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Genealogy: Focusing on one ancestor at a time keeps the work simpler

When doing family history work, it's important to focus on one ancestor, one question and one record at a time. I refer to this as the "Power of One."

Conducting genealogy research means finding answers to questions. When I first started researching my ancestral lines I found myself overwhelmed with questions I wanted to answer for each ancestor, such as the following:

  • What was his name?
  • When and where was he born?
  • When and where did he marry?
  • Whom did he marry?
  • How many children did he have?
  • What were the names of the children?
  • Where did he live?
  • What type of work did he do?
  • To what religion did he belong?
  • Was he in the military?
  • Did he belong to any other organizations?
  • What did he look like?
  • When and where did he die?
  • What was the cause of death?
  • Where was he buried?

How can you simplify when overwhelmed by all these questions? Here's where the Power of One is so helpful. Start by realizing that genealogy research is a project, and a genealogy project is completed one individual, one question and one task at time. Below, I have outlined the steps I took as I worked on my first family history research project, which is the basis of the process I follow today: Choose one individual, family or generation to focus my research on. Use pedigree charts and family group sheets to help identify problems to resolve, such as:

  • Missing information: names, dates or places.
  • Incomplete information: part of a name, date or place is missing.
  • Unverified information: information cannot be traced to a credible source (that is, someone who would have known the information firsthand).
  • Conflicting information: facts from two sources do not agree.

Then, develop a list of questions and tasks associated with the project, review the list and pick the most important item to complete. As I begin, I then outline the task in detail by asking myself questions such as the following:

  • What is my goal for the task?
  • What information do I have already?
  • What resources will provide the answers I am looking for?
  • Do I have the desired information in my records already?
  • Do I have the knowledge to complete the task? If not, what do I need to learn about? Where can I find the answers?
  • Do I need help from others? If so, who?
  • Do I need to conduct Internet research?
  • Do I need to go to the library?
  • Do I need to contact another family member or genealogist?

I will then work on the task until it's complete. Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips, and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.