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Genealogy: Asking the Right Questions


Many of the individuals who visit the Shenandoah Room and Truban Archives come to learn about their family’s history. Some are just beginners. Others are seasoned veterans, looking for elusive individuals. Fortunately, no matter one’s skill level, we have a plethora of resources that more than likely help a researcher discover their ancestors.

However, knowing what questions to ask is often the hardest task. Many researchers get overwhelmed and discouraged by the sheer number of resources available, especially if they can’t find a published work that covers their specific topic.

Fortunately, after centuries of work, historians have figured out what the important questions for their trade (and genealogy) are. Most agree that who, what, when, where, and why are the things we should be asking.

The first four of these are the facts each genealogist looks for, especially when preparing a family tree. Who is my ancestor, when were they born, what did they do, where did they live, who did they marry, when did they die? These who, what, when, and where questions are the most easily developed, the most prolific questions asked, and the easiest to find (if records exist). They lead us to marriage records, historic site surveys, deeds, wills, death records, passenger lists, and an almost infinite list of other sources. 

However, genealogists often times become so interested in finding these answers they often overlook the why, which most historians will tell you is the important question we can ask. Why is our effort to understand the people we are researching. Why did your ancestor choose to be a miller instead of a farmer, why did they not get married until late in life, why did they move to a different state, or why did they choose to go to a specific church? This type of question is critically important if we truly want to understand our families beyond just knowing dates and names.

Unfortunately the why questions can also be the most difficult to answer. Very few people in the past took the time to explain why they made any decision, yet alone every single one. However, we do have the resources available to provide answers of sorts. The primary sources housed in the Truban Archives are always a great place to begin. Just because your ancestor may not have left behind records doesn’t mean that a member of their community didn’t. Much can be learned by looking at items from individuals in similar professions, geographic locations, and religions. Secondary sources, especially those interpreting local communities or specific ways of life can also be useful resources to help us answer these why questions by expanding our background knowledge and comparing similarities.


As anyone who has done genealogy or history research can tell you know what questions to ask doesn’t make your task easy. However, it does point you in a direction and shows you a path you can take to learning about your family. So the next time you plan a research trip to the library, or any other location, be sure to know some of the who, what, when, where, and why questions you will ask.