Linkage and Providing a Rationale

I write about the enslaver-enslaved relationship in the box provided.

Completed Rationale

I like to check my work, so I go back to Thomas Walker’s profile and check the Sources list. The date for the Bill of Sale is missing! It doesn’t show up in order in the Sources list.

Missing Date in Sources

This is a quick fix. I click on “Add” (circled above) and a dialog box appears.

Entering the Date

I add the date and recheck. It’s now in the right place.

Updated Sources list

My final task is to add this document to Mary Jane. Since she is linked on Thomas Walker’s page, I can repeat the above process for Mary Jane to create a source, and on Holloway Kee’s page, I can add the “Other Relationship” along with the source. It’s much faster the second time since I have a model to follow.

The result is that Mary Jane now has a Page on the FamilySearch Family Tree, shown below.

Mary Jane, provisional last name Walker

This is a great step for FamilySearch and will help researchers in many ways. The functionality on WikiTree US Black Heritage is superior. For example, the category search that would allow anyone looking for an enslaved person in Benton County to find Mary Jane. A person could also search the Benton County Tennessee Slave Owners (see note about terminology above.). The ability to give her multiple provisional surnames also aids any researchers looking for Mary Jane.

Thanks FamilySearch, for adding this feature!