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8 Questions You Need to Be Asking When Researching Your Ancestors

I am a methodical genealogist, but I have not always been that way. I used the word “research” lightly back then because it could quickly turn to unorganized madness! Over time, I learned the value of creating a method to my genealogy research. One of the first things I do to ensure I am organized in my process is to ask questions. Here are eight questions you need be asking yourself when researching your ancestors.

1. Did my ancestors live near the border of another county or counties? My home is situated within a mile of three different counties. I can choose two different hospitals in two different counties to deliver my children, and only one of those hospitals is within the county I reside. My point is that this same “problem” can affect your family research.

If you assume that Grandma Clark lived her whole life in Shelby County, therefore she had her children in Shelby County and that is where you will find their birth records, you may be mistaken. After all, Grandma could have chosen to go to a different hospital in a different county, and if she did, the children’s birth records would be held at that county location. The same may be true if your relative died at home or in the local hospital. Local hospitals now and in the past are not necessarily in the same county of residence.

2. Did my ancestors live near the state border? Not only do you want to check the county boundaries, but the state boundaries as well.

In fact, you may want to consider the laws that governed one state versus another close by. A great example is when couples would choose to marry in another state because parental permission was not required for brides under the age of 18, or when there was no wait-time requirement after a marriage license was obtained.

3. How did the local society effect your ancestor? Did you ancestor’s occupation require he/she to move around? Was it difficult to find or keep work in the area in which your ancestor lived? Was there a tragic event or disease that required people to relocate?

Genealogists see many examples of this. Some we are more familiar with such as the Great Potato Famine in Ireland, the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and the bombing of Great Britain during World War II. Have you ever considered what was happening from a social standpoint in your ancestor’s neighborhood or region? How did that influence any movements?

I have an ancestor who was a Presbyterian minister. In some cases, these ministers of the past only stayed in one location for a couple of years. My guy seems to have moved about once every three years. I needed to be creative in my research to determine not only what county, but what state he called home. Once I had a general idea of his whereabouts, I could plot them on a map and look in surrounding counties and states for additional records. In this case, I thought he had only lived in the states of New York and Iowa. Putting this question to work for me, I discovered several records in bordering counties of Pennsylvania as well.

4. Were there any unique customs or traditions in the region your ancestors lived in? My mother’s family lived for generations in Lee County, Virginia. This mountainous region is unique in that one side of the “mountain” is Lee County, Virginia and the other side is Harlan County, Kentucky. I know that many of the residents of these locations would do business in either place. I also know that the largest hospital in the area is in Kingsport, Tennessee. When looking for birth, marriage, and death records, I am always sure to check all locations.

Another unique tradition of this area was the nature of the given names. One common given name in this community was “George Washington” or simply “Washington.” However, they did not call these men “George” or “Washington.” They were most often recorded as “Wash” or “Wick.” In my case, several ancestors in my tree are named “George Washington” and all of them go by “Wash” or a variation of it.


Nicknames were a very big part of that community’s culture. Margarets were called “Peggy,” Marthas were called “Polly,” and there were some unusual names common to that region like Millard, Willard, Dillard, and Lillard. My Grandma named four of her children those lovely names!

5. Would your immigrant ancestor need to be naturalized? It was not a requirement for immigrants to become naturalized. Women and children could gain derivative citizenship through a husband or father.[1]

It did become important for the immigrant to be naturalized if they wanted to own land. Therefore, if your immigrant farmer owned his own land, he was likely a naturalized citizen.

Naturalization laws changed over time, but generally the person would be at least 21 years of age and been a resident of the U.S. for a specific amount of time. Depending on the timeframe of naturalization, this residence requirement was anywhere between three-to-five years. To learn more about naturalization in America visit the National Archives online.

6. What records, if any, are unavailable in your targeted county research because of loss or other reason? The best way to answer this question is to call the courthouse or the local historical society and ask a knowledgeable person. It does not hurt to talk to two different people just to be sure. Typically, the courthouse will have a written brochure or information posted to their website as to what records are available.

If you do not see the records you want at the courthouse, that does not necessarily mean they were destroyed or lost. In the case of Miami County, Ohio, naturalization papers are on microfilm at the local historical library, not at the courthouse. Final papers for naturalization are not even kept in this county, but have been moved to a larger library at Wright State University in Montgomery County.

In some cases, records have been moved to a state archive.

7. Did my ancestor live during a time where service in a war would have allowed for a pension? There are four major American wars that I consider for each of my male ancestors. They are the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War. In each of these cases, veterans or their widows could apply for pension. Pension records can hold a wealth of genealogical data.

When determining whether your ancestor served in these wars, the rule of thumb is to determine if they were between the ages of 16 and 45 during the said war. There are exceptions.

A pension could be for any veteran, widow of a veteran, a 16-year-old or younger child of a veteran, or a widowed mother whose livelihood depended on her child that had been injured or killed while in service.[2]

A variety of pension records can be found on almost any of the popular genealogical websites. If you have not located what you are looking for online, you may need to check the National Archives. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is located in Washington, D.C., however you can order copies of records for a fee.

8. Was my ancestor likely to have been an active member of a church? I am amazed at how many churches kept records of not only the traditional baptisms and marriages, but of church happenings and discipline.

For the majority of us, our relatives were part of small community churches. This does not necessarily mean records were not kept, but it might mean those records are not available online or on microfilm.

Fletcher United Methodist Church of Miami County, Ohio has retained all their records and the records of the other local churches from the village. This small rural town has volumes of baptisms, marriages, and church minutes that you can only view if you make an appointment. When this is the case in your research, remember to consider using RootsBid. Perhaps your request can be filled by someone close to the area who is familiar with where the records are located.

All good research begins with a good question. Use all or a few of these questions to create your own list to help develop a better research process or a method to your madness.


[1] “Naturalization Records,” National Archives, ( : accessed 29 July 2015,) para. 6.

[2] Gil Wilson, “Understanding Civil War Pensions,” Dr. Bronson, ( : accessed 29 Apr 2015).

Amie Bowser Tennant Amie Bowser Tennant

Amie Bowser Tennant has served as a volunteer at her local Family History Center for more than 10 years. She was awarded the National Genealogical Society Home Study Course Scholarship in American Genealogy in 2011. She also enjoyed the position as newsletter editor for Miami Meanderings, a local county genealogical publication, for two years. Now, she is a research genealogist, speaker, and writer.

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  1. Amie, you have done it again!

    And, BTW, your Lee Co., VA are right down there in my neck of the woods. We’re going to end up being kinfolks yet.

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