How to develop a genealogy strategy


I seem to have turned the clock back 50 years as I begin a course at the University of Strathclyde again, though this time it’s an online genealogy course instead of a full time PhD in chemistry! I’ve always believed in learning from experts balanced with learning from personal experience and my new interest in family history is a perfect opportunity for this to happen. After a month of stumbling around and making probably a years worth of beginners errors my stumbling took me to the futurelearn.com website and the Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree Course. I’ll cut to the chase here and just say it’s a brilliant course for beginners, 6 modules at one per week, interactive as much as you like with fellow learners, videos, articles, weblinks, exercises, case studies ….. the usual stuff.

What has interested me the most concerns the creation and implementation of a strategy for researching one’s family; absolutely essential to prevent overreach and stumbling around through the centuries. This might surprise many who know me, because I spent half of my career as an organisational psychologist working on business strategy! However, I might know HOW to create strategies generally, but if you have no expertise in the subject for strategising and nobody to discuss it with ….. you’re stumped.

After 3 weeks of the course I had absorbed enough to think about a strategy based on four primary headings: Line (The part of my family tree to tackle), Focus (What I would specifically tackle or investigate), Process (HOW I would implement the chosen Focus) and Task List (Detailed notes of to do’s as they pop into my head. I created a Mind Map to develop the strategy, a useful tool for visual thinkers, and you can see the four main headings with sub elements in the image.

Genealogy mind map
Genealogy Strategy-Mind Map

Let me talk you through an example having chosen three Line segments of my tree in clusters over roughly 100 years, shown above, top centre. One cluster is my maternal grandmother’s line, Emily Waters born in 1876. Her father was John Pedlar Waters born 1837, and going back three generations we arrive at Joseph Pedlar born 1745. This cluster is of interest because all were originally from Cornwall, all miners, all migrated to USA and Canada. Occupations changed in mining from Copper to Tin in Cornwall, then from Lead/Silver to Gold in Wisconsin then California. You can see this on the top right and bottom right of the Mind Map. So now I follow my Process on the left of the Mind Map, carefully constructing the basics of each family member such as birth, marriage, death, residence, occupation etc using census records for example. Migration information comes from ship passenger lists. Most importantly I use paper forms for initial search and fact recording before transferring it digitally to my family tree on Ancestor.com

As the facts emerge about this cluster I start to write “stories” by piecing together bits of information such as parts of family migrating some remaining in Cornwall, the migrating family members separating at Newfoundland, mother and youngest staying in Canada, father and oldest going on to Boston then Wisconsin; then later, mother joining father in Wisconsin, purchasing land and becoming farmers. Finally mother moving to California to join her sons after her husband dies. Imagine the lives of this one family, surviving a crossing of the Atlantic over several weeks, arriving in Newfoundland and needing to find another ship to USA, arriving at Boston Massachusetts then having to journey ….. probably on foot, to Wisconsin! Finding a job, somewhere to live, making a home, raising children. Our lives are so easy today by comparison, and yet we constantly complain about ….. how long a list of quite trivial things would you like?

Anyway, I can thoroughly recommend the genealogy course online via University of Strathclyde, there’s something in it for everyone especially if you’re a beginner. You can access it from anywhere in the world and much of it is generalised so you don’t have to worry about US records vs UK records for example. And maybe best of all …… IT’S FREE!


17 thoughts on “How to develop a genealogy strategy

  1. I didn’t realise there was a starters course. Great. In my case I did some basics about 15 years ago then a bit more then a bit more. I uploaded my large tree of my father’s family into a database. I did my wife’s tree. I did my mother tree. Each of these three projects took a while, were a bit messy, and taught me things.
    But all the time my priority has been photo albums, notes, bits of this and that. Responsibilities.
    Finally i worked out the only way I could proceed and keep my sanity. By finishing small things.
    I have a bunch of brilliant stories. And I am goig to create finished-looking tellings of them. Each telling involves basic research and admin, new discoveries and writing. I am loving it. It will take years and years.
    So far I have finished one story… and got distracted! I thought I needed some variety too.
    But having a mind map of the stories… a storyshelf I called it… has helped a lot. I can see when I have done something.
    Nice blog, v. Interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jim, I’m new to this but have still messed around too much in the last couple of months. My mind map has helped me to get more focused and I have started to focus on small groups of ancestors and their stories within a general,historical context. Thanks for following me, heading over to your blog now.

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  2. What’s far more difficult is when you take over a half-started family tree from a relative – in my case, from my father. Before I could continue any of it, I had to decipher his handwriting as none of it was typed (and he was a family doctor, so you can imagine the scrawl!), sort out all the duplicated info, work out what the different coloured ink references referred to, etc. He’d been rather ambitious, too, in that he’d tried to do my mother’s tree as well as his and some of that was mixed up! I could have done with a course like the one you’re doing now, then. Unfortunately, I just battled through it and worked it out as best I could til I couldn’t face going any further with it. Good luck with the course – it sounds like it’s working for you.

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    1. There will always be problems I guess when you pick up from somebody else. Even if you’re picking up a digital tree, no handwriting problems, but the ease of clicking on hints supplied from databases, copying from other peoples public trees etc can soon build a very big mess. As I’ve already discovered!

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      1. The one to be very wary of (even though it’s possible to find actual clues there – as I have done) is geni.com as non-users are allowed to add info to other people’s families (or used to be).

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  3. That sounds excellent. I am building a family tree on Ancestry.com and keep getting waylaid by “hints” about random relatives. I need to be more focused and this course sounds like a good place to start.

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    1. Yes, you can join any time you like, and do the modules in your own time. They recommend 4 hours per week or module but if your retired you could end up doing say 3 modules in one week. I’ve got really cautious about those hints and rarely touch them.

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  4. I am often intrigued by this genealogy stuff and what is it all about?

    A better understanding of self and the family gene pool?
    A desire to know about the lives of people in the family tree?
    A link to the wider history of the various times?

    I confess that I have never really understood the TV programme ‘who do you think you are?”

    I am not dismissing it, it is a challenge.

    Anyway, you have inspired me to revisit some earlier posts and try again. 10 years ago I did a sequence of posts about the first 20 years of my life, the history of the times and how events may or may or may not have influenced my life and thoughts and personal journey.

    Thank you for the nudge and my take on genealogy stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess it keeps my mind away from crappy cricket and rugby results! But seriously I’m glad you found some inspiration from my new blog direction. I’m currently re reading about the industrial revolution related to my Cornish ancestors and have just ordered the old book by Trevalyan English Social History, it adds content to the context in which they lived and this is what really interests me the most. It’s a kind of a trigger like visiting English churches was for me and writing about medieval times. Look forward to your posts Andrew.

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  5. One question I asked myself was why did people leave their home to go into the wild new land that became their new home. Perhaps to own their own land, government land grants for military service, better living conditions. I started reading the history of the states and counties for answers and found many of my ancestors were early settlers of the counties. Many of these county history books are on Google books. I try to parallel local, national or world history to my family history timeline to find the ‘why’ in their migration.

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      1. You beat me to it Andrew. I have equated their movement with my own from Cumbria to Cheshire to Gloucestershire, every move was upwardly economic, career, personal improvement. I surely believe that’s the basic drive behind the migration of the 1700s and 1800s too sparked by the industrial revolution and opportunity to better ones lot!

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