The late Stanford mathematician George Polya devised a problem-solving process that has been used in math classes for years. Even though family history problems are not always math problems, Polya’s procedure can provide a framework within which to work.
In essence, Polya had four steps to his process:
1) Understand the Problem
This is an important aspect of solving any research quandary. There are several aspects of “understanding the problem” of which the genealogist needs to be aware. Searching for “everything I can find” about great-grandfather is not a â€œgood problem.â€ While it may be clear, it is certainly too broad. Better problems would be more specific ones such as:
â€œLocate the ca. 1830 marriage record of James Rampley and Elizabeth Chaney that took place somewhere in Ohio.â€
First, I need to determine if marriage records were kept in Ohio in 1830 (they were), and if they are still extant in the counties where the couple might have gotten married. I should seek out church records of the marriage in addition to civil records.
If I know the names of the couplesâ€™ parents, I could try to find where their parents were living in 1820 and 1830 to get a potential location for the marriage.
Another option is to look at places of birth for the couple’s children, if that information is known. While couples do not necessarily have their children in the same place in which they were married, those places of birth are good starting points. Other materials such as county histories, obituaries, and pension records, might provide clues as to where the couple was married.
2) Devise a Plan
Once I understand the problem, I need to devise a plan. This typically means determining what records will be searched and how those records will be accessed.
My actual goal is the marriage record itself, so any reference in a finding aid or an index will not be a final step. In this case, I can contact the county office in the county where the Rampleys were married to see if they have the record.
I can also check to see whether the Family History Library has microfilmed the records. If they have, I can order them at my local Family History Center.
If I am not sure of the county where the couple married, I could see whether there are any statewide marriage indexes–either in print or online. If these indexes are used, I need to know the extent of the coverage, and if they are not, what counties have been omitted. If I am unaware of how to access marriage records at the local office level, I can refer to the appropriate chapter of Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources, the state research outline on the FamilySearch site, or the appropriate USGenWeb site.
3) Execute the Plan
I decided to contact the county and see if they had the record and made certain to request a copy of the complete record. I wrote the letter and made a note in my research log. (Tracking your research is extremely important.) A few weeks later, I received a copy of the record.
4) Evaluate the Results
It might seem like the problem was solved. Of course, now that I confirmed the date and county of marriage, I needed to know more about the couple before their marriage. There are many questions that could be asked, but here it is important to remember that you should not rush on without evaluating what has been found.
The record told me that neither James nor Elizabeth were natives of Ohio. Questions I could ask now include:
- What brought them to Ohio?
- Did they come with their families?
Back to Square One
Answering these questions takes us back to step one–understanding the problem. In the case of these two new questions, it will require more understanding of the history and migration patterns in the area, details that were not as necessary with the marriage problem.
Problem-solving is inherent to any genealogical dilemma. Problems should be clearly stated and well-defined. Vague problems usually get vague answers. Our ancestors and their records are sometimes vague enough; our approach to finding them should not be.
Michael John Neill is a genealogical writer and speaker who has been researching his or his children’s genealogy for more than twenty years. A math instructor in his “other life,” Michael taught at the former Genealogical Institute of Mid-America and has served on the FGS Board. He also lectures on a variety of genealogical topics and gives seminars across the country. He maintains a personal website