Problem Solving for Genealogy, by Michael John Neill

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 “good problem.” While it may be clear, it is certainly too broad. Better problems would be more specific ones such as:

“Locate the ca. 1830 marriage record of James Rampley and Elizabeth Chaney that took place somewhere in Ohio.”

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 couples’ 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.

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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

6 thoughts on “Problem Solving for Genealogy, by Michael John Neill

  1. Great to see this article! One of the few books I still have from my college days (30 years ago!) is How to Solve It, by G. Polya, orig. c. 1945! It was used in the Problem Solving class I took in grad. school Math Ed. at Boston Univ. As an editor of high school math textbooks for a number of years I was surrounded by people who loved to encourage the use of problem solving techniques throughout the curriculum. Certainly, I’ve used such a process in my own genealogical research and just about every area of my life.

  2. I had the problem of finding my Grandparents marriage information, it is not on any genweb site in Mich. Guess I was Lucky that Mom had the certificate. But, here’s an example of what you were talking about.
    John was b. 1888 in Terre Haute, Ind. Adah was b.1904 Ossian, Ind. They were married in Berrien, Mich. in 1919. Lived anywhere from Kendallville, Ind. to Toledo, Ohio. Altho both are burried in Sylvania, Ohio, John passed away in 1966 in Kendallville, Oh; Adah passed in 1981 in Blythe, Calif.
    John was not raised in Terre Haute, he ran away from home and joined a circus, returning to central Indiana to raise 2 different families (one in 1915, one in 1919). He was also in Vaudeville, altho I cannot find genealogy records on this, I do have photos of him. It is not easy to find records if the person moved around, or like my cousin, worked on many rail roads and pretty much not listed on census’. while most families stayed put, mine were roamers… and even I experienced this in my lifetime.
    Sincerely, Appaloosa58

  3. I have a question that no one in my family can give a good explanation for. And I have only one living Aunt with Alzheimer’s to ask, plus the older cousins. All my life, I was told and we celebrated my mother’s birthday as Dec 30, 1928. She died young, barely 59. The death certificate and obits all say age 59. I received a lot of her papers and it never “clicked” until I formally started doing genealogy on my family. The birth certificate I found said dec. 30, 1929. And the 1930 US Census lists her as 4/12 in age. Why would any woman have ADDED a year to her age all those years?

    One family tidbit, and my only thought, is that I was born illegimately to her in 1947. If correct age was used, she would have been 17. Instead I always thought she was 18 when I was born. Would there have been some legal issues with her keeping me at 17? I’m truly puzzled and too late to ask the right people. Any ideas from any one. Oh, this would have been in Iowa.

  4. Could the possible reason for lying about her age be to beat the school deadline for when she could start school? I lived in Iowa as a child and our town had a September 30th deadline for starting school. My brothers born Oct 1st and Nov 2nd had to wait a year. I actually knew someone (in another state) who falsified her son’s birth certificate to get him in. Only other thought — if she was 17, could child welfare folks have taken the baby?

  5. Deane-
    Thanks for the idea. My mom was the BRIGHTEST of all the children, and was #7 of 8 living. Maybe Grandma was tired!

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