1. Follow the document trail as far as you can but once the details start to get less clear it’s time to fan out. In family history research FAN refers to friends and neighbors.
As an example, let’s say that the research trail goes dead at the 1900 U.S. census. A lot of researchers run into roadblocks around this time period due to the destroyed 1890 U.S. Census. This is a good time to attempt to perform FAN research.
I used this method to knock down one of my own family brick walls. My great-great grandmother was a controversial figure in the family lore of my ancestry. She lived into my lifetime although I don’t really have any recollection of her. I did grow up hearing various tidbits about her from different relatives and none of them were positive.
When I started my research on her I didn’t have a great deal of details. I knew a given name, Fanny, and I knew the surname she had when she died, Meadows. I didn’t know if Fanny was a nickname for a different name. I had no clue if Meadows was a maiden name or a married name.
I built off what I did know using documents that I knew were related to my Great-Grandmother, Fanny’s daughter. I was able to locate the family on the 1920 census, the first census after my Great Grandmother was born. Without the FAN method this would have been my dead end.
On this census living in the household with the family was an individual named Elmer Bennett….and he was listed as a nephew.
With a little digging I was able to locate Elmer Bennett and Fanny Bennett on the 1910 census and they both lived in the household of Fanny’s parents. With that information I was able to crack the brick wall that held up my research on my Great-Great Grandmother.
The FAN technique of looking at Friends and Neighbors can be valuable in navigating research speed bumps.
2. Cast a broad net with a general search engine search. Often, we get tunnel vision and convince ourselves the only way to research is via sites we know and trust
There are countless more focused sites that while they may have less broad information, they may have extensive details of the individuals that you are researching. The best way to locate some of the harder to find resources is to search wide to locate the pinpoint resources.
The history of West Virginia might be a topic that not everyone needs. For me and my extensive West Virginia mountain heritage, the West Virginia Culture site has been a priceless resource. If I had limited my research to strictly sites such as ancestry and family search, I may have never found this massively helpful resource.
Unlike sites such as Ancestry with a wide catalog of records and a subscription fee smaller more specific websites will often be free or operate solely on donations.
There is a plethora of lesser known websites that are just as reliable as sites such as family search and ancestry
It’s easier to toss out the wrong results than it is to infer information from a mystery record. Exhaust all avenues.
3. Don’t focus too much on spelling if the rest of the details mesh out. Spelling has not been standardized long in the grand timeline of history. Many people were unable to read and write until modern times.
A recent instance that I came across was the case of the Monteith/Mantooth surname. Legend has it that there was a rift in the Mantooth family generations ago that led to one branch of the Monteith family changing their name to Mantooth.
If the spelling is close and all the other details match up, then you must research deeper. It’s better to research the wrong thing and realize it later than it is to skip over a record because Smith is spelled Smyth. It doesn’t hurt to sound out a name and try to think of any ways you can that might be a spelling for that name. Search them all. Then remember that our ancestors often had accents so you might have missed a spelling completely.
4. Research more than just people. If there is a certain location where the ancestors, you are researching lived for a long time take the time to learn about that area
I have discovered a great deal of family information through researching things such as towns, churches, and early military units.
Town founders, early community office, local militia unit rosters. There are countless places that ancestors can show up in historical documents.
The members of the communities were self-sufficient. They pooled efforts to help build churches, they would donate land for a community building, and they would ban together to build roads. In earlier periods these were handled at a community level and often details notes exist of these events.
5. Pushes and Pulls. This is such a simple concept but it’s easy to forget during research. Much like the world today there are often bigger events happening which influences migration patterns. Migration is rarely random.
A good example of this is with the Scotch-Irish population of the 18th and 19th centuries.
These individuals left regions of Scotland and Ireland hoping to create a better life. The conditions in their home regions were the pushes.
The pulls were the reasons they were pulled to the Americas such as available land and religious freedoms.
The Irish potato famine pushed many Irish families out of Ireland decades later and pulled them to the United States in search of economic opportunity.
During the industrial revolution the United States saw a lot of people pushed from rural farmland where there were less economic opportunities to urban areas such as Detroit, Michigan seeking available jobs in the factories.
My grandfather was from a poor coal mining family in Appalachia. He was pushed from his small community in rural West Virginia that his family had inhabited for hundreds of years. He was pulled to the economic opportunity of the manufacturing hub of northern automotive cities. He retired from GM in Flint, Michigan after a long and rewarding career. At that point he was pushed yet again from the busy hustle and bustle of life in a city and pulled toward a slower and more rural life.
Often if we consider the larger picture of a certain group or region it can provide great clues that can help fill in the research blanks.