Genealogy: Build an identity profile about ancestors

Build an identity profile about ancestorsBy Barry J. Ewell

The identity of the ancestor is more than a name. It is every known detail of a human life, which includes information about the individual, their relationships and their origin.

Begin by targeting your research location. Search for any document created during the time your ancestor lived. Make sure you understand the circumstances under which every document was created, continually comparing, contrasting and questioning details.

From this analysis you will be able to do the following:

  • Build a profile about the individual. This is not just about collecting birth, marriage and death data. Consider all aspects of their life that make them unique such as their name, education, occupation, religious and civic associations, social and financial status, precise locations of residences, personality traits and signature. Next, place the individual in his or her family, neighborhood and cultural context. Search for and identify individuals from the same place and time who have the same name and sort out their identities.
  • Learn about their relationships. Relationships are proven by linking people through known interaction, proximity of where they lived, common ownership and patterns of migration, naming and so forth. Knowing these things will give you a fuller picture of the life your ancestor lived and provide ideas for sources to find additional records.


  • Determine their origin. Origin can be established from statements and documents associated with the person, as well as by identifying migration patterns of associates and family.

Learn to analyze the documents you find
The first time I searched my mother’s vital records (birth, marriage, divorce and death records), I copied names and dates and put the records aside. Several years later when I re-examined her vital records, I found more than 50 data points that were instrumental in learning about my ancestral lines. I’ve learned a series of questions that helps me analyze and extract available source information. The questions include the following:

  • What is the source citation of this document?
  • Is this an original document or a derivative?
  • Where did the document originate?
  • When was the document written?
  • Who is the primary individual listed in the document?
  • Who are the other individuals named in the document? What are their roles?
  • What relationships are stated?
  • What is the purpose of the document?
  • What information is directly stated within the document (such as dates or places)?
  • What information is implied (indirect) by this document?
  • What information is not stated (name of wife, names of children and so on)?
  • When was the document recorded?
  • Who had jurisdiction over the document then? Who has current jurisdiction over the document?
  • What other document(s) partner with this one?
  • What hints are contained within the document, suggesting additional research?