Friday, July 19, 2019

Across the Strewn Research Path

Help. This is your local genealogical guinea pig speaking, and I've just taken a glance behind me. Don't look now, but what lies behind includes the horrifying aftermath of several brick-wall-encountering research casualties. And it's time to take stock of the situation and engage in some remedial clean-up action.

To recap, I've been on a wild research spree over the past six months of 2019. Starting in January, I began my research journey into my maternal southern lines, launched from a class in Southern Research Techniques at SLIG. I followed up that invigorating week of instruction with some field experience in northern Florida, home of my third great-parents, George Edmund and Sidney Tison McClellan, when I discovered a DNA match with descendants of an enslaved family having connections to the McClellan line. Trying to ascertain the identity of that one particular enslaved family—turned out, it was King Stockton and his mother Hester—the search took us from Florida to the Tison plantation in coastal Georgia.

Encountering the last of any documents which could be located online from that Georgia county, that search got put on hold while I explored another southern line—Broyles in South Carolina—which tied into my heritage from a different direction. With rich reading material to amply supply my need to know more—I'm still absorbing all I can from that vein—I set that pursuit on a back burner, as far as the reporting aspect goes, to write about yet another DNA discovery: the possibility of another hitherto unknown branch of my husband's Irish-Canadian Tully line. When I exhausted all I could locate in the records on that family line, another DNA match popped up to tantalize me over another possibility: discovery of my own grandfather's mystery origin.

And now? Unable to proceed further without additional documentation—and unable to obtain that documentation without going to the paper source, I'm afraid—I'm stuck.

When I look back at the aftermath of all these research trails, I see pathways strewn with the clues of so many unfinished quests. Such is often the case with genealogical pursuits. We go as far as we can reach with the resources we have at hand, pushing as far as we dare go, until there is no more wind in our sails, or gasoline in our engines. And there our good intentions sit, littering the trail until we can replenish the go power to move onward.

Of course, the standard advice would be to take one research question, run with it as far as we can go, then push beyond that research limit and press on toward the answer. That, however, is only as practical an option as the resources we have at hand to address it: no further resources, no further action—let alone arrival at an answer. I can't, for instance, drop everything and fly to Poland. Not even to Ireland. Or Canada. The practicality of the situation is that I can only go so far as my research resources let me stretch. And then, I need to keep track of where I got stuck, the reasons why, a hypothesis for continuation when fair sailing conditions allow me to continue the course—say, with newly-available record sets online—and a tickler file to help refresh my memory when that day arrives.

This makes me wonder about setting up a spread sheet with reminders of each specific research course, a bulleted list of what I already found and a list of where I think I ought to check next—all ready to wrap up and tuck away some place where I can find it when the occasion arrives to revisit the journey again. That way, I'll be ready to hit the ground running when the opportunity presents itself, instead of losing time to re-acquaint myself with the particulars of how I got stuck, last time I tackled the issue.

Included in that spreadsheet, I'd add possible next steps to take in follow-up, and contact lists of people with whom I'm working, in cases such as these DNA matches. It's a research plan with a caveat: I'm limited in progress only by the availability of the resources I need to clinch the relationships or proceed to the previous generation. And those resources, as we've all seen, can pop up at any moment online—or, frustratingly, keep themselves just out of reach of the long-distance researcher for far longer than we'd like to see.

It's the researcher's life, isn't it? For some, it adds up to too much frustration and a solid reason to quit the chase; for others, it seems only to goad us on, doggedly determined to not cave to stubborn roadblocks along our research path.


  1. Would your Boyle’s line happen to go back to the Germanna colony in Virginia? My Briles line goes back to Randolph County NC to Conrad Broils and the to Germanna.

    1. Marcia, yes! I was just doing some work on that line last night--actually, reviewing the old Keith manuscript online--and wandered through that Broyles history all the way back to the immigrant arrival in the Germanna colony. I guess that makes us kazillionth cousins! So glad you mentioned it!

  2. I've been playing this game since 1975. The conventional advice to focus on one family or one question before moving on always amuses me. If I had done, that I would still be stuck in the same spot I started in decades ago. I chase whatever interests me in the moment or the line that is moving in that moment. One thing I've learned is that letting a family or a question chill for a while (and sometimes it's a LONG while) is helpful. Then I can go back to it with fresh eyes. The clue for where to look next is usually right in front of me, but I overlooked it because I'd look at it for too long. Or a fresh idea for how to tackle it occurs to me. Or a new resource is available to exploit...I mean use. Plus, I work on my husband's family. Always something to chase and discover. When you get it a rut, it's time to do something totally different.

    1. Exactly! I know that focusing on one task is the conventional advice, but it is not my personal experience, nor yours, either, as you just noted.

      I think, when drawing a line between how best to handle family history assignments as a professional genealogist, versus as an avocational genealogist with the luxury of individually directing the scope and intensity of one's own research, the practicality of it all falls more in your camp than in the direction of that conventional advice.

      While it may be good advice to focus and stick with one research question, like you, I'd never have gotten anything done if I pushed and pushed at the last place I had gotten stuck. While it may take organizational skills to go back and pick up all the pieces we've left behind, time is definitely in our favor; every passing moment seems to bring new information online, to our benefit.

      I especially value your point about coming back with fresh eyes. That, in itself, is re-invigorating to a stagnant search.

      It's obvious you and I--and probably a whole lot of other researchers--are passionate about this alternate approach, and how we see it through personal experience!

  3. Replies
    1. I like the spreadsheet approach, after pulling out some decades-old records I had put away in storage. Yuk. The online approach sure keeps records cleaner--and with less clutter.

  4. The spreadsheet approach sounds like the best method. There are infinite columns or rows to record information. You can color-code for different aspects. And you can take it along with you.

    1. Ooooh, color coding! Lisa, you must know my weakness. I'm a sucker for organizing by color coding.


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