Genealogy Case Studies

Learn Genealogy by Seeing How the Experts Do It

Reading case studies of research published by expert genealogists is a great way to learn first-hand from their experience.
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 As you sift through the records of your own ancestors to build your family tree, you may find yourself with questions. What other records can/should I search? What else can I learn from this record? How do I pull all of these little clues together? The answers to these types of questions generally come through knowledge and experience. This is why I invest a great deal of my personal education time in reading case studies, written examples of research problems, methodologies, and unique records shared by fellow genealogists.

What is so eye-opening about the research of others, especially if the individuals or places in question have nothing to do with your own family? For me, there is no better way to learn (aside from your own hands-on practice) than through the successes, mistakes and techniques of other genealogists. A genealogical case study can be as simple as an explanation of the discovery and analysis of a particular record, to the research steps taken to trace a particular family back through several generations. Each one, however, gives us a glimpse into research problems that we ourselves may face in our own genealogy searches, approached through the eyes and experience of leaders in the genealogical field.

Genealogical Case Studies

So what do I read?

Elizabeth Shown Mills, a wonderful lady and the genealogist I will always strive to be, is the author of Historic Pathways, a website packed with decades of her case studies. Many of the case studies are organized by type of problem -- illegitimacy, record losses, cluster research, name changes, separating identities, etc. -- transcending the place and time of the research, and of value to all genealogists. Read her work and read it often. It will make you a better genealogist.

Some of my favorites include:

  • Applying the Preponderance-of-the-Evidence Principle to a Southern Frontier Problem- While "preponderance of the evidence" is no longer used to describe how genealogists analyze and weigh evidence, this is an excellent example of how to document family relationships in situations where no document directly gives the answer.
  • The Search for Margaret Ball - Three "burned counties," repeated name changes, two generations of illegitimacy, and a pattern of migration through several states stumped genealogists researching Margaret Ball for years until Elizabeth Shown Mills came along to widen the net.
  • Unraveling Balls of Yarn: Lessons in the Use of a Skeptical Eye - We can each learn from the dangers of assuming that previous researchers have carefully avoided renaming individuals, merging identities, or marrying "people to partners they have never met in real life."

Michael John Neill has presented numerous case study examples online over the years. Many of them can be found through his website "Casefile Clues," found at The latest columns are available only through a paid quarterly or annual subscription, but to give you an idea of his work, here are three of his favorite case studies from past years:

Juliana Smith is one of my favorite online authors because she brings humor and passion to everything she writes. You can find many of her examples and case studies in her archived Family History Compass column and 24/7 Family History Circle blog at, as well as on the blog.

Certified Genealogist Michael Hait has published an ongoing series of genealogical case studies related to his work on the African American Jefferson Clark family of Leon County, Florida. The articles originally appeared in his column and are linked to from his professional website.

I've written a small number of introductory case studies for this website in the past few years, primarily examples meant to show new genealogists how to productively use the Internet to research their own family tree. One such example explains how to navigate the confusing databases and tools available when researching your family tree online, with a step-by-step follow-up of a typical beginner's foray into online genealogy taken on by a novice online journalist when researching her husband's genealogy. During her five hours of searching she manages to find some great information about the Jewel family, but with just a little more knowledge she could have taken it so much further...Interactive online courses free in the FamilySearch Learning Center include a number of what you might term "case studies" as well, with step-by-step examples of how a variety of research problems were approached and solved, using a combination of slides and presenter videos. Examples include:

While online case studies provide a wealth of knowledge, many tend to be short and extremely focused. If you're ready to dig in even further, most of the in-depth, complicated genealogical case studies are found published in genealogical society journals and, occasionally, in mainstream genealogy magazines (similar to the examples shared above from Elizabeth Shown Mill's Historic Pathways). Good places to start are the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ), the New England Historical and Genealogical Register (NEHGR) and the The American Genealogist. Years of back issues of NGSQ and NEHGR are available online for members of those organizations -- membership money well spent in my opinion. A few excellent online examples by authors such as Elizabeth Shown Mills, Kay Haviland Freilich, Thomas W. Jones and Elizabeth Kelley Kerstens, can also be found in the Sample Work Products provided online by the Board for Certification of Genealogists.

Happy reading!