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Research Plans and Source Documentation, Part One

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? ~ Albert Einstein

Black and white photograph of Albert Einstein as an old man.

If you have ever returned to research after a short (or decade-long) break, you may have run into a disconnect in your information. I asked the age-old questions, "Where did I find or get that information?" or "How did I come to that conclusion?" I found myself on the genealogy research merry-go-round, repeating my research to DOCUMENT my findings.

Like any new genealogist, I was like a dog chasing a squirrel or Alice going down the March Hare's hole. Much of my early documentation relied on letters from my advanced-aged relatives, so I thought I could find an easy answer when I came across this question.


I spent time with my cousin Olivia a few years back, and she brought up a story I hadn't heard before. Our relationship is second cousins once removed. In other words, my great-great-grandparents are her great-grandparents. See below for a visual explanation of our relationship (personal information for living people is redacted for privacy).

So, my cousin commented on our common ancestors and when they died. I knew the information on the specific timeframe was off, but she brought to my attention a family story I had never heard. It involved a gas explosion of the family store/home and the death of one (or more) of our relatives. More on that in a future blog post. First, I needed to fact-check the death dates of my great-great-grandparents. I started with Patrizio Spagnoli.

Young man in white button down shirt, sleeves rolled up and open collar, wearing baggy grey pants standing with older man in white button down shirt and black pants smoking a cigar. Both men are standing in a dirt field.
Peter and Patrizio Spagnoli, c. 1926

I returned home on a mission. I checked my Ancestry family tree and found that Patrizio may have died on the 9th of July in 1936, and I say MAY because I had not documented any PROOF of that date. So, when and where in the last 30 years did I find that date?

The lack of a source kicked off my unenviable position of re-researching my information. Do-over. It happens to all of us at one point or another.

So, I started to ask myself all the questions, and here were my answers.

  • There is no source data in my Ancestry Family Tree, so I didn't find this information from an online source.

  • My hard copy files had no copies of a death certificate, so I hadn't gotten the information from Ohio vital records.

  • My grandmother was 10 years old when her grandfather died, and I was 19 when she died. It's doubtful that she was the source of my information.

Now to do what every seasoned genealogist should do: Create a Research Plan!

To fix this omission, I needed a very concise research question. Honestly, this is one of the single most important concepts in genealogical research that many people are not following.

When and where did Patrizio Spagnoli die?

A bit morbid, but I am a genealogist after all. I search for dead people for my clients every day.

My research plan will include the following categories of information and where I might find that information.

Who To Research

Time To Search

Geography (Place, Location)

Type Of Information I Want To Find

What Records Contain This Information

How Can I Access This Information

In my case, Patrizio or Patrick's last name was Spagnoli. The female version of this name given to all his daughters was Spagnolia. Note: It is key to know the customs of the culture you are researching. This will help you understand name variations as well as other clues along the way. From my previous research on this family, I knew to search for both versions. The time frame I am searching for is easy. I have a date that I will assume for now is correct while I establish the proof; 9 July 1936. Incidentally, my grandmother's birthday, I said above she was 10 years old when he died.

I was fortunate, that the location on this question is also easy. I know that my family came from Italy and settled in Cleveland and the surrounding communities in the early 20th century. I have no reason to search in other locations, except I know that some of his children moved away from the area, so it might be worth looking into those locations, especially for an obituary.

The type of information I am seeking is simple as well. Death date and location of death. Now we get to the fun part. What records can I use to find this information and how can I access them?

  1. Death Certificate (Vital Records Office,,,

  2. Obituary (,, Cleveland Public Library)

  3. Gravestone or Headstone (,, Catholic Cemeteries Association)

Notice I have a few paid sites and a few free options to check through. Don't fret if you don't have paid access to all the subscription sites. I'll show you why below.

I found copies of Patrizio's death certificate at FamilySearch (a free site) and the Ohio History Connection (pay $14 for a copy to be mailed to you). Both indexes have his name spelled as Patrizir. Now the document is clear enough for me to read the last letter in his given name is an o and not an r, but sometimes OCR technology isn't that good.

I was also able to confirm through both the Cleveland Public Library (free) and the Catholic Cemeteries Association for the Diocese of Cleveland (also free) that Patrizio was buried at Calvary Cemetery.

I didn't find any obituaries on the newspaper sites or And while wildly popular, FindAGrave and BillionGraves did not provide me with any information about my great-great-grandfather's death or burial.

The bottom line is no one wants to redo their research. No one has time for that. You want to be able to pick up your research after a short or long break and know exactly where you've been and where you need to go. That is why we should all be starting with a research plan and finishing with source documentation. Not all initial research or redone research will be this simple.


I ordered Patrizio's death certificate, so now I have proof of his death. The next step is documenting my research to prevent this problem from happening in the future. Check out Research Plans and Source Documentation, Part Two for the conclusion.

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