Winter Research Project: Mary Smart McMurry – Making a Research Plan

With a research objective, a timeline of known information, and a summary of available resources, it’s now time to make a research plan. This fourth step in the Research Like a Pro methodology has a few steps itself.

Step 1: Summarize the Known Facts

I jumped the gun a little on this step, as my timeline contained some of this reasoning. But here it is again — formalized:

  • Mary was probably born before 1866. This date is 16 years before the birth of her oldest known child. If her age was closer to that of her husband’s, she could have been born as early as 1856.
  • Mary may have been born in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, or Ireland, according “mother’s birthplace” data cited in her sons’ census records. The most likely locations are Louisiana (cited 5 of 9 times) or Texas (cited earliest).
  • Mary married John McMurry sometime after 1 June 1880 (census enumeration date) and early 1882 (estimate based on birth date of first known son).  Mary has not been located on the 1880 census, but John is listed as a single laborer in the household of G. B. Higgs in Ward 2, Jackson Parish, Louisiana.
  • Mary had three known sons:
    • Robert Franklin, born 3 October 1882, in Winnfield, Winn Parish
    • James, born 13 March 1884, in Gaar’s Mill, Winn Parish
    • George Washington, born 10 December 1888, in Gaar’s Mill, Winn Parish
  • Mary died sometime between George’s birth (10 December 1888) and the 1900 census enumeration date (1 June 1900), as John is listed as widowed on this census.
  • Robert identified his mother’s name as “Mary Smart” on his application for Social Security; this is the only direct evidence of Mary’s maiden name.
  • George identified his mother as “Mary McMurry” on the statistical information he provided for a marriage license to Lula McKaskle in Franklin Parish on 26 December 1912.
  • Genealogist Agnes McWeeny Johnston recorded in a 1992 letter that she interviewed Wallace McMurry, son of Robert Franklin, and he said, “his grandmother [Mary Smart] was a sister to Jim Smart and Alma and Georgia.”

Step 2: Create a Working Hypothesis

Mary Smart was born between 1855 and 1866, most likely in Louisiana, or possibly Texas. She married John McMurry between 1880-1882, in Winn Parish, Louisiana, and records do not exist due to that parish’s complete record loss in 1886. After their parents’ early deaths, Mary’s sons may have maintained a relationship with her possible siblings, Alma Smart Johnston McKaskle, Georgia Smart Horne, and Jim Smart. Proving a relationship among these possible siblings could lead to identifying Mary’s parents in siblings’ records.

Step 3: Identify Sources to Search

  • 1860 census records for Mary Smart in Louisiana or Texas with possible parents
  • 1870 census records for Mary, Alma, and Jim Smart in Louisiana or Texas within the same family unit with parents
  • 1880 census records for Mary, Alma, Jim, and Georgia Smart in Louisiana or Texas within the same family unit with parents
  • Marriage records of Alma, Jim, and Georgia for any shared witnesses or family connections
  • Court records (conveyance/land/probate) in the following jurisdictions for any transactions among siblings: Winn Parish, Franklin Parish, Morehouse Parish, Louisiana
  • DNA matches among descendants of Mary, Alma, Jim, and Georgia
  • Death record of Jim Smart for identification of parents
  • 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses for shared migration or proximity of McMurry sons to possible Smart relatives and Smart siblings to one another

Step 4: Prioritize the Research Strategy

  1. Census Records
    Search 1860-1880 census records for Smart siblings in Louisiana or Texas within a family unit with possible parents.
    Search census records for 1900 and forward for shared migration or proximity of McMurry sons to possible Smart relatives and Smart siblings to one another.
  2. Marriage Records
    Check marriage records for Alma, Georgia, and Jim Smart for any shared witnesses or family connections.
    Check marriage records of Robert, George, and Jim McMurry for any Smart family connections.
  3. Death Records
    Obtain death certificate for Jim Smart; check if parents are identified. (Mary, Alma, and Georgia all died before death records were kept.)
    Obtain death records for any other possible Smart siblings identified in census research; check if parents are identified.
  4. DNA
    Identify descendants of Smart siblings who have taken DNA tests and do not have pedigree collapse within their family trees.
    Collect shared cM data between testers; see if cM range is appropriate for MRCA being parents of Smart siblings.
  5. Court Records
    Search court records (conveyance, land, probate) for transactions among Smart siblings or with McMurry sons in Winn, Franklin, and Morehouse parishes.
  6. Naming Patterns
    Compare naming patterns for the children of Smart siblings to identify similarities and possible names for Smart parents.
  7. FAN Club Analysis
    Compile friends, neighbors, and associated (FAN) list from all sources for further analysis.

I also recorded the research plan in the following document. It has some extra information about John McMurry to aid in the project.


Winter Research Project: Mary Smart McMurry – Researching the Location

The next step in the Research Like a Pro methodology is locality research. Before combing the records for an area, it’s helpful to know what’s available and where to find it. Also, understanding the history of a place can also point to other localities, especially when a boundary change happened during your time period of interest.

Both sides of my family came through Winn Parish, Louisiana, in the late 1800s, so I’ve done a lot of research in this parish. But creating the locality guide was a good exercise in formalizing my understanding of the area. Now I have a quick sheet with links to my most-used resources!


My only down side is my obsession with detail. On the RLP podcast, Diana says to carve out 45 minutes and whip out one of these guides quickly. I can’t seem to do that and feel like I captured everything. This guide took approximately four hours’ effort.

Winter Research Project: Mary Smart McMurry – Analyzing Sources

The next step in the Research Like a Pro process is compiling all collected evidence into a timeline and analyzing these sources.

Like many female ancestors, Mary Smart McMurry appears in few records. Any records she might have generated were probably lost in an 1886 fire that destroyed the Winn Parish Courthouse and all its records. Therefore, I must rely heavily on federal records instead of local ones, and records generated by her husband and sons.

I constructed the following timeline detailing what is known about Mary Smart McMurry.


  • Before 1866 – Birth of Mary Smart
    This calculated date is 16 years before the birth of her oldest son. She could have been born in Texas (recorded birthplace of sons’ mother on 1900 census), but it is unknown who provided this information and if it is accurate. I have my doubts about its accuracy since two of the sons’ birth years are off by one year, and Texas as Mary’s possible birthplace does not appear on any other record. Louisiana is most frequently reported as her birthplace on her sons’ census enumerations, but Mississippi, Alabama, and even Ireland are also reported once each.
  • Between April 1880 and Early 1882 – Marriage of Mary Smart and John McMurry
    Mary Smart has not been located on the 1880 census, but her husband John McMurry appears in Jackson Parish, Louisiana, as a single man. Therefore, John and Mary married sometime after the 1880 census enumeration date (1 Apr 1880) and about a year before her oldest son was born (3 Oct 1882). They probably married in Winn Parish; the lack of a marriage record can be explained by total record loss for the parish in 1886.
  • 3 Oct 1882 – Birth of Son, Robert Franklin McMurry, in Winn Parish
    Although the 1900 census reports Robert’s birth date as October 1881, his self-reported birth date on his World War II draft card and Social Security application, as well as his grave marker, consistently show his birth date as 3 Oct 1882. Robert reported his birth place as Winn Parish on his draft card and as Winnfield, the parish seat of Winn, on his SS application. It is on this SS-5 form that Robert provided the only official, known answer for Mary’s maiden name: Smart.
  • 13 Mar 1884 – Birth of Son, James J. McMurry, in Gaar’s Mill, Winn Parish
    The 1900 census, self-reported birth dates on his two draft cards, and grave marker all agree for this birthdate. James reported his birthplace as Gaar’s Mill on his WWII draft card.
  • 10 Dec 1888 – Birth of Son, George Washington McMurry, in Gaar’s Mill, Winn Parish
    Although the 1900 census reports George’s birth date as December 1887, his self-reported birth date on his World War I draft card and his grave marker match with a 10 Dec 1888 birth date. George reported his birthplace as Gaar’s Mill on his WWI draft card.
  • Between 10 Dec 1888 and 1 Apr 1900 – Death of Mary Smart
    John McMurry’s marital status is listed as widowed in the 1900 census; therefore, Mary died sometime after the birth of her son George, but before the 1900 enumeration date (1 Apr 1900).

One final record provides evidence of Mary’s origins. In a November 1992 letter to my father, family genealogist Agnes McWeeny Johnston wrote, “…Wallace McMurry [son of Robert Franklin McMurry] says that his grandmother was a sister to Jim Smart and Alma and Georgia.” I have not seen any other mention of an interview with Wallace McMurry in Agnes’s research, but these names are all familiar to me. Whereas Mary Smart is in my father’s maternal line, Alma and Georgia are in my father’s paternal family. Both Alma and Georgia married in Winn Parish; Alma in 1888, and Georgia in 1890. They were also located near Mary at the same time period.

With this timeline and information, it’s obvious Winn Parish, Louisiana, is key to my research. On to Step 3: Locality Research.

Winter Research Project: Mary Smart McMurry – Forming a Research Objective

I’m an avid listener of the Research Like a Pro podcast, and I devoured — yes, it’s that good! — Diana Elder and Nicole Dyer’s book of the same title last year. I’ve used the Research Like a Pro (RLP) methodology in two projects and really benefited from its organized approach. So I’ve decided to use RLP as a blogging framework in 2020 as I tackle some tough research questions.

My first research subject for this series is my 2nd great-grandmother, Mary Smart McMurry. Mary is the paternal grandmother of my grandmother Ethel McMurry Horne. For years I only knew her as Mary McMurry based on statistical information provided by her sons on their marriage records. I learned her maiden name was Smart in 2015 when Ancestry released its U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 database. Just one of Mary’s sons lived to an age where he applied to Social Security, resulting in the only direct evidence of Mary’s maiden name.

Mary joins three other mysterious Smart females in my family tree: Georgia, Amarentha “Alma” Rebecca, and Leah. All lived in or around Winn Parish, Louisiana, in the 1880s, but their relationship to one another or to a family of origin is unproven. Since I’ve wrestled with this mystery for several years, I’ve collected many clues about Mary’s family — but are they enough to prove a relationship? Formalizing my research with the RLP framework will help me analyze the evidence and present a logical argument. If the argument is sound, I can convince others of Mary’s origins and maybe even satisfy my biggest skeptic: me.

The first step in the RLP process is forming a research objective — basically, finding a research question and restating it as the purpose of the project. Objectives fall into three categories: (1) identifying an individual, (2) proving a relationship, or (3) discovering an action. Objectives should contain key identifiers for the research subject. And, most importantly, objectives should be written down. Elder and Dyer often remind researchers to write their objective at the top of a paper, in the first line of a spreadsheet, or as a sticky note on the computer monitor — anything to keep us focused on the objective and away from “rabbit trails” and “bright shiny objects.”

My question is Who were Mary Smart McMurry’s parents? Therefore, I’ve written the following research objective:

The objective of this research project is to identify the parents of Mary Smart, who married John McMurry probably in 1880 or 1881, in or around Winn Parish, Louisiana, and died sometime after December 1888, likely in Winn Parish.

Next step (and next blog post) is Analyzing Sources. I’m excited to start this project and make progress on pieces of my Smart brick wall.