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Unfinished Stories: Asking the Right Questions to Keep Your Research Focused

"My genealogy is all done. Every ancestor has been identified and their life stories have been meticulously recorded," said no genealogist ever. This humorous yet utterly true statement echoes the sentiments of every family historian who has ventured into the labyrinth of their ancestry. The truth is, the journey of genealogical discovery is endless.

At first glance, your family tree might appear full - branches stretching back through several generations. Yet, this is but the tip of the iceberg. Consider for a moment the sheer number of direct line ancestors we have at various points in our lineage: 8 at 3 generations back, 32 at 5, 1,024 by the 10th generation, and an astonishing 32,768 direct line ancestors if we dare to venture back 15 generations. These figures represent only a fraction of our familial connections, not accounting for the myriad of aunts, uncles, and cousins who also form part of our intricate family tapestry. Oh, and let's not forget all of those marriage lineages - your own spouse's family, your aunt's husband's family, your cousin's wife's family, etc. It’s like opening a book and finding it’s part of a whole library! I like to think of genealogy as a jigsaw puzzle with unlimited pieces.

In an effort to trace my roots, I embarked on a heritage trip focused on my Cook lineage, a surname that has been a part of my family tree in this country for eight generations. Initially, my pride swelled at the thought of my 9th great-grandfather, a founding father of a small town in Connecticut. The experience was enriching, tying me to a place and a lineage with deep historical roots in American soil. Yet, upon returning home, I realized my perspective had been too narrow.

What I hadn't considered were all the lineages that had married into the Cook family over more than 250 years. In my singular focus on the Cook name, I had overlooked the interconnectedness of families. Since then, I've discovered not one but three additional direct line ancestors who were also pivotal figures in the same Connecticut town, and my research is far from complete - there could be more! This realization was a profound reminder: genealogy is never done. Over two decades into this journey, and the discoveries keep coming!

Moving forward, my objective is clear. I want to research each woman who married into my Cook lineage to determine how many other founders of this Connecticut town I descend from. However, researching the full lineages of each wife over 250 years (or 8 generations) is daunting, but with the guidance of well constructed research questions, we can breakdown this project into manageable pieces.

Every discovery in genealogy begins with a question, a desire to know more about who we are and where we come from. But not all questions are created equal. A good research question is specific, targeted, and informed by what we already know, guiding us to the records and resources that can unlock the answers we seek.

The Board for Certification of Genealogists advises that research questions should be "sufficiently focused to yield answers that may be tested and shown to meet or not to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard. Genealogical-research questions include (a) a clearly described unique person, group, or event as the question's focus; and (b) specification of unknown or forgotten information that the research is to discover (for example, an identity, relationship, event, or biological detail)."¹

For instance, take my 7th great grandfather, Benjamin Cook. Previous research led me to his will dated March 1789, which identified his wife as Hannah. If you start asking, "Who were Hannah's parents?" you'll drown in Hannahs. It's simply too broad of an inquiry. Instead get specific and say, "Who were the parents of Hannah, wife of Benjamin Cook who listed Hannah in his will dated March 1789 in Wallingford, Connecticut?" You’ve now got a time, a place, and a person. You've identified a specific, unique person, and the unknown information you are seeking. That’s a question that can lead you to an answer.

This may seem overly small and specific in the grand scheme of our project, but this approach helps to keep us on task and focused - avoiding those precarious genealogical rabbit holes! This level of specificity not only streamlines the research process but also significantly increases the chances of discovering relevant and accurate information. It narrows down the vast pool of historical documents to those few that actually pertain to your ancestors, making each step in your research journey a deliberate and potentially fruitful one.

As I conducted exhaustive research for Hannah, I learned her maiden name was Munson and her grandfather was Samuel Munson. Samuel Munson is another name appearing on the plague (and other resources) identifying the founders of Wallingford, Connecticut. However, our work is not done. We must prove (or disprove) that these two men are one in the same and this, again, starts with a well constructed research question.

"Was the Samuel Munson, born 28 February 1669 in New Haven, Connecticut, and identified as the grandfather of Hannah Munson Cook, the same Samuel Munson who is listed in The History of Wallingford, as one of its founders, the same man?"

In this research question, by stating his date and place of birth and his relation to Hannah, Samuel Munson is identified as a specific, unique person. The unknown or forgotten information we are seeking is whether or not he is the same person who is credited for being a founder of Wallingford, Connecticut.

Spoiler Alert: He is.

Professional genealogists work closely with clients to understand their genealogical goals and formulate focused research questions. Why? Because these questions aren’t just about keeping us on track; they’re about making the whole research adventure as efficient as possible.

Let’s talk money because, let’s be real, it matters. Most genealogists, us included, charge by the hour. Now, some paths we go down can rack up more hours than others—it’s just the nature of the hunt. But here’s where those detailed research questions come into play. They help us lay out a game plan that’s not just about finding answers but doing it in a way that respects your wallet.

By breaking down your big genealogical dream into bite-sized, focused tasks, we can focus on what’s most important to you. Maybe there’s a part of the puzzle you want us to tackle, while you feel confident exploring another on your own. In essence, our goal is to make sure you feel in control—not just of the direction of your research but of how we allocate the time and resources to get you the answers you seek.

In wrapping up, through focused research questions and strategic planning, we can better navigate our genealogical journey, uncovering hidden tales and strengthening our ties to the past. And in this exploration, partnerships like those with Genealogy Uprooted become invaluable. Together, we can embark on this never ending journey, piecing together the puzzle of our heritage, one question, one story, one connection at a time.


1. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, second edition revised (Nashville, TN: Ancestry, 2021).


Disclaimer: Each blog post is created and presented for marketing and entertainment purposes only but are based on larger research which adheres to the standards of The Board of Certification of Genealogists® as set forth in Genealogical Standards (Nashville, Tenn.: Ancestry Imprint, Turner Publishing, 2014).

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