Creating a Genealogy Research Plan Like a Detective

Learn how plan your genealogy research like the pros!
Getty / Steve Gorton

If you like mysteries, then you have the makings of a good genealogist. Why? Just like detectives, genealogists must use clues to formulate possible scenarios in their pursuit for answers.

Whether it is as simple as looking up a name in an index, or as comprehensive as looking for patterns among neighbors and communities, turning those clues into answers is the goal of a good research plan.

How to Develop a Genealogy Research Plan

A major goal in developing a genealogy research plan is to identify what you want to know and formulate the questions which will provide the answers you seek. Most professional genealogists create a genealogy research plan (even if only a few steps) for each research question.

The elements of a good genealogy research plan include:

1) Objective: What Do I Want to Know?

What specifically do you want to learn about your ancestor? Their marriage date? Spouse's name? Where they lived at a particular point in time? When they died? Be really specific in narrowing down to a single question if possible. This helps keep your research focused and your research plan on track.

2) Known Facts: What Do I Already Know?

What have you already learned about your ancestors? This should include identities, relationships, dates and places that are supported by original records. Search family and home sources for documents, papers, photos, diaries, and family tree charts, and interview your relatives to fill in the gaps.

3) Working Hypothesis: What Do I Think the Answer Is?

What are the possible or probable conclusions that you hope to prove or possibly disprove through your genealogy research? Say you want to know when your ancestor died? You might start, for example, with the hypothesis that they died in the town or county where they were last known to be living.

4) Identified Sources: Which Records Might Hold the Answer and Do They Exist?

Which records are most likely to provide support for your hypothesis? Census records? Marriage records? Land deeds? Create a list of possible sources, and identify the repositories, including libraries, archives, societies or published Internet collections where these records and resources can be researched.

5) Research Strategy

The final step of your genealogy research plan is to determine the best order to consult or visit the various repositories, considering the available records and your research needs. Often this will be organized in order of the available record's likelihood of including the information you're looking for, but may also be influenced by factors such as ease of access (can you get it online or do you have to travel to a repository over 500 miles away) and cost of record copies. If you require information from one repository or record type to be able to more easily locate another record on your list, be sure to take that into account.

A Genealogy Research Plan in Action

Find the ancestral village in Poland for Stanislaw (Stanley) THOMAS and Barbara Ruzyllo THOMAS.

Known Facts

  1. According to descendants, Stanley THOMAS was born Stanislaw TOMAN. He and his family often used the THOMAS surname after arriving in the U.S. as it was more "American."
  2. According to descendants, Stanislaw TOMAN married Barbara RUZYLLO about 1896 in Krakow, Poland. He immigrated to the United States from Poland in the early 1900s to make a home for his family, settling first in Pittsburgh, and sent for his wife and children a few years later.
  3. The 1910 U.S. Census Miracode index for Glasgow, Cambria County, Pennsylvania, lists Stanley THOMAS with wife Barbara, and children Mary, Lily, Annie, John, Cora, and Josephine. Stanley is listed as having been born in Italy and immigrating to the U.S. in 1904, while Barbara, Mary, Lily, Anna, and John are also listed as having been born in Italy; immigrating in 1906. Children Cora and Josephine are identified as having been born in Pennsylvania. Cora, the oldest of the children born in the U.S. is listed as age 2 (born about 1907).
  4. Barbara and Stanley TOMAN are buried in Pleasant Hill Cemetery, Glasgow, Reade Township, Cambria County, Pennsylvania. From the inscriptions: Barbara (Ruzyllo) TOMAN, b. Warsaw, Poland, 1872–1962; Stanley Toman, b. Poland, 1867–1942.

Working Hypothesis
Since Barbara and Stanley were supposedly married in Krakow, Poland (according to family members), they most likely came from that general area of Poland. The listing of Italy in the 1910 U.S. Census is most likely a mistake, as it is the only record located that names Italy; all others say "Poland" or "Galicia."

Identified Sources

Research Strategy

  1. View the actual 1910 U.S. Census to confirm the information from the index.
  2. Check the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Census online to see if Stanley or Barbara TOMAN/THOMAS were ever naturalized and to confirm Poland as a country of birth (disprove Italy).
  3. Search the online Ellis Island database on the chance that the TOMAN family immigrated into the U.S. through New York City (more likely they came in through Philadelphia or Baltimore).
  4. Search for Philadelphia passenger arrivals for Barbara and/or Stanley TOMAN online at FamilySearch or Look for the town of origin, as well as indications of possible naturalizations for any of the family members. If not found in the Philadelphia arrivals, expand the search to nearby ports, including Baltimore and New York. Note: when I originally researched this question these records were not available online; I ordered several microfilms of records from the Family History Library for viewing at my local Family History Center.
  5. Check the SSDI to see if Barbara or Stanley ever applied for a Social Security card. If so, then request an application from the Social Security Administration.
  6. Contact or visit the Cambria County courthouse for marriage records for Mary, Anna, Rosalia, and John. If there is any indication in the 1920 and/or 1930 census that Barbara or Stanley was naturalized, check for naturalization documents as well.

If your findings are negative or inconclusive when following your genealogy research plan, don't despair. Just redefine your objective and hypothesis to match the new information you've located so far.

In the above example, initial findings prompted an expansion of the original plan when the passenger arrival record for Barbara TOMAN and her children, Mary, Anna, Rosalia, and John indicated that Mary had applied for and become a naturalized U.S. citizen (the original research plan included only a search for naturalization records for the parents, Barbara and Stanley). The information that Mary had likely become a naturalized citizen led to a naturalization record which listed her town of birth as Wajtkowa, Poland. A gazetteer of Poland at the Family History Center confirmed that the village was located in the southeast corner of Poland—not too terribly far from Krakow—in the portion of Poland occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1772-1918, commonly referred to as Galica. After World War I and the Russo Polish War 1920-21, the area in which the TOMANs lived returned to Polish administration.

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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "Creating a Genealogy Research Plan Like a Detective." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Powell, Kimberly. (2021, September 8). Creating a Genealogy Research Plan Like a Detective. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "Creating a Genealogy Research Plan Like a Detective." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).