One way I’m furthering my genealogy education in 2020 is participating in Cari Taplin’s NGSQ/MGP Study Group. This group reads selected articles from National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ) and studies the authors’ research and writing methodologies by referencing key chapters from Tom Jones’s book Mastering Genealogical Proof. We then meet online monthly to discuss.
I’m in the Tuesday noon group, so our February meeting is in a few hours. But I wanted to blog about this experience to (1) keep me accountable in preparing and attending, and (2) help me sort out my thoughts before each meeting. We have questions and worksheets for each article, but I won’t share those here. Instead, these blog posts are a way to explore my other observations and questions.
Our selected article for February is “Reexamining the Parentage of Anderson Boon of Lincoln, Marshall, and Obion Counties, Tennessee” by Darcie Hind Posz. It appears in National Genealogical Society Quarterly 107 (September 2019), pages 201–217.
The final step in the Research Like a Pro process is writing a research report. This report summarizes the question, objective, and all the research performed during the project. Research reports explain your reasoning — a proof argument — and convince others of your conclusions.
Research reports are critical when resolving difficult genealogy problems. Just writing this report forced me to deal with conflicting evidence and explain my positions. The Smart females in my tree have been a huge brick wall in my family tree for years, but undertaking this project means I’ve reached a measure of success with this line.
So, here it is — all 13 pages and 120+ source citations of it. By far the largest, most complex research report I’ve written!
When people say they are “doing genealogy,” the fifth step in the Research Like a Pro (RLP) process is probably what they’re envisioning — the nitty, gritty work in libraries and archives. It’s definitely the most fun part of family research. Finding those golden nuggets of evidence is such a high!
But a challenging research problem requires the four steps we previously discussed in this series: forming a research objective, analyzing sources, researching the location, and making a research plan. If the answer to my question could be answered directly by a single piece of evidence, wandering aimlessly may eventually lead me there. But when a problem requires indirect and negative evidence, it is necessary to collect multiple pieces of evidence, analyze them, and build an argument — all things that require a plan and thorough record keeping.
Research logs are key to doing the research and recording my findings. Some people use paper research logs or notebooks, but I prefer electronic ones. I use an Excel spreadsheet and save it to my Microsoft OneDrive in the folder I created for the project. My OneDrive is synced across all my devices — laptop, tablet, and phone — so I always have it with me. However, typing in an Excel spreadsheet from my phone or tablet is slow, so I bring my laptop for planned research sessions. If I need to record something when I don’t have my laptop, I usually snap photos of the source and its contents with my phone and add it to my log when I’m back at a keyboard. If it’s an electronic source, I either email a link back to myself or save it to a USB drive with a similarly-named text file containing the source citation.
Yes, research logs should have source citations, and I really do try to make them at this step — but I’m lazy. I will make a source citation if I’m in a repository where I must create it then to capture all the information correctly. But if I’m doing something standard like census research or marriage records, I write quick notes and will craft the citation when I write my findings.
For the Mary Smart McMurry research project, I took my research plan and decided which of the actions from the prioritized research strategies section I could do in the allotted time. (I’m writing an article about Mary for the spring issue of Stirpes, so I do have a deadline for this project.) I tried to tackle all the strategies from my plan, but I stalled with the DNA component. I may try to add some DNA evidence in the future, but it has been difficult getting all the best known testers to grant access to their data.
So, what my research log look like? Here’s a screenshot:
When I find a key piece of evidence I want to investigate further, I make the text red and sometimes bold important words. I also like to make separate tabs on the spreadsheet for areas of research that need their own space for organizing. One example is “Naming Patterns” on the image above. On that tab, I listed of all the Smart siblings’ children and made notes about similarities. Another tab (not pictured) is a Smart Siblings timeline I created to compare movements of Mary and her hypothesized siblings.
I’ve decided not to post my entire research log here — it’s big, and I kind of want to keep it to myself until I reveal the next step in the process: Writing the Research Report. But if you are researching Mary Smart McMurry or any of her hypothesized siblings, contact me and I’ll share the log.
Doing the research is definitely my favorite part of this process, but it is closely followed by the final step: Writing the Research Report.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Court Records Search court records (conveyance, land, probate) for transactions among Smart siblings or with McMurry sons in Winn, Franklin, and Morehouse parishes.
Naming Patterns Compare naming patterns for the children of Smart siblings to identify similarities and possible names for Smart parents.
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.
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.