Step-by-Step: My Intractable Problem

nose in bookA dose of my own medicine! On 12 February I blogged about steps to solve problems using a research plan. But, I think an example is so much better to illustrate the value of compiling our work, especially when we are trying to solve our intractable genealogical problems. This post outlines, step-by-step, how I built a research plan using the methodology outlined in the blog post “Strategic Thinking: A Research Plan.”

I admit I have done much research on my Friedrich Eilers (FE), some of it targeted and some of it “grazing.” This is my attempt to formalize the output, focus on the process and give my some research discipline.

As we know the Genealogical Proof Standard exhorts us to do reasonably exhaustive “REsearch,” not exhaustive “search.” The implication is, of course, that “researching” is far more disciplined and expects the genealogist to select the record sets that are most likely to provide the needed information.

I am seeking to identify Friedrich Eilers, who was the groom in the second marriage to my great-grandmother Eda/Ida (van Hoorn) Berg in October of 1861 and who after November 1862 was never referred to again in any known document in connection with my family.

I have taken the steps from the previous post and sequentially attached the report as I built it-step-by-step.  To make it easier for you to see what I added, I have changed the type face to red for the items that apply to that particular step of this methodology and which have been added after the previous document. Let’s see how it works.

Phase 1: Recording all you know.

1. Start fresh. Act (and think) like you have never seen this problem before.
comment: I took a yoga class and focused on “dispassionate observation.” It works for me.
document: be-rp-1

2. Clearly state your research question and write it down. Make your individual of interest unique in the world using the “known facts of the case.” Write your question at the top of a blank document. Make it 14 pt. font and bold.
comment: I make research questions very specific in the description of the individual. Keep in mind that identity comes before relationships. If I want to know the parents of X, I first have to clarify the identity of X. Therefore, I usually start with “Identify X who did so-and-so and such-and-such.” I don’t think I make great research questions, so you are on your own here.
document: be-rp-2

3. Gather together every shred of evidence that you already have that relates to the individual or his/her relatives, business associates etc.
comment: I don’t have much, but I was surprised at how many documents I needed to get the timeline filled with the pertinent sources.
documents: I did this concurrently with no. 4 below.

4. Document by document, write what you know, based on what you have. Start with the citation and then summarize what is contained within the source. Transcribe and abstract any documents with handwriting. If your document is a census, record the neighbors of at least 10 families in each direction. Label this section “Background.”
comment: I have followed Ida for years, but I looked at everything again. Notice that there is a gap between 1864 and 1871 where I have nothing.
document: be-rp-4

5. Note whether the “thing you are holding in your hand,” the source, is an original, derivative or authored work; whether the information is primary, secondary, or indeterminable; and whether the evidence is direct, indirect or negative in response to your research question. Don’t stop with just categorizing your documents. Instead, analyze the quality of your sources.  If there is a need and ability to obtain a better record, i.e. closer to the event, enter it on your Research Plan.
comment: This implies that you have a Research Plan set up already on your document. If you haven’t done so, type a heading of “Research Plan” at the bottom of your document. Record your sources you need to obtain to improve the quality of the ones you have.
document: be-rp-5

6. As you are doing no. 5 above, identify all FAN Club members and place in a table with the date of interaction and the role your ancestor played in that interaction. Label this “FAN Club.” keep the interactions in chronological order–you are building a timeline.
comment:  My FAN Club consists of people who have interacted with Ida but not with Friedrich. I have no known FAN Club members for FE, but that’s what we are trying to solve. Should I find any, that will be a huge clue.
document: be-rp-6

7. Add known dates of importance of your individual of interest to your timeline. Depending on your problem, there may be [timelines of] other key individuals (in a separate column) you wish to add to your timeline [of your person of interest].
comment:  FE gets added with the hope I can fill out more information about FE candidates as I begin to research. I didn’t make red the whole table, but you get the idea.
document: be-rp-7

8. If appropriate, take your timeline and expand it to a table, which includes all people you think might be relevant to your investigation–family, candidates for identity (for example, all your possible John Smiths), business partners, and other members of the FAN Club you developed in item 7 above. Add their events to their timeline as well.
comment: For now, without doing the actual research, I anticipate that I will have multiple candidates for FE. A German name in a German area cannot be unique.
document: be-rp-8

Phase 2: Research researching

9.  Identify the sources that are most likely to yield salient information based on what you know. Add the list to your document and label this ”Research Plan.” Each resource should include a draft of the citation. Put the citation in bold.
comment: I already had five sources I needed to obtain by the time I finished with the known information, so I reprioritzed and added to the list of five. Certainly some of these could fall off the list as I gain more information. A basic principle of research is that you start in the US, yet my biggest clue is the birthplace in Germany, Ober Gleen. That’s a bit of a conundrum.
document: be-rp-9

10. Review Part 2 of Val Greenwood’s book for a list of types of sources.  Place “likely suspects” on your research plan.
comment: I know Stephenson County pretty well and some documents just do not exist, e.g. newspapers before 1890. Greenwood lists the following: newspapers, vital records, censuses, probate records, wills, guardianships, land (local and federal), other court records, church records, military and cemetery and burial records. I believe that I have either addressed by placing on my research plan or exhausted all these more typical records. I have added a narrative at the bottom of the document for the searches in each record type so I have an explanation of why I am not pursuing those sources.  It would be better if I had these as citations. In the future, I need to move some of my past research log information over to fill this out.
document: be-rp-10

11. Read the FamilySearch wiki for your particular locality for additional resources. [2]
comment: The FS wiki is a go-to place for me for locality research. Research every jurisdictional level: country, state, county, court. If you do a lot of research in one area, consider writing a locality guide so you don’t lose all this fabulous work you are doing. consider also Cyndi’s List and Linkpendium.
document: be-rp-11

12. Conduct a locality or topical search in Family Search and Ancestry catalog (this is different than the wiki mentioned  in 11.) Click through every entry in the catalog to identify film you ought to order or if the film has been indexed or uploaded and not indexed.
comment: I have looked at the Ober Gleen Family Search catalog before, but now I see that FS has added an index! This is a very “bright shiny object” for me and I must, for now, let it go. I need to complete these other tasks before I get to points 14 and 15. Your Research Plan might be getting quite long right now.
document: be-rp-12

13. Review the National Genealogical Society (NGS) States series to determine if your state is included. These wonderful books are an overview of resources and repositories that are state specific and which include archives and repositories you may not have thought of. Record any likely repositories.
comment: Illinois has a terrific state series book but I wonder if I am over looking the surrounding states?  Stephenson County is on the border of Wisconsin; could FE have lived in WI and been visiting or doing business in Freeport for some other reason? I think I need to widen my area of focus–but that will be for another day.
document: be-rp-13

Phase 3: Researching
To this point, we have just been building (adding to) our research plan, now we start looking at some of the resources we identified.

14. Based on your research plan, conduct the research of your top priority source. If you think of a new resource to check, just add it to your research plan in priority order. Always write out a skeleton citation.
comment: The bright shiny object calls!! 
confession:  There are two approaches: I could look in census records in the US or look in the Ober Gleen birth records. The census records are hard because there is so little information–I don’t even have a birth year for Friedrich.  Assuming there are multiple FEs in Ober Gleen, I am going to work the Ober Gleen records first and fill out the table that is in landscape mode. 

15. Do your on site research. If you cannot travel, then enlist a friend or hire a genealogist in the area. Revisit your research plan and add new sources (as citations) as they are identified.
comment: And just like they show on television– I hopped on a plane and flew to Salt Lake City to meet with the German expert.  I (driving a big black SUV) found a parking place right in front of the library! No one was in the library except for THE expert on Ober Gleen records (probably Fritz Juengling!).  He already had found what i was looking for, translated it and gave me a very nice Family Group Sheet and pedigree chart scribed in lovely calligraphy–NOT! 🙂
document: be-rp-15

Findings at this point, are the following:

There is only one Friedrich Euler/Eiler who appeared in this time frame in Ober Gleen. He is my top candidate. The rest of the Fred/Fritz/etc. Eilers/Eilerts etc. just do not have the Ober Gleen connection that is so necessary for this resolution.

  1. It is not known where Friedrich Euler was born. he does not appear in the Ober Gleen birth records; however, from the point of the birth of his first child in 1842 to his emigration in 1860, Ober Gleen appeared to be his residence.
  2. Friedrich Euler and  Gertraud Schoenhals had six children, five of which were born before they married.
  3. Friedrich Euler and Gertraud Schoenhals finally married in 1855
  4. Friedrich immigrated in 1860 to Illinois. It is not known why he picked Illinois as no FAN Club member has yet been identified as living in Illinois and he appeared to travel alone.
  5. Friedrich married Eda Berg in 1861 in Stephenson County, Illinois.
  6. Gertraud and the children emigrated in August/September of 1862.
  7. Eda used the Eyler surname in November of 1862 and then never used it again.
  8. In 1872, son John (Johannes, b. 1848) married Rosina Hoffman in Stephenson County, firmly placing at least one family member in the county.
  9. There is no divorce noted in Stephenson County for FE and IB.

16. Order those FHL films you identified in your catalog review or better yet, take a trip to Salt Lake City and do your research there in the company of research experts who can help.
comment: I am going to quit now. I have other things to do, but I have made real progress on this “intractable problem.” There are many things yet to research before any conclusions can be drawn, but I have built a great summary document to build upon in the future.

17. Re-conduct old research. We are smarter now then we were five years ago.
comment: When I was a baby genealogist I was told to “really study your sources so you got all the information from them.” What people didn’t tell me is that it didn’t matter how good I thought I was THEN, I am better now and you probably do have to re-review your sources, especially those related to your tough problems.

18. Check the family trees in Family Search and Ancestry. Yes, I know they are rift with errors and are usually undocumented, but they can offer clues and should be used.
comment: In looking at the trees, no one identified that Friedrich and Gertraud emigrated.  They recognize that Johannes and Heinrich did, but no one connects the passenger lists of the family or Friedrich. So the trees, for this study did not provide any clues i could build on.  

19. Record ALL searches, including those that yield nothing. Constantly update your research plan. Record all your findings including your negative searches. Label these Negative Findings.
comment: This is the part that can really help you, should you have to put the research down to do other things–like laundry.  I am not satisfied with how the research paper ends…it is rather messy and needs some work to gather the information together in a more coherent form. But, that, too, is for another day.

20. Repeat.

What you have now, even if you did not solve your problem is a document which:

  1. Documents your  known information
  2. Identifies gaps in your existing sources
  3. Sets you up for the analysis of your documents
  4. Serves as a summary of your work to date and even if you set it down, you will have this terrific record of your findings for later
  5. Records where you searched and found nothing so you won’t redo that work, unless you decide to re-energize no. 17, and
  6. Outlines your next steps

Whew! If you got to the end of this blog–congratulations!  You get the gold star.

Happy hunting!


What I have done since the last post: worked on this blog! I also conducted the second session of the online Certification Discussion Group; worked on a client report, and worked in “fits and starts” on my DNA problem.

[1] A gentleman in a presentation I gave on determining identity asked “He’s a second husband with no children, why do you even care?” My response was, “Friedrich Eilers is an itch I cannot scratch.”

[2] FamilySearch wiki:



8 comments on “Step-by-Step: My Intractable Problem

  1. Jill – thanks for writing this post. I am trying to re focus on several brick walls that have been an “itch” for a dozen years. I am smarter now than I was 3, 4 or 5 yrs ago and I need to start at the beginning and go step by step. I’ve kind of done that with a couple of them, but you’ve given me more ideas.
    Thanks. And good luck with your search. Can’t wait to hear about it when you solve it.

    • Jill Morelli says:

      I can’t either. I have direction however and I worked a little more on it today. I think this is the guy but there are some loose ends. Good luck with your problem as well. Let me know if and how the post helped.

  2. Debra Hoffman says:

    Jill–What a great blog post and I appreciated how you laid it out step-by-step, so the reader could follow along with you. Very time intensive I am sure, but very educational. Thanks!

  3. Kathy D. says:

    Don’t know if you have seen this findagrave memorial for John Eiler: If not, maybe it will lead to something. I understand what it is to have a genealogical itch!

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Yes, that’s “my” John Eiler. Brother Henry is in the same cemetery. I just got the obits from the library but unfortunately no additional information about “Fred” and “Gertie”. (The latter info is from the 1925 IA census.) I THINK I have found Fred in Chicago but there is no sign of Gertie. I would also like to find the married names of his two sisters–Elizabeth and Catherine. I will keep looking. Thanks for the FAG hint.

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