Saturday Skills: Setting Research Goals

Over the past little while, I’ve had several inquiries by researchers asking if I could point them in the right direction with their research. In some cases, I was able to help because the researchers could explain exactly what they needed. The remaining researchers did not, and in return, I asked a series of questions designed to elicit their research goals for the particular individual or family they needed help with.

The thing is, we all have goals in the back of our minds for the research we’re conducting. When we look at a particular ancestor or family, we think, Wow, it sure would be great to know who Dixie Lou’s parents were or I wish I could figure out where Bobby Jean is buried.

Go ahead, try it. Now, see what I mean? The goals are there whether we articulate them or not.

Unfortunately, formal goal setting is one simple action researchers fail to do, yet it is a necessary step in the research process. Defining and articulating the research focus (i.e. the goal of the research) can keep research on track and help the research process flow efficiently.

Goal-setting is broken down into four steps:

  1. What research has been done?
  2. What does that research tell you?
  3. What else do you want to know?
  4. Why do you want to know it?

As an example, let’s look at Priscilla Walker (Scilla or Sillah), who bound her son, Warren, as an apprentice to Peter G. Walker in 1877 in Morgan Co., GA.

Step 1: Look at previous research.

Other than the above-mentioned apprenticeship, I have the following:

  • 1870 federal census, population schedule: “Scilla” Walker (age 25, born in Georgia) was enumerated in the household of Ephraim Walker (age 50, born in Georgia) in Morgan Co., GA, with two children: Mattie Walker (age 4, born in Georgia) and Warren Walker (age 3, born in Georgia). Sillah was a “domestic servant” and Ephraim a farm laborer. Neither could read or write. All four of these individuals were designated as black.1
  • 1880 federal census, population schedule: Priscilla Walker (age 35, born in Georgia, as were her parents) was enumerated as the widowed head of household, employed as a Seamstress, with the following children, her sons and daughters: Mat Walker (a daughter, age 14, born in Georgia); Warren Walker (age illegible, born in Georgia); Lucy Walker (age 8, born in Georgia); Gracy Walker (age 7, born in Georgia); Athaline Walker (age 4, born in Georgia); Lee Walker (a son, age 1 1/4[?], born in Georgia). All household members were designated as black. Mat’s occupation appears to have been Nurse, while Warren and Lucy were “Bound out.” The enumerator put brackets around the children’s names and stated, “Sad Spectacle of Shame & Want.”2

I could find neither Ephraim nor Priscilla in the 1860 U. S. census in Morgan County, using a surname-only Soundex search through

Step 2: Analyze and correlate previous research.

A tentative conclusion that Priscilla and Ephraim were former slaves can be deduced from a correlation of the three documents in conjunction with the negative search results from the 1860 federal census and the “color” of these individuals.

Ephraim was old enough to be Priscilla’s father, although he could have been her husband, an uncle, another relative, or not related at all. Priscilla’s statement that she was a widow in 1880 and their enumeration together in 1870 are not enough to “prove” that she and Ephraim were husband and wife. For one, the 1870 US census does not directly state relationships, and for another, it was fairly common for unmarried mothers to claim widowhood in that era as a way of saving face.

What is clear from these records is that Priscilla had several children:

  • Mattie Walker, born about 1866 in Georgia
  • Warren Walker, born about 1867 in Georgia
  • Lucy Walker, born about 1872 in Georgia
  • Gracy Walker, born about 1873 in Georgia
  • Athaline Walker, born about 1876 in Georgia
  • Lee Walker, born about 1879 in Georgia

Priscilla was poor, supported by the enumerator’s statement in 1880 and the 1877 apprenticeship of her son, Warren. Her choice of a master for her son’s apprenticeship is curious. In 1880, there was only one Peter Walker living in Morgan County, a Peter G. Morgan who was an unmarried 21-year old white farmer.3 In 1877, this Peter would have been only about 17 or possibly 18 years old. Very young, indeed, for the role he would play in Warren’s life!

Steps 3 and 4: Decide what I want to know and why I want to know it

Here are some questions I have about this family:

  • What was the relationship between Priscilla and Ephraim?
  • Who was the father of Priscilla’s children?
  • Did Priscilla have any other children and, if so, who were they?
  • Was Peter G. Walker related to this family by blood, as a former slave holder, or in some other way?
  • Is there a record of Lucy’s apprenticeship?
  • Was this family enumerated in other federal census records?

Just as important as asking questions is determining why we’re asking those questions. What is the motivation behind setting a goal? What are the expectations we have when we set out to research?

It’s not enough, for instance, to say that I’d like to know if Priscilla and Ephraim were married and when. Of course, if they were married, I’d like to obtain a record of that. But why do I want to know?

In this case, I have a couple of motivations: 1) I’d like to know Priscilla’s maiden name, if she had one; and 2) I’d like to know if Ephraim was the father of Priscilla’s children. Asking the question, “Were Priscilla and Ephraim married and, if so, when?” might start me down a different research path than asking, “Who was the father of Priscilla’s children?” or “What was Priscilla’s maiden name?” Those divergent paths might overlap, but they might also require the use of very different records and methodologies, something I need to keep in mind as I plan and conduct research.

On the other hand, my only underlying motivation for setting a goal may be to make certain that I’m being thorough. The questions regarding Lucy’s apprenticeship and federal census records fall into this category. I don’t have any particular reason for seeking out those records at this particular moment other than a desire to be thorough.

I’m now in a pretty good position to begin the next phase of research, which is not to dig into the records, but to plan how I’m going to answer these questions.


The old saying that you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been certainly holds true in genealogy. The first steps in planning research are to analyze previous research and set research goals. These crucial steps help focus research, thus making it more effective.

* * * * *

1. 1870 U. S. census, Morgan County, Georgia, population schedule, Madison post office, pages 20 – 21, dwelling 162, family 162; digital image, (accessed 1 December 2012); citing NARA microfilm publication M593, roll 167.

2. 1880 U. S. census, Morgan County, Georgia, population schedule, Madison District (rural), page 280B, enumeration district 8, supervisor’s district 2, sheet 50-B, dwelling 88, family 96; digital image, (accessed 1 December 2012); citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 159.

3. 1880 U. S. census, Morgan County, Georgia, population schedule, Madison District (rural), page 371C, enumeration district 85, supervisor’s district 2, sheet 31-B, dwelling 317, family 317; digital image, (accessed 25 February 2013); citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 159.


2 Responses to “Saturday Skills: Setting Research Goals”

  1. This is part of my ancestors, and I have been looking for answers to these questions also. I would like to thank the researcher (s) for all of the information


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