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Solving Tough Genealogy Problems

In this article I look at a structured approach to analysing and solving those challenging problems that occur in our family history research. It comprises six principal steps, which any genealogist can follow.

Elsewhere in my blog you will find a four-part case study titled The Woman Who Fell From The Skies, so called because I had a female ancestor, Mary Jane Hyland, who appeared at the altar in 1894 to marry my great-great-grandfather, but I could find no convincing matches for her earlier life. It was as if she had somehow fallen from the skies on her wedding day having never previously existed. The case study looked in detail at how I addressed this problem and, eventually, solved it.

This article aims to lay out the methodology I used to solve that case. In my day job I’m an Operations Manager for a large consulting business. I spend my days working with business teams, helping them to optimise their approaches to solving problems and then documenting the new best-practice approach. Unless a process is clearly documented then it can’t easily be re-used, improved or, in the worst case, torn up and started again.

A word about the idea of a “best-practice” approach to genealogical problem solving.

  • It does not mean it is the best approach in all circumstances, nor that it is fool-proof, nor that it is somehow deemed an officially sanctioned or approved approach. In the collaborative and personal world of family history nothing can ever aspire to have an “official” status, whatever that means.
  • It does not mean that it is immutable and can never change. If better ideas come along that can make a best-practice approach more effective or efficient then it is best-practice to adopt those changes.
  • It does not mean that it should be followed slavishly or blindly. Your individual problem may benefit from some different thinking, but a best-practice approach might provide you with a good starting point.
  • It does mean that others have road tested it and found it to be a satisfactory approach for many similar types of problems. If you try it, you might find it helpful too.

The Six Steps

1. Define the Problem

When setting out to solve a challenging genealogical problem, it is most important to be able to clearly define what your objective is. What will define success?

Sometimes we see family history as a never-ending cycle of problem-research-solution, without there necessarily being a defined end goal. Many of us want to keep on pushing back through the generations until we completely exhaust the possible evidence.

For the purposes of solving tough problems though, we need to clearly say:

  • what is the state of my research of this problem?
  • what is the specific sticking point that I have?
  • what do I need to do to move this forward?

In the case of Mary Jane Hyland, I wanted to work backwards from her marriage to find evidence of her earlier life, including her birth and the names of her parents.

2. Create a Timeline

Re-examine and review all of the existing evidence you have relating to the person of interest. Are you confident that each piece is correct, fully researched (you did go back to the original record image, not just work from a transcript right?), definitely for your target individual and not someone else, etc.? Be thorough and honest with yourself. If you come across something that, with hindsight, you’re unsure about, put that to one side. Perhaps you need to set a separate research objective to verify that data item more fully?

Collate all of the existing evidence you have relating to the person of interest and write it out into a chronological list. It should include all life events that you know about for them and for members of their immediate family. Make sure that you have a full source citation for each item – there is nothing worse than realising that you can no longer remember where you picked up a piece of evidence. And information without a citation can’t be considered as genealogical evidence!

Once you have the full timeline, look for gaps. Are there some areas of the person’s life that you haven’t fully researched? If so, go away and do the research to fill the gap. There may be important additional clues that are hiding in the gaps.

In Mary Jane Hyland’s case, looking at gaps in the timeline showed me that:

  • She had had a previous engagement that hadn’t proceeded to marriage.
  • I found additional evidence which suggested she may have been born in Liverpool rather than Ireland.

Creating the timeline helped me to stop having “tunnel vision” about only one or two data points for Mary Jane. I started to look at her whole life in context.

3. Analyse the Timeline

Once you have the timeline, read it from top to bottom. What questions does it raise? What questions does it answer? Are there common factors, patterns or trends that might lead to clues? Might those clues lead you to additional evidence?

When I analysed Mary Jane’s timeline I found some interesting factors that isolated data points wouldn’t necessarily have provided:

  • She was literate, writing with a confident hand, so she must have had elementary education at the very least.
  • She never omitted her middle name. A useful clue – I would be able to eliminate alternate candidates who only called themselves Mary.
  • Her purported year of birth varied considerably from record to record. Another useful clue – I shouldn’t necessarily discount records that imply a different year of birth to my initial expectations.
  • Religious denomination was consistently Church of England. This weakened the case that she may have come from Ireland where >80% of people were Catholic.
  • Taking the above together with additional evidence about Liverpool as a potential place of birth, I became sure that I should research possible origins of Mary Jane in Liverpool rather than Ireland.

Analysing the timeline didn’t solve the problem straight away, but it did help to shift the direction of my thinking and pointed me in the right direction.

4. Construct the Case

Making any case in genealogy relies on one key question. Can you show that two pieces of evidence from different places and times relate to the same person?

Often this is a trivial problem. Where the person does not move, lives in a small community, has a sufficiently unique name or other consistent data point (such as date of birth, occupation, names of parents, siblings, etc.) then making the link can be straightforward. We all make these sorts of links every day that we do genealogical research, they are so commonplace that we hardly feel the need to declare or prove of our thinking. We use this technique to create timelines for individuals and families, they are simply sequences of individual pieces of evidence that we have successfully linked together.

Usually when we’re trying to solve a difficult problem however, it is because there is a shortage of corroborative evidence to say whether a piece of evidence we have found can be attached to an individual’s timeline with confidence.

One way to address this problem is to lasso two groups of candidates, one group in the earlier time and place, one group in the later time and place. For Mary Jane Hyland, that might look like this:

Two pools of candidates

The problem is how to definitively link one-and-only-one past candidate with one-and-only-one future candidate.

Backward Looking Elimination of Candidates
Start from the known person (in my case the 1894 Mary Jane Hyland who married John Bowers) and identify all possible earlier candidates. Then eliminate the candidates one by one until only one remains. If this candidate fits all the information you know then they become your prime candidate.

Backward looking elimination of candidates

But what if you are unable to fully eliminate all bar one candidate or the analysis throws up unexpected loose ends? Is that a bad thing? Of course not. It just means that you are unearthing other evidence that may be potentially relevant to the case. You must investigate these loose ends and unexpected results. They could change the direction of the problem entirely, or they might be no more than slight bumps in the road that dissolve away after more investigation.

In the case of Mary Jane Hyland, my initial candidates were all eliminated as their father’s name didn’t match my Mary Jane’s father. It was only on further investigation that I found that my Mary Jane was missing from the candidate list because the census had been mistranscribed on both Find My Past and Ancestry. After resolving that problem I was left with one and only one backward looking candidate.

5. Prove the Case

To prove that the prime candidate is the right one, it is necessary to reverse the view.

Forward Looking Elimination of Candidates
Starting from the prime candidate, identify all possible future candidates. Then eliminate the candidates one by one until only one remains.

Forward looking elimination of candidates

Once complete, this leaves just two candidates, one from the earlier time and place, one from the later time and place:

Successfully Linked Candidates

This is vital verification of the prime candidate. Without this step you could find that the person you thought you had identified as your ancestor in fact married someone else, died or emigrated. This would be a poor outcome after all your efforts. So I implore you, take the final step to verify that your candidate is the only possible candidate.

In Mary Jane’s case, I found seven potential future candidates that might have related to my prime candidate. I was able to eliminate some of the candidates via online searches. For the final three I had to resort to purchasing some civil registration certificates (two marriages and one death). With the extra information provided on the certificates I was able to eliminate them, leaving just the one forward-looking candidate, my great-great-grandmother. This was an expensive solution to the problem, but worth it.

6. Close Case / Redefine the Problem

Before you declare the case closed, look again at any conflicting evidence that you found during your investigation. Review it in the context of your full findings and come to an honest view about it. Does it fatally undermine the case? Does it partially undermine the case, perhaps suggesting additional avenues of research? Or is it entirely explicable in the context of your findings?

Don’t be shy about highlighting conflicting information. Our ancestors were three dimensional people with complex lives and human frailties. It is (very) rare to find any ancestor who is documented in a wholly consistent manner throughout their entire life. If you have found no conflicting information then you might ask yourself why? There should always be some.

If there is conflicting information which doesn’t undermine your case, what can you learn from the inconsistencies?

In Mary Jane’s case there were two key elements of inconsistency: her purported year of birth and her place of birth. It was because these items were inconsistent that I had to undertake such a detailed investigation in the first place. I’m happy to say that these were both quite easily dealt with. Her reported age varied significantly throughout her life and simply seems to have been pattern of behaviour – I guess it was as true in the 19th century as it is today, that you should never ask a lady her age! After all the extra research I was able to show that she had only ever once claimed to be from Ireland – it just happened to be the very first piece of evidence I found about her and it led to me developing “tunnel vision” about her place of origin. The fault was mine, not hers! I also found that both her parents had been born in Ireland, so that may explain why she had claimed Irish heritage on that one occasion. I was happy that neither of these items undermined the solidity of the case.

If the conflicting information undermines your case then rather than closing the case fully, you should close this phase of the case and define the new problem you need to solve. Now you can cycle back to the start of the process and work on this new research objective.

Last, but not least, write down your conclusions. You have gone through a detailed and meticulous analysis process, it is vitally important that you (and other, future genealogists) are able to fully assess the process that you went through and validate the outcomes. We have all seen online research that has too little in the way of evidence and validation. As careful genealogists, what do we do with unsupported assertions? We ignore them or totally re-investigate them. Don’t let your well structured, well thought out analysis be ignored because you didn’t make clear that your conclusions are built on extensive research and rigorous, repeatable analyses and arguments.

As every step in your family journey ends, it inevitably leads on to the next step. What will that next step be for you? Document your new research objective. This will get you ready to kick off the next research project.

For Mary Jane Hyland, it was the end of the case. My next steps will be to investigate the lives and origins of her parents.

Overview Diagram

I wish you luck with your researches. Let me know in the comments below if any of the ideas in this article were useful to you.


Published by Phil Isherwood

Phil has studied genealogy with Pharos Tutors and the Society of Genealogists, completing their year-long intermediate programme with a distinction. He is a Family History Advisor for the Oxfordshire Family History Society and enjoys working on the knotty genealogy problems brought to him by the general public. He has a special interest in genealogical methodology, military ancestors and sources for north-west England. Twitter: @isherwood_phil

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  1. I too have researched my genealogy and have come up with a lot of holes in my findings. This is a great tool to start filling in these holes and making sure that the info. that I do have is correct. Thanks!


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