The Family Tree Problem Solver: Tried-and-True Tactics for Tracing Elusive Ancestors

The Family Tree Problem Solver: Tried-and-True Tactics for Tracing Elusive Ancestors

by Marsha Hoffman Rising

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Has your family history research hit a brick wall? Marsha Hoffman Rising's newly updated bestselling book The Family Tree Problem Solver has the solutions to help you find the answers you seek. Here, you'll find answers to genealogy's toughest problems.

Inside, you'll find:

  • Work-arounds for lost or destroyed records
  • Techniques for finding ancestors with common names
  • Strategies for analyzing your problem and creating a successful research plan
  • Ideas on how to find vital records before civil registration
  • Troubleshooting advice for interpreting your DNA results
  • Tips for finding "missing" ancestors in censuses
  • Instructions for investigating collateral kin to further your family tree
  • Methods for finding ancestors who lived before 1850
  • Case studies that show you how to apply these strategies to real-life research problems

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781440300745
Publisher: F+W Media
Publication date: 03/19/2019
Edition description: Third Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 149,496
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt


Analyzing Research Problems and Planning Strategies

We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it. ~THOMAS JEFFERSON

Family researchers have caught "genealogy fever" and are serious about their work to seek the truth, not legends, about family origins and their ancestors' lives. They want to do their research properly, solve the dead ends, and overcome the brick walls that have blocked others as they trace family lines. They know that the search for the truth could reveal skeletons, destroy beloved family traditions, or call into question the research of others. Nevertheless, they seek the truth. This chapter will help those who want to begin that quest.

There are two basic ways of conducting your family history quest: searching and researching. All successful genealogists use a combination of search andresearch as they pursue their studies. However, rarely do they distinguish between the two, and a vast difference exists.

We are all aware of the enormous array of new sources becoming available for genealogists. The multitude of census and other public records on the Internet, the online family trees made available by myriad researchers, and publications that offer extensive query assistance provide many avenues for genealogists. But we should acknowledge what, exactly, these resources allow us to do.


Search:"Seek data on James Caffey Jr. and his wife, Susannah. They resided in Morgan County, Missouri, in the 1840s. Where did they come from and where did they go?" I placed this query in The Genealogical Helper, November/December 1994. I received several answers, but none referred to the correct family.

Research: The Morgan County, Missouri, Deed Book 5:367 revealed that James Caffey and wife, Susan, of Camden County, Missouri, sold their right, title, and interest to land that had belonged to Nicholas Coffman, deceased, late of Morgan County. Nicholas Coffman was enumerated in Jefferson County, Tennessee, on the 1830 census, p. 282, as age fifty to sixty years. His household consisted of two females twenty to thirty and thus of marriageable age. James "Coffee" married 21 December 1832, Jefferson County, Tennessee, Susanna Coffman. No Caffey family was found in Jefferson County, but there were several in adjoining Grainger County. I was convinced I had found the geographic origin of James Caffey of the burned county of Camden, Missouri.

Namely, all of these make the task of searching easier. Many of these sources may indeed provide an easy solution to finding your ancestors. Searching can be a quick and painless path to a wealth of information. I once responded to a query in my local genealogical journal, Ozar'kin, thinking it might lead to answers regarding Daniel Hance, a man I was investigating for whom I had little information. A fellow genealogist answered with the proof of Daniel Hance's parentage and his marriage in Jefferson County, Tennessee. In finding this bit of information, I had conducted no research of my own. Someone else had done the work — I had only searched.

On the other hand, a search can sometimes find answers that research can't. When looking for the origins of Littleberry Hendrick, I tried all the methods I gathered from conferences and seminars, and I followed many of the techniques I will discuss later in this chapter. But nothing worked. I knew a lot about Littleberry from 1833 until his death in 1862, but not where he came from. Then, the Family History Library updated the International Genealogical Index (known as the IGI). On a whim, I decided to try searching for Littleberry again. Lo and behold, up popped his marriage record in Allen County, Kentucky! It was difficult to suppress a shout of triumph. The long-sought answer to my question was finally revealed through a search — not research. If we are serious researchers, we must become more precise in defining the difference between a search and research.


The International Genealogical Index is a product of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. It includes extractions from vital records and patron submissions from all over the world: baptisms, marriages, and deaths. You can access it online at or in person at the Family History Library or one of the many Family History Centers around the world.


A genealogical search of existing dates and literature might consist of:

• Placing queries online or in genealogical magazines

• Corresponding and communicating with other genealogists

• Searching online databases such as the International Genealogical Index or online family trees at ,, and MyHeritage

• Searching census indexes published online, on microfilm, or on CD-ROMs

• Reading published genealogies and family articles

• Examining the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) and ordering pertinent articles to read

• Using various other "armchair" searches in published literature for the region of your interest


Research is a diligent and systematic inquiry into a problem. It includes the following prescribed methods: developing a hypothesis, surveying existing literature and information, gathering evidence, evaluating evidence, and reaching a conclusion. Here are the steps you need to take in problem-solving research (see image A):

1. Define the problem.

2. Survey existing material, including published genealogies, the Periodical Source Index, online family trees, genealogical forums, and message boards.

3. Analyze the information for reliability, citations, and credibility. If there is no documentation for the data presented, contact the individual who submitted it. If that individual is not able to supply evidence, consider the material hearsay and essentially worthless. When reviewing the material you have gathered and what you have obtained from family members and correspondents, consider what is known, what is not known, and what information has been assumed but not verified.

4. Develop a strategy. One of the most successful strategies is the "neighborhood concept" or "cluster genealogy," a research tactic in which you study your ancestor's siblings, friends, and neighbors in order to learn more about your ancestor. This strategy will be discussed in detail later in this chapter and throughout the book.

5. Gather data. You will need thorough knowledge of the sources from the time period; the exact geographical location of the individuals (have you ever noticed how often this crucial information is lacking among the various lineages published online?); the laws of the local, state, and federal government in power at the time; and the various public and private records that may have been created during the period you are researching. A good researcher always ventures beyond the standard genealogical publications and sources to use such nontraditional records as manuscripts and historical records.

6. Evaluate the information obtained. This crucial step deserves significant thought and attention. The value of the data contained in the record will be lost if analyzed superficially or incorrectly. Inadequate analysis may result in overlooking or misinterpreting important information, leading to inaccurate conclusions or dead ends. This step is so important that I have devoted chapter 11 to it.


The Periodical Source Index, produced by the Allen County Public Library in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, indexes family information from a wide variety of genealogical magazines and journals that were published in the nineteenth century. It's organized by name, location, and subject. It is available through Findmypast and libraries that subscribe to Heritage-Quest Online.

7. Draw conclusions and form subsequent plans. Continue to implement these steps until the evidence is either conclusive or provides a strong enough argument that no other conceivable conclusion can be reached with the information that exists.


Now that we've established the difference between search and research — and how to do both — let's turn our attention to tackling genealogy problems.


Present a clear, reasoned account of the problem under study.

The kinds of problems in genealogy that require a systematic approach to research include:

• Beginning research on a family line not previously investigated. This includes researching a family that has not had anything published on it, a family for which there are poorly documented published genealogies, or a family for which no current material exists.

• Correcting a tradition, belief, or material published in a pedigree or family sketch. Many genealogical errors have been in print for years, and it often takes new research and a creative approach to find the correct answers.

• Solving a specific identity problem for which a previous search or research has proved unsuccessful. One of the most important jobs of scholarly genealogical publications is to publish new solutions to old problems.

When defining the problem, determine what you already know. This means carefully analyzing every known and documented fact about the individual or family. This does not mean that you know only when they were born, who and when they married, and when they died. It means you pinpoint exactly where they lived, when they moved there, how they earned a living, what they believed in, and what was happening around them. Was there a war, an economic depression, a land speculation boom, or major migrations in or out of the area? Who were their friends and family? Who was their minister? Where were they buried? The more you know about the people you have definitely identified as your ancestors, the easier the rest of your task will become.

This is the time to assemble and record information you have gathered. Write a biographical sketch of the individual or family you have researched, placing the events of their lives in chronological order, including specific documented events. Countless genealogists have gone through the process of writing down what they know about the subject of their genealogical problem and checking the documentation only to find that the clue to solving the problem has been in their own papers all along. This is also the time to note what you don't know. This is a great help in directing further research, but it is remarkable how often this step is not included among researchers' notes. I usually have a separate page headed "Things I don't know, but would like to."

STEP 2: Learn what others already know (or think they know).

This is the "search" step. If you are a careful and systematic researcher, you will confirm what you have been told by others in informal family group sheets or published works. If your experience is like mine, you will find that people often cannot tell you how they know what they think they know. This, of course, makes your task harder — you must verify the information to make sure it's not just a family legend. It's amazing how many people are not the slightest bit interested in documentation until they need it from someone else.

Naturally you don't want to repeat work that someone else has done, especially if it was done well. The best finds are good, well-documented genealogies and family articles published in scholarly journals. They may not be easy to locate for a particular family, but they are worth the effort if you find that a good scholar has worked on your family. The "Examples of Search" sidebar gives you examples of where to look for this material, but always keep in mind that this is a search, not research.

Some genealogists never move beyond this step — they are always looking for someone else who can provide the answers they seek. When they hit a brick wall, they just continue to look for someone who knows the answer rather than digging into the records themselves. They never become true researchers — they just search forever.

The research in the "Search versus Research" sidebar required a step-by-step process that moved beyond the primary records of the county of residence (burned Camden) to Morgan County, where the grantee lived. I then had to read Morgan County's deeds carefully and understand what terms such as "all right, title and interest" meant. From there, it was a simple, logical procedure backwards.

STEP 3: Decide what records to use.

Some records are likely to provide more information about the problem than others, so it's wise to evaluate them before delving into your research. You will have to decide priority, availability, and ease of use based on your access to the records you need and how well they have been preserved. We all hope that our problem can be solved by the primary records that genealogists most commonly use. These include census records, family Bibles, vital records, wills, obituaries, probate files, pension applications, and other original or microfilmed records likely to provide genealogical information. We check the more recent census records for places of birth and relationships. We comb attics and basements, and then contact cousins, hoping for family Bibles. We order birth and death certificates if the family of interest was living in the twentieth century. We hope for detailed obituaries. As our expertise increases, we learn to check wills, probate administration applications, and the pension files of former soldiers — all of which can reveal interesting family details. When we gain more expertise, we learn to look for the division of land among heirs, often called land partitions.

Many people, unfortunately, quit when the easily accessible records do not yield results. Sometimes they don't know where else to search or how to better use the data they have already found. Many records containing valuable information areharder to find — they aren't indexed and are more likely to yield indirectevidence. These records include diaries, circuit court records, county order books, tax records, federal land records, newspaper accounts, county court records (sometimes called quarterly sessions records), and deeds that appear to be only simple land transfers but have deeper implications if analyzed more carefully.

Gathering enough data to point to a possible conclusion may be a relatively short undertaking or it can take years. Often it can be frustrating and time consuming, depending on the individual and family involved, their propensity for creating records, the time period in which you are working, and the locale. Some geographic areas have preserved many old records; others are literally a wasteland.

STEP 4: Analysis is the most crucial step in the research process.

The data and records you have gathered need to be analyzed both separately and as a group. Often when you carefully analyze the records gathered over a long period of time, new answers, perspectives, and clues emerge.

As you gather records for the specifi c family or individual you are researching, ask the following questions:

• What does the record add to what I already know? Does it support or contradict information I have already found?

• Other than my ancestor, who else was involved in creating or witnessing the record? Who was mentioned in it? Are they likely to be "official" participants or associates of my ancestor? Have these individuals appeared in any other records my ancestor created?

• Would other records have been created before or after this one that would serve the same (or a similar) purpose?

• Are there clues recorded here that are not directly related to this record but could lead to additional records or other people to be studied?


Excerpted from "The Family Tree Problem Solver"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Marsha Hoff man Rising.
Excerpted by permission of F+W Media, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 7

1 Analyzing Research Problems and Planning Strategies: Develop a research model based on solid principles to focus and direct your work. Here's how you can start your serious research with a different perspective and tenacious study 8

2 Avoiding Ten Common Genealogy Mistakes: Troubleshoot your genealogy research with this wrap-up of common errors and pitfalls-and how to avoid them 26

3 Finding Births, Marriages, and Deaths Before Civil Registration: Discover pre-twentieth-century vital records with this chapter's discussion of the many records that provide birth, marriage, and death information 45

4 Locating Missing Ancestors in the Census: Dig deeper into census records. This chapter covers common reasons individuals don't appear where you expect in censuses, how to be sure they are actually missing, and what to do if they really aren't in censuses 74

5 Researching Friends, Associates, and Extended Family Members: Consider your "collateral kin": the friends, neighbors, coworkers, cousins, aunts, and uncles who can lead you to your ancestor and his community. This chapter will show you why this network is important, and how to identify and research members of it 90

6 Problem-Solving with Court Records: Enhance your research with probate, guardianship, and circuit court records. This chapter will show you how to use them, with practical examples 113

7 Replacing Burned Courthouse Records: Overcome one of the most common research problems: the dreaded burned courthouse. This chapter covers how to work around this roadblock using duplicate, substitute, and replacement records 137

8 Utilizing Land Records: Document and connect your ancestors and their relatives and communities with land records 154

9 Sorting Individuals with the Same Name: Separate individuals of the same name in the same community-and link people in one community to those in another-with this chapter's practical strategies 172

10 Finding Pre-1850 Ancestors: Step back in time. This chapter covers methods for finding ancestors who lived before the 1850 census-a time notable for large-scale migrations and scanty records that make research difficult 193

11 Analyzing Evidence: Assess the records you find by considering where your data comes from, how reliable it is, and what inferences you can draw from it. This chapter will show you how 211

12 Accepting Online Family Tree Hints: Add only the best information to your online family trees. Genealogist Sunny Morton shares tips for understanding which generated "hints" to accept on sites like and MyHeritage-and which to ignore 228

13 Applying DNA Test Results to Your Research: Find your roots with DNA: Genetic genealogy expert Diahan Southard discusses practical uses for your results from companies like Ancestry DNA 239

Appendix A Genealogy Glossary 248

Appendix B Research Forms and Worksheets 261

Index 265

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The Family Tree Problem Solver: Tried and True Tactics for Tracing Elusive Ancestors 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Jamie Brydone-Jack 7 months ago
When You Need Help Sorting Out Your Family Tree This new and updated genealogy book is meant for people who are interested in doing serious genealogical research. In the first chapter, the author gives tips on how to start serious research or tackle problems based on a research model. She discusses next how to find vital records before there was civil registration. She then gives you ideas of how to troubleshoot your genealogy and how to avoid common mistakes. From there, chapters detail how to work with particular types of records like the census, court records, and land records. There’s even a chapter about replacing burned court records. She instructs on how to analyze what you find to figure out how reliable it is and what you can take from it. There are two new chapters in this edition that give ideas about how to work with websites like Ancestry and MyHeritage as well as how to use DNA results from AncestryDNA or 23andMe to help figure out your roots. I found this book to be rather densely written, and the author seemed almost condescending at times if people didn't agree with her definitions or do things as she would do them. Some of the examples given seem longwinded. Still, she does give very concrete methods for researching and figuring out problems as you trace your family roots. If you can tolerate her attitude and are very serious about genealogy, you will most likely find this book worthwhile,
diane92345 8 months ago
Family Tree Problem Solver is exactly that. If you registered on any of the genealogy sites, this book can help you make better use of their tools and perhaps save you some frustration. Beginning with five steps to solving genealogical problems, the book takes the amateur genealogist through the entire process of finding their roots. This edition has updated website addresses and two new chapters. One new section covers what to do when receiving a new hint email from a site where you have placed your family tree. Another describes how to use DNA kit results, either your own or family members, to further your genealogical research. Family Tree Problem Solver is an excellent tool for any amateur ancestor detective’s armory. 4 stars! Thanks to Family Tree Books and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for an honest review.
TexYa More than 1 year ago
Goodbook and it's about time we see genealogy books being offered for our Nooks! Thank you.