Creating a Research Plan
The first step in the Genealogical Proof Standard states that one must conduct a reasonably exhaustive search for all information that is or may be pertinent to the question for which you are seeking an answer. Has this been completed? Having only examined two records, we are far from conducting a reasonably exhaustive search. But how does one know when a reasonably exhaustive search has been achieved? Simply put, only experience in research will provide the insight to be sure. A well-crafted research plan, however, can help you to achieve this goal.
The first step in devising an effective research plan is to define a specific research problem. Many beginning genealogists jump into their research without ever clearly deciding what they would like to discover in their research. Of course, there is the vague notion of learning about ones forebears, but in order to effectively find an answer, one must first ask a question.
The following questions are examples of specific questions, relating to Robert S. Tarleton:
Who were Robert's parents?
When and where was Robert born?
When and where did Robert die?
The second step in creating a research plan involves research into the setting, i.e. the time and place. What were the laws during the time period that affected your ancestors? What records were created, and where are they now stored?
Continuing with Robert S. Tarleton as a case study, we will investigate Colleton Co., South Carolina, where Robert and his family lived. It is usually a good idea to start with a general research guide for the state. FamilySearch, sponsored by the Church of Latter-Day Saints, provides comprehensive research guides for all of the states and many other subjects. You can find all of their research guides on the FamilySearch Wiki. There are four research guides for South Carolina: South Carolina Federal Census Population Schedules, 1790 to 1920, South Carolina Historical Background, South Carolina Research Outline, and South Carolina Statewide Indexes and Collections. These are also available as PDF files to be printed with ease.
The next stop will be the state archives. The South Carolina Department of Archives and History, according to its website, is custodian of the non-current archives of state and local government. It has evolved from two agencies the legislature created in the late-nineteenth century, the Public Record Commission of South Carolina, which was appointed in 1891 to obtain copies of South Carolina records in the British Public Records Office, and the South Carolina Historical Commission, which was created in 1894 to maintain these copies and was then given wider record-keeping duties in 1905. On the website, you will find the SC ArchCat, where you can search for records in the Archives collection by keyword. Searching for the county name, Colleton County, brings forth a long list of county records available, including tax records, voter registrations, deeds, court records, etc. The Online Records Index contains abstracts of many key record sets held at SCDAH; indexed by topics, including: Will Transcripts (1782-1855); Records of Confederate Veterans (1909-1973); Plats for State Land Grants (1784-1868); Legislative Papers (1782-1866); Criminal Court Records (1769-1891); School Insurance Photographs (1935-1952); and National Register Properties. Some document images are also included in the Online Records Index.
There are also several great books to help provide some background information into the location. The Ancestry Red Book, Family Tree Resource Guide, and Evertons Handybook for Genealogists are great general resources, but the book Black Genesis by Dr. James Rose and Alice Eichholz, provides resources specific to African-American research for each state and many counties. There is no specific section for Colleton County, but the bibliography for the state does provide references to many books relating specifically to African-Americans in South Carolina.
You should also visit the website for the largest local university library, the local historical and genealogical societies, and the county USGenWeb site. Considering Colleton County, we would visit the following sites (for example):
Now that you have defined a specific research focus, and learned more about the area and time period, you can bring the first steps together, in order to create your actual research plan. You will have to decide which available record groups are most likely to contain the information that you seek. If you are not sure what sort of information is contained in a certain record group, or do not know whether a record group will contain the information you seek, then you should err on the side of caution, and take a look at the records. This is part of the learning process, and will aid you in your future research plans. It is also a key part of conducting a reasonably exhaustive search.
The most effective research plan will consist of
(1) each repository that you will visit in the course of your research;
(2) each potentially relevant record group at each repository that you will search;
(3) what you will be searching for within each record group.
An easy way to record this information is by using four columns. The first three columns will contain the above aspects of your research plan; the last column will remain blank, so that you can record the results of each record search.