Elizabeth Shown Mills has just the right guidance at just the right time!

Elizabeth Shown Mills has just the right guidance at just the right time!

We’ve known for some time that our research strategy is not focused as well as it should be, and our undisciplined methodology ( lack of research logs, research notes, well defined questions, formal output, etc.) was slowing down our work. Not only that, it’s been sloppy, and lead us down some dead ends…twice.

Today confirmed for us that we need to pause our research and reset our work.

This week it came to a head when we identified a DNA match with my wife’s Grandmother (who is African American) that comes from a tree that is almost entirely white, and has a strong slave-holder history in their line. This would be the first confirmed slave-holder/slave child we’d identified (if we could identify the line), which is a pretty major step in African American genealogy.

We went back to a “Working” Tree on Ancestry (because I can’t sync our Family Tree Maker!) for the white Thornton line, and built a good link from the DNA match to the brothers in Coffeeville, AL we’ve long suspected were the likely parents of her slave ancestor. We were completely excited.

It wasn’t until the next day as we poked around the Working tree, and our main tree, that it dawned on us: the slave ancestor with the Thornton surname was likely never in Alabama and the brothers were never likely in Arkansas. We’d hit this dead end before, but forgot all about it. We knew better, we’d just forgotten it…and we left the speculative tree intact without any notes.

It’s been a thought for awhile now that we were getting too cowboy in our research. We felt too pulled in whatever direction a whim drew us, often getting sucked down DNA result rabbit holes, and not making a lot of good progress. We’re getting to be a mile wide and an inch deep.

As I laid down for a nap this afternoon, I wanted to do some genealogy reading without working on any project, and after searching on “genealogy research plan” I immediately hit upon one of our favorite resources: Elizabeth Shown Mills. There is fantastic series of Research Reports on the Association of Professional Genealogists website where Mills presents the fascinating case of Samuel Witter (Essential Research Reports for Genealogists: 3 Samples). We read through all 3 examples, and were immediately inspired!

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Take a look for yourself, and the first thing that will strike you is that they are long and detailed. It might feel daunting to draft something like this. But as I started to think of several of our brick walls, and involved projects, we can see how having the discipline to produce something this detailed should both highlight the areas we need further research, and give us the path to the best next steps to attack that research.

We clicked through a link to Mills’ website Historic Pathways and found not only the Witter examples, but an entire library of GREAT documentation (Historic Pathways – Research Reports).

Today confirmed for us that we need to pause our research and reset our work: clean up our main tree by moving the speculative links to Private/Unsearchable trees, clean up/verify the citations for all facts in our main tree, get our paper documentation and filing up-to-date, and draft more formal plans to answer specific questions when we start our research again.

We’ll update everyone as we start following this process, and start creating these documents, but in the meantime, take a look and let us know what you think! How formal is your research documentation, and what works for you?

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