If Sherlock Holmes Were a Genealogist (Part 2): Step #1—Observation, Soaking Up the Facts

Step #1—Observation, Soaking Up the FactsBy Barry J. Ewell

Whenever you are faced with any research situation or problem, you must first observe it. To gather the facts, we must first know what we are looking for. No matter what kind of investigation you are beginning, there are only two ways to obtain data. The first is by verbally interviewing people (taking the history). The second is by carefully scrutinizing objects (the physical examination).

Principle 1 of Observation: Genealogy observation requires the “eyes of a hawk.”
Think of one of those intense, icy glares from Sherlock Holmes as he pans a room, taking in every detail.

“You see, but you do not observe,” he said in A Scandal in Bohemia.

In The Five Orange Pips, Holmes said, “The observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents, should be able accurately to state all the other ones, both before and after.”

As you research any record, hear the answers to family history questions, or read the writings of your ancestors, just allow what is there to present itself to you. Open up your senses. Really listen— let the sounds affect you. Notice the smells. And look with the eyes of a hawk: sharp, precise, missing nothing. Be alert to every movement, every clue, and anything that is out of the ordinary.

Principle 2 of Observation: Do not pre-judge the situation.
When you first begin any research project, start with the assumption that you know nothing. For every genealogical problem you research, simply observe.

In looking, you are learning. When you see with fresh eyes, unclouded by what you think you know, your powers of observation become like that of a wild animal. You are far more alert. Your vision is sharper. There is no interference.

In A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes stressed the importance of not pre-judging a situation before the facts have been observed and gathered: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Evidence and Sources: What types of evidence (sources) can you expect to find in your research?

  • Primary Evidence: Any evidence or event that is recorded at (or near) the time of the event such as a birth certificate or a will. “There is nothing like first-hand evidence.” (Sherlock Holmes from A Study in Scarlet)
  • Secondary Evidence: Any statement made by persons (or facts) that are from personal memory or any evidence recorded at any other time other than when the event occurred such as a death certificate.
  • Collateral Evidence: Evidence that gives cause or clues to other records. The purpose of this type of evidence is an important part of the record without actually proving anything. For example, if a father speaks of his daughter in a will, land record, or deed by another surname, you would look for a marriage record for the daughter.
  • Circumstantial Evidence: Evidence that provides an inference or hint toward a conclusion of fact. For example, a record mentions a daughter. Later he marries again and refers to the daughter as “daughter of a previous wife.” This implies that he had at least one daughter by a previous marriage.
  • Reported Evidence: Rumor, hearsay, family tradition, and so on. This type of evidence can be found in family interviews, family histories, county histories, biographies, and other such records. This information should be considered suspect until proven with primary or original evidence. For example, family tradition says Grandma was widowed young and raised her family alone, but records do not indicate a death (no probate, no change of land ownership, guardianship, and so on). When no proof appears that Grandpa died, you might suspect that he ran away from home for some reason.

Principle 3 of Observation: View your research from many different angles.
While we strive to be as objective as possible, the way a thing appears to us is always affected by the position from which we view it. To alleviate this flaw, we must try to observe our research from as many different angles as possible.

“I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see” (Sherlock Holmes from The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier).

What types of resources will you find? Purists claim that in order to have confirmation of identity, you must have three independent sources of information. That is not always possible, so you must do the best with what you can get. Examples of what you’ll find include the following:

  • Family—Get as much information from people while they are still with us and still have full use of their memory.
  • Family Documents—Bibles, prayer books, letters, photos, books, and so on can contain valuable family information.
  • Church Records—Baptism certificates, marriage certificates, and burial records.
  • Cemetery Records—Where specific headstones may be found. Headstone dates may be in error and reflect the assumed age, or be rounded, especially for very old people.
  • Newspapers—May include birth announcements, wedding announcements, obituaries, and stories about family members.
  • Military Records—Some restrictions apply to accessing these records. The individual must have been deceased for a specified period, and you may have to provide proof of this fact, especially if you are not a direct relative.
  • Genealogy Societies—Can provide many helpful resources, such as the following:
  • Help from others on “how to” questions
  • Help searching in a particular locale
  • Cemetery headstone listings
  • Library of local publications
  • Listings of names (and addresses) of others and their families of interest
  • Historical Societies—Good for local information.
  • Others Interested in Your Family—May have limited or extensive information. May have computerized records, and may have even written a book about your family genealogy.
  • City Directories—Tell who lived where and when; may give occupations.
  • Phone Books—may be useful for uncommon names.
  • Books—”How To” books may have limited information on people of interest to you; however, they point the way to other sources of information, such as local histories, which abound and may or may not have much information on individuals. The older ones tend not to be indexed.
  • Printed Genealogies—some are available for sale at the time of publication.

Principle 4 of Observation: As you observe, you gather the facts.
You are looking to see the components of the situation or problem. You soak up everything. You ask questions of everything and everybody. You ask those questions with your senses: searching, seeking, questioning. You become totally receptive to the answers. To glean every bit of information, you learn the what and why, the when and how, and the where and who.

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact” (Sherlock Holmes from The Boscombe Valley Mystery).

What type of information or facts am I looking for?

Key Genealogical Data

  • Full Name
  • Dates and Places of
  • Birth
  • Baptism
  • Marriage
  • Divorce
  • Death (Cause)
  • Burial
  • Moves (emigration or immigration)
  • Names of
  • Parents
  • Siblings
  • Spouse(s)
  • Children
  • Grandparents, grandchildren, and so on
  • Occupation
  • Anything else of interest that may tell us what sort of people they are or were.

Principle 5 of Observation: Keep track of your observations.
As a genealogist, you will use a number of different resources in your search. Research logs are essential tools for keeping it all straight so you don’t duplicate your work later. Even if you don’t see the need for a research log during the beginning stages, it’s a good bet that eventually you will forget some of the early records you searched. You can prevent this by indicating important facts in a research log, such as the following:

  • Where the search was conducted (library, archives, family papers, and so on)
  • When the search was conducted (be sure to list the full date, including the year)
  • The record or other research used
  • The information you did or did not find.

How can I keep track of my observations?
There are many helpful ways to keep track of all you glean from your research and observing. Here are a few ideas.

  1. Personal handwritten systems
  2. Computers are of great help. These may be general word processing and spreadsheet programs or specialty genealogical programs
  3. Features of genealogical programs, including the following:
  • Additions, changes, and deletions should be easy
  • Help prepare index
  • Automatically link family relationships
  • Documentation of sources
  • Notes of miscellaneous information
  • Pedigree charts
  • Descendancy charts
  • Detect errors (death date earlier than birth date, for example)
  • Suggest identity among multiple records based on similar names and nearness of birth dates (for example, John b. 1834, Peter b. 1835, and John Peter b. 1833 may be the same fellow)
  • Can merge records of individuals that appear more than once
  • Easy to distribute copies of information
  • Compatibility with other Genealogy Programs (GEDCOM)

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