Prompted by this question on the main site: Resources for researching family from Greene County, Tennessee?

As I write this, our only edits have been adding tags and editing the title. However, to preserve the original text I'll quote it here:

I am researching my family tree and am stuck because my ancestor was 24 in 1850 so he is already living with his wife and child. The 1840 census doesn't tell me anyone other than head of house hold and I'm not sure of any brothers or sisters of my ancestor so I'm stuck. I also believe there to have been another family with the same last name living in the area which makes it more difficult to tell who is who.

I can say with confidence that I've been in exactly in the same place as this user -- I am stuck in exactly the same fashion right now in many places on my trees, because I haven't yet followed the advice I would give to this user. How do you dig yourself out of the hole when you don't know the right question to ask -- when you're so stuck, all you can say to yourself is "I'm stuck" and you haven't even asked a question?

Now let's look at what happened to the question. These are not in exact chronological order, but from the edit history combined with the comments we can see:

  • A welcome message (good) that included a link to the tour (good) and a comment that there isn't a question in this question (also good)
  • A suggestion that the user could look for a birth or baptism record; retagging with and
  • asking if the user could link to the 1850 Census and asking if the user has located a marriage record for this couple
  • retagging with and and replacing with
  • reworking the title to make it into a question
  • editing the title to fix a typo (oops)
  • more comments asking for more info, and a couple of links that could start the unsticking process

Here's my concern. The current fashion in the genealogy industry is to have the users make trees on the sites of the major players like Ancestry, Find My Past, My Heritage. These vendors all provide "hints" in various ways that nudge the user towards historical records, photos, compiled genealogies, or other users' trees that might be associated with their person of interest. New users who have started 'doing genealogy' since these systems have been set up have been taught that 'doing genealogy' means matching up names. They leapfrog through history by matching up census records with birth/baptism, marriage, and death/burial records. Then when "something happens" to make this process break down, e.g. working in pre-1837 England, where you lose both the census and civil registration, or pre-1850 USA where you no longer have the every-name census record.

This problem was nicely described in this answer to Tracing US ancestor back to Germany?

At one time or another, I suppose most of us have suffered from premature connectivitis syndrome (PCS)--we don't really know enough yet by which we can well identify a person, yet we want to connect them to a much earlier place in time. I know I suffered. Somewhere I have copies of e-mails sent to cousin Dr. Bill Smith with lists of Preston and Butler names. All of these e-mails could have been titled, "So and so might be one of these, right?"

Lecturers still encourage newbies to collect all the census records and BMD information that they can find for every person. But are we right to do so? In his webinar Complex Evidence: What it Is, How it Works, Why it Matters, F. Warren Bittner calls finding a birth, marriage, or death date a False Research Imperative -- because merely filling in a blank on a Family Group Sheet doesn't answer the real question of whether two (or more) records with the same name on them actually belong to the same person.

What can we do here, as we try to direct people to ask specific questions, to not perpetuate this industry pitfall of simply collecting the BMDs and census records and calling it a day? To me, having the BMDs and census records is only the beginning -- it's the frame around the portrait of our person, not the portrait itself. Knowing the birth, marriage, and death places and dates, and having the census records are what we use to set the framework for further searches -- to search effectively we need to know the time and place as well as the name.

Your thoughts?

1 Answer 1


I think this discussion is invaluable, as is your comprehensive approach to answers such as the one you provided to your example question.

However, I think your approach in that answer is one of "here is how you can learn to run" to a user who may only recently have learned to crawl. I mean no disrespect to the user, but the question as asked does suggest that they are still trying to figure how to get to something which is currently out of their reach.

Some users will take that advice, quickly get on their feet, and soon be running. However, I suspect that there are [many] others who may see following the advice as daunting and instead of getting up will just sit back down.

Consequently, I think that there is also value in giving such users a few nudges in the right direction to start broadening their horizons just slightly, and this can often be done via a few quick comments.

For this question my comments focussed on trying to help the user, who only listed two pieces of information that they had consulted (the 1850 and 1840 censuses), to develop a question from the minimal information they originally presented as:

my ancestor was 24 in 1850 so he is already living with his wife and child

To give them a quick idea or two about what they could look for next, I figured the information provided tells us their ancestor was born in about 1826 and that he was married, so let's make sure that they have not overlooked the value a birth record (or birth record candidates) and/or marriage record (that might name his father - I am used to British and Australian records) might bring to their research.

The user may not have wanted to share more details of their ancestors' name and census record, but I think it is always worth mentioning that to do so can help unlock more material to attract the interest of potential answerers, and will give those potential answerers more material to work with.

I think using comments to help the user improve their question, even if only a little, can be invaluable, especially when they are new to the site and reaching out for what to learn next.

  • 1
    For what it's worth -- I also have a line of research that goes into Tennessee and it's very likely that when I "get back there", my research focus will be in the same time period or earlier. Many of the resources I'll be using will be the links I put into my answer, and the webinars and articles I linked to are either things I've already used or webinars I plan to take. If I'm gathering things up already, why shouldn't I share?
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Feb 28, 2016 at 6:31
  • @JanMurphy Please don't stop sharing. My answer is just to mention that there are different learning styles that our users will adopt in their quest to learn more about their genealogy and family history. Giving them a range of options via different styles of answers and comments will help them find their way - some faster than others.
    – PolyGeo Mod
    Feb 28, 2016 at 6:50

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