Three Genealogical Exercises, by George G. Morgan

NY Cemetery_IMG.bmpThere are lots of skills associated with genealogical research. Some of these include locating evidence, analyzing it, translating language, reading old handwriting, understanding archaic words, and most of all reading between the lines to locate informational sources that can further your research.

There are three exercises that I use for honing my research skills, and they have nothing to do with my personal genealogical research. However, they contribute to my skills, make me look outside the confines of my own family research, and cause me to sharpen my knowledge of different record types, ethnic and religious origins, and much more. Let me share these with you.

Dissecting Obituaries
I present a popular seminar titled “Bits about Obits: Reading Between the Lines.” I usually read the obituaries in the local newspapers on a regular basis. No, I’m not morbid; I simply want to see what information is included. I’ll usually pick two or three at random; the names and sizes of the obituaries don’t matter. You may recall in school having to diagram sentences. For some of us, it was enlightening and greatly enjoyable; and for others it was torture. What I do is similar–I “dissect” the obituary.

First, I read the obituary in full. Next, I use a pencil to underscore individual pieces of information in the obituary that point to some resource that may or will be of genealogical value. The obvious items are name, gender, age, residence, life events, place where a funeral or memorial service is scheduled, names of officiating clergy, place of interment, and names of any survivors. Other information may include occupation, name of spouse(s), sibling(s), place of birth, life events, military service, church affiliation, occupation, and more.

I prepare a list that includes each and every one of these underlined clues. Underneath each one, I notate 1) what information that clue can provide; 2) what records might exist of the fact or clue; and 3) where the record(s) would be held. A typical short obituary usually has at least a dozen such clues to records. I then use telephone and city directories, the Internet, and other resources to determine the location that I would contact for more information. The exercise takes about thirty minutes or less for each obituary. However, it hones my skills for working objectively with my own family and ancestral obituaries.

Mailing List and Message Board Queries
I actively read a number of mailing lists and message boards. When I see a posting that relates to an area where my ancestors lived or to a surname I am researching, I read it and print it. I almost immediately get into my genealogical database and check for any information I have on individuals. If I read a posting related to a geographical area, a church, a school, or other institution or organization, and I have a reference book or documents relating to the subject, I will craft a private response to the person.

This exercise allows me to re-read and re-focus on content that I perhaps have not examined in some time. It also forces me to look at my own knowledge and determine if I have more information to apply to my own research. In the meantime, if I can help someone else with their research–and even connect with a cousin–this is another great benefit.

The Tombstone Game
I spend lots of time in cemeteries, as do most genealogists. Occasionally I will simply select one tombstone, copy the name and dates down, and take it home. Later, I will start checking and other databases to see what I can learn about the person. Can I locate the person in a census? Is there an electronic version of an obituary? Are there military records? Are there other vital records? In other words, I try to practice my research skills in electronic databases to see what I can learn. This often forces me to look at different records and/or different locations. This makes me a better researcher and helps be stay abreast of new materials online. Sometimes the facts are sparse, and other times there is a vast amount of information to be discovered about an otherwise forgotten, once-famous, or notable person.

These three little exercises take a comparatively small amount of time. While I maintain a very busy schedule, I make the time to do these exercises. They are the equivalent of crossword or Sudoku puzzles for the genealogist. I hope you’ll try one or all of these exercises. They are educational, interesting, and fun.

Happy Hunting!

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

George G. Morgan is the best-selling author of The Official Guide to and How to Do Everything with Your Genealogy, both of which are available in the Ancestry Store. George and partner Drew Smith produce The Genealogy Guys Podcast each week. It is the longest-running, most popular genealogy podcast in the world! George is also now teaching online genealogical workshops for Pharos Tutors and for the Continuing Education Division of the University of South Florida in Tampa. Visit his company’s website to view his schedule of upcoming conference events.

8 thoughts on “Three Genealogical Exercises, by George G. Morgan

  1. Just curious about why you send a private response to a mailing list or message board query. Wouldn’t it be better to respond on the list or board so that others might benefit from your research? This could also help a future researcher who might search the archives.

  2. Thank you for your tips. They can be helpful for those searching ancestors who came here many years ago. However, I do not find any ancestors of mine because they are from the Philippines. I did go to the cemetery in the Philippines and I was able to get some names there. I have been using Family Tree Maker by Broderbund but I find that when I am in the book section, their table of contents (where you add items i.e. descendants) it is very limited to a certain number and if you have reached the number of items to include, it won’t allow you to do so. Do you know of any software/program that is not limited in their table of contents when I do the book? Thank you.

  3. When visiting my numerous family cemeteries, I use a digital camera and take a photo of each headstone. It’s a faster and more effecient way to collect the information. You’ll always have the photo to look back on in case you need to double check name spellings or dates, etc. I also take group photo’s so I can see who was buried near who. Doing this has helped me identify people who I hadn’t previously known.

  4. Like Lora, I’ve also used a digital camera to photograph headstones. However, if you won’t be able to return to the cemetery anytime soon, look at the pictures on a laptop or other larger screen if you can before leaving to make sure the pictures came out ok. I’ve taken pictures while far from home and then later discovered the camera had been on the wrong setting and the pictures were blurry, or the light was wrong and the engraving was hard to read. If you can’t check the pictures, making backup copies of the information on a notepad or a pocket recorder is good insurance.

  5. May I add to your list, George? How about a Census Game? Recently I taught a class where each student had a printed page from the 1930 state/county where the class was held. I red-circled a “target family” for each student and turned them loose. The results were amazing…….they really got into it! And not having any preconceived ideas (like they would have had with their own research) made them very energetic in learning about the new resources I was presenting. They enjoyed the exercise and so did I. And their genealogy society now has an expanded database to post online. It worked!!

  6. I have names of officiating clergy, place of internment, and church affiliation information, but I can’t seem to go further than that.

    Could you please provide more specific info when you have such info?

  7. I am curious, are you George Gale Morgan, son of William George and Mary Kate (Ledbetter) Morgan – – nothing ventured, nothing gained.

  8. Hi Jim!

    No, my full name is George Goodloe Morgan, son of Samuel Thomas Morgan and Sara Edith Weatherly. You’re absolutely correct, though — investigate every possible lead.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *