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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill  5/11/2005

Problem Solving

As a math professor, I am always asked what mathematics has to do with genealogy. Plenty. Besides my personal favorite of land platting, the analytical and logical skills one gains from mathematics come in extremely handy when solving genealogical problems. This week we look at one mathematician's framework for handling problems and see how it can relate to family history problems as well.

George Polya was a Hungarian born mathematician who advocated the use of a general problem solving strategy. While his work was focused on mathematical dilemmas, family historians can benefit from applying this same strategy as well. When you have no strategy, the brick walls rarely come tumbling down.

Polya's strategy had four basic steps:

  • Understanding the Problem
  • Devising a Plan
  • Carrying out the Plan
  • Looking Back

This week we will look at these steps one by one.

Understanding the Problem
Understanding the problem is not as simple as it sounds, but it is an excellent place to start. I have always believed this stage to be the most important in the entire problem-solving process. Generally the problem should be specifically stated and purposely focused, such as:

  • What was Noentje Ufkes' maiden name?
  • When were James Rampley and Elizabeth Chaney married?
  • Where is Samuel Neill enumerated in the 1880 census?
  • How did Thomas Galloway acquire his property in Baltimore County, Maryland?

Well-defined problems should focus on a person, a place, and an event.

Then there are problems such as:

  • I want to know all I can about Noentje.
  • I want to completely research James and Elizabeth this afternoon.

These problems are not specific. The statements are too vague and either unrealistic or need to be broken down into smaller, more manageable pieces. Learning "everything" about one family or couple may be possible over the long term; rarely is it possible in an afternoon. One or two records will not reveal a relative's "whole story." Information gleaned from records must be accurately interwoven with about the history, culture, and lifestyle of the area and era in which the person lived. This takes time. Most successful researchers begin with a specific goal.

Understanding the problem is more than simply stating the research goal precisely. There are many things that should be learned about if the researcher is not already familiar with them. These items include:

  • The records (both public and private) that were created during the time period under study.
  • The culture in which the person or persons lived.
  • The socioeconomic status of the individuals under study.
  • Groups that the problem person was associated with (Ethnic, religious, etc.).
  • The methodology appropriate for the time period, region, and individuals under study.
  • Words from the native language necessary to perform research in foreign language records.

One place to start learning about the records applicable to any problem is to read the Family History Library's research guide ( to the areas under study. Those researching problems in the United States can also refer to the appropriate section of Red Book (published by Ancestry) for information on local and state records. Both the Red Book and the Family History Library research guides contain references to additional reference materials, including foreign language word lists where appropriate.

Local and regional histories are also suggested reading material for additional background information. Even "non-genealogy" books may provide a background not gained elsewhere. Historical studies, dissertations, and papers published in academic journals may provide entirely new insight into your ancestors and their problems, positively impacting your research. As an example, Prairie Patrimony (Sonya Salamon, University of North Carolina Press, 1995) discusses agricultural inheritance patterns in the upper Midwest. It confirmed things I had already surmised from personal experience and in researching many families from one of the ethnic groups discussed in the book. Salamon also helped to explain things I did not quite understand and confirmed trends I had noticed. The more you know, the better prepared you will be to solve your problem. Material written by a non-genealogist occasionally brings a fresh perspective.

If your problem involves the interpretation of a document, make certain you understand the language and the terminology being used during the time period. Sometimes completely typing a document or even reading it out loud will cause you to notice a detail or an interpretation that had been overlooked. It may be necessary to have someone else look at the document with a fresh, unbiased perspective.

Learning about the methodology appropriate for the area is crucial. One way to do this is to read journal articles for the area under study. If a subscription is out of the question, determine if any nearby libraries subscribe to genealogical journals applicable to your area of interest. Many will contain case studies where other family problems have been solved. The National Genealogical Society Quarterly and the American Genealogist are two national magazines that contain excellent well-written case studies. There are a variety of state publications as well, usually published by a state genealogical society. There are also a variety of publications focusing on various ethnic groups, which usually present their own unique problems.

Devising a Plan
Planning usually involves determining what records are most likely to provide the desired information. In other situations, it will be necessary to analyze a series of documents to see if a generally consistent conclusion is indicated. This is why learning about the records is extremely important, especially when researching in a "new" state. What was true about records in Illinois in 1880 is not necessarily true about records in Virginia in 1780. Of course, the plan should always be to locate as many records as possible given that one individual record may be incorrect or inconclusive.

The plan may be simple or complex, depending upon the situation, but it should be fairly specific:

  • Order a marriage index from the Family History Library.
  • Write a letter to the church secretary.
  • Search for the family in the census.
  • Hire a researcher.

Writing down your plan is also necessary so that research efforts can be tracked. Polya suggested math students look at similar problems. Genealogical educators would suggest looking at case studies written about similar families in the same area and time period. What helped one person solve their problem may help you solve yours.

Carrying Out the Plan
This is the easiest part of the plan. Do it. And track it. You do not want to do the same thing again (unless you realize your previous attempt was flawed, utilized an incomplete database, etc.)

Looking Back
Occasionally the plan will succeed. The record will be located. The question will be answered. Of course, getting one answer to a genealogy question usually means that there are more unanswered questions. And so we go back to step one.

And when our question is not answered, we also return to step one. Perhaps there was something we overlooked, a record we did not understand, an assumption we should not have made, a term we misinterpreted, a name we overlooked, a spelling we did not consider.

Next week we will take a look at some genealogy problems viewed through this set of steps. There are other ways to organize and solve genealogy problems to be certain. Failing to organize your research can easily add to your confusion and may even create brick walls where none existed.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005,

Used the the author on his website with permission.   
Michael's other genealogy articles.