I started to write this post about forming a good query for Facebook groups: how to ask a question
in such a way as to get a real and accurate response. In the end, however, I came to the
realization that the same sins perpetrated on Facebook crop up in genealogy forums and emails, so
let’s just call this what it is: How to Avoid Murder Face and Get a Genealogist to Collaborate.
First, read these not-all-that-made-up queries you may come across and ask yourself, would you
(could you) be of any help?
“Need any information on Jane Goodwyfe”
“Barrowman family tree”
“Can’t find my ggggggrandfather John Comstock anywhere! All I know is he died in 1892! HELP!!!!”
*Editor’s note: after several teeth-pulling questions about where he lived and who he married,
you’ll learn that the OP has an Ancestry.com subscription, has searched, and found all online
records about this relative. You will still have no idea what record the OP is actually looking for
as they repeat they can find NOTHING.
“My great grandmother was an Indian. She totally looked like it with her dark hair and tan skin.
But she obviously had to hide it and I can’t find her Indian name or anything before her marriage
to my grandfather.” *Editor’s note: after yet another session of pulling teeth, you’ll get names
and dates. Then you’ll spend about 30 minutes to an hour online where you’ll find census records
for the woman’s entire lifespan marking her as White. You’ll find three husbands,
ten children, all with marriage and birth records proving the ancestor never lived
near Indians and all relatives are marked White. You will then find her birth record to a white
family and an affidavit of her father’s entry into some whites- only boy’s club of old. After all
this, the OP will return to tell you that that can’t possibly be their relative, you are wrong and
they are right because they just have to be. Just look at the photo they have that they found
online and NO you can’t tell them that photographs weren’t around for another 50 years!
Now take stock of your face.
If you’ve been researching for even a minute, you are probably making what I like to call my
Murder Face. Not really because I plan to kill the OP (although….), but because it has
successfully killed my desire to be of any help. I usually read these queries, pull my face, and
If ever there was a time for the phrase “it’s not rocket science”, this would be it. Whether you’re
asking for help on Facebook, a genealogy forum, or an email to a newly found cousin (or a
professional genealogist), there are just a few simple guidelines to craft the best query to
1. Form full sentences. Our first example of a bad query is just a name. What are we supposed to
do with it? Please remember, Facebook is not a search engine.
2. Give as much detail as you have for the person in question. What was the ancestor’s
name? Where did they live? When did they live there?
3. What are you looking for, specifically? If you want someone to do all the research for you, it
would be in your best interest to hire a professional. Generally, people on Facebook are
volunteering their time for the love of the hobby and to connect to other researchers. They can
handle bite-sized questions more palatably. So tackle your ancestor one record at a time, and ask
for small favors in finding just that one record rather than EVERYTHING. This also works well in
email. Even if you plan to dive deeper, starting yourself on an introductory question with some
detail is better than vomiting a “PLEASE HELP ME” post of desperation on your recipient. Once
you’ve got them on the hook, you can ask for more assistance with the next step.
4. What do you already know? If you already have the ancestor’s birth certificate, say so.
If you already searched Civil War files, say so. Even if you found something that you know wasn’t
your relative SAY SO. It’s okay to put in a query that you’ve found a John J. Smith living with
Emma Smith in Hatfield, but that you know that’s not your relative because of whatever evidence you
have to the contrary. This saves your helpers from feeling like they are wasting their time and
you’ll get responses that provide information you DON’T have.
5. Who else is helping you? If you’re asking this question in multiple locations, tell others
that. Many people belong to multiple groups. If they see the question posted in multiple places,
they may actually be less likely to help. In honesty, the best way to handle the use of multiple
groups is to fashion the question to specific records (#3) exclusive to
each group. Ask about grandma’s naturalization papers in the Immigration group. Then ask the German
group about possible locations for her family prior to her move to the states. Then a question in
the general group that covers how you’d request her SS-5. You’re still asking about the same
ancestor, but the questions are crafted to be specific to the group, with very little overlap of
information, to maximize your results.
“Hello. I am looking for Bonnie Lee Kemper prior to her marriage to Fielden Luther Kemper in Indiana. I have every census after her marriage, her death record, and her marriage license. The family migrates between Indiana and Arkansas for the records I can find, but they settled in Evansville Indiana after the birth of their last child. She claimed her maiden name was Goff, but her daughter’s marriage bond has it written Gaulf. She was born about 1907 in Texas according to the census records. I have been unable to find her parents or any siblings and would appreciate any help in locating her prior to 1927. Thank you.”
Now this is a question I’m tripping over myself to answer! Not too long, but still full of detail.
I have dates and names to work with and I know what the OP wants to find. I may still ask some
questions do gain more detail, but I feel like I can already start some kind of research based off
what is provided. I want to help, and I’m probably smiling while I do it. What can I say? I love