If Sherlock Holmes Were a Genealogist (Part 3): Step #2—Search, Getting to the Nitty-Gritty

Search, Getting to the Nitty-GrittyBy Barry J. Ewell

When he was on a case, Sherlock Holmes was like a bloodhound. He’d be down on his knees peering at cracks in the floorboards and then bounding through windows, over chairs, and up to the ceiling. You can picture him now with magnifying glass in hand, eyes sharply focused for clues.

“He was out on the lawn, in through the window, round the room, and up into the bedroom, for all the world like a dashing foxhound drawing a cover” (Sherlock Holmes from The Devil’s Foot).

This is the nitty-gritty, down-in-the-dirt aspect of problem solving. Don’t be afraid of the minutiae. The solution lies in the details.

Principle 1 of Search: Search leads to clues. Clues lead to answers.
In genealogy, you have to be willing to plunge into the details. Delve into the primary and secondary records and immerse yourself in the search for the answers.

Principle 2 of Search: Clues are found where you didn’t look.
When you conduct your genealogy research, it becomes para¬mount to consider all your options and simply ask yourself, “Where should I look?”

“Always look at the hands first, Watson. Then cuffs, trouser- knees, and boots” (Sherlock Holmes from The Adventure of The Creeping Man).

A few common mistakes we have all made in our research include the following:

  • Not using forms (pedigree or lineage charts or family group records). These can be manual forms or forms produced by a genealogy software program.
  • Avoiding contacting relatives and others working the same lines.
  • Assuming there is no one else researching your lines.
  • Not using maps for the time and area where your ancestors lived.
  • Avoiding historical studies of your area or time frame of research.
  • Failing to utilize family traditions when researching.
  • Trying to connect to “published” or “printed” lineages.
  • Avoiding using primary or original records.
  • Losing control over your records (comes under the heading of organization).
  • Not following through on clues.
  • Ignoring spelling variants.
  • Announcing you are at a brick wall or giving up. Brick walls should be considered as “rest stops” in research, not stopping places. This is a time to go back and review your data for new clues.
  • Assuming the census names in one household are all one family.
  • Assuming John Jr. is always the son of a John Sr.
  • Not keeping an open mind to more than one marriage.
  • Assuming all printed materials are correct.
  • Avoiding re-analyzing your own work periodically for clues.

Principle 3 of Search: See your ancestors through the lens of the time in which they lived.
As genealogists, we often conduct our research from the point of view of today. It is important to have a knowledge of the history, geography, and social customs of the area and people being researched. Some knowledge of the history of the law and the language of an area and its people may also be necessary to understand the facts. When we take time to understand the world in which our ancestors lived, many clues will reveal themselves and open our eyes to understanding.

“In my profession all sorts of odd knowledge comes useful, and this room of yours is a storehouse of it” (Sherlock Holmes from The Adventure of the Three Garridebs).

“Have a cigarette, Mr. McFarlane. Beyond obvious facts that you are an asthmatic, I know nothing whatever about you” (Sherlock Holmes from The Adventure of The Norwood Builder).

“According to my experience it is not possible to reach the plat¬form of a Metropolitan train without exhibiting one’s ticket” (Sherlock Holmes from The Adventure of Bruce-Partington Plans).

The following are several examples of how understanding the times and seasons can make a difference in your search.

Land records and probate records. They help to define family relationships. In order to prove facts, it was required to have land and personal tax lists include powers of attorney. You can find migration patterns through the land records. It’s not uncommon to find all the persons who live in an area coming from the same place in the old country or migrating from the same area. As a genealogist, I will research the pertinent records in both places. Acknowledgment by the grantor of a deed provides evidence that the person was present at the location on that date, regardless of when the deed was recorded.

Court minutes or orders. These records define who was appointed as guardians for minors and as estate administrators. You will sometimes find acknowledgment in court of minors who attain legal age. Do not neglect looking for these records.

Combining History with Records. During the colonial period before the 1770s, an estate couldn’t be divided until the youngest child became of age. When you search the Chancery court records, you can find evidence of attainment of legal age. Lawsuits were filed by lawyers on behalf of minor children naming the other children as defendants. Until a child attained legal age, a minor would first appear in the list of plaintiffs. The individual could later appear on list of defendants in subsequent actions if he had had siblings who were still minors. Look in the tax records because males became taxable at the age of sixteen.

Understanding Law. Law of primogeniture is the process through which the entire real property of the father passed to the eldest son at the death of the father. There are instances in which the eldest son isn’t even mentioned in the will because the father knew that he would receive the property by law. Therefore, a genealogist cannot assume that every child is mentioned in a will during the colonial period. Similarly, the absence of an eldest daughter in a will may be explained by an examination of the land records. Her father may have given or sold her a portion of the land for a nominal price at her marriage.

Census Records. Census records are notoriously inaccurate, particularly in recording the ages of adults. Genealogists must examine a succession of census records containing the entries of the family to reveal the likely age. Birthplaces may not be indicated accurately since they’re frequently representative of the childhood residence but not necessarily the birthplace.

Newspapers. Newspaper obituary accounts are based on information from persons who may not have precise information about the deceased. These accounts may be used as clues to obtain other data. When there are persons of the same name in the same locale, finding the one that is your ancestor requires careful research to eliminate each non-ancestor from consideration. This is necessary to prove that an ancestor is the only person in a particular place that could have been related to the family historian.

Principle 4 of Search: Change is constant, so sometimes Broune really is Brown
Be aware that in your research you will come across sources of trouble, but also be aware that these issues will create the opportunity for you to recognize facts and clues that you might otherwise miss. For example, be aware of the following items:

  • Vocabulary—the way certain terms are used in older wills and other documents may not match current practice. For example, we accept “senior” and “junior” as referring to a father and son. However, years ago, it could refer to any two men in one com-munity who happened to have the same name.
  • Dates and the Calendar—Until 1582, the Julian calendar was used, which, over the centuries, had shifted out of sync with the seasons. To correct this discrepancy, Pope Gregory then adopted the system we use today. However, Protestant countries such as England and some German states refused to accept a “Catholic” calendar. By 1752, the Julian calendar was 11 days behind the Gregorian calendar. In that year, England decided to change over.
  • Handwriting—Most early documents were handwritten. Some letters were written (or even printed) in a manner different from today—for example, the long S (J), which was used until 1810, can be confused with F or P.
  • Names—Family Name Spellings may change if the original spelling is not phonetic or of Anglo-Saxon origin.
  • Place Names—May change or be repeated in different places. For example, provinces often repeat or reference the name of the founders’ homeland (such as New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Glasgow, and Prince Edward Island).
  • All Records—All records may be suspect. Church records are probably the best, followed by civil records. Headstones are not always accurate, and census records may be off by a year or many more. Primary records (for example, record of marriage as found in the church where the event occurred) are preferred over secondary records (such as a printed county record) since there will be fewer opportunities for transcription errors.
  • Illegitimate Children—may be attributed to others, especially grandparents.
  • Incomplete Data—Can come from all sources. Losses (espe¬cially due to fire) years ago may leave gaps in the data.

Principle 5 of Search: Look under the chair.
Don’t forget items of common use, either. Antiques that are handed down from generation to generation can substantiate your research. A chair may have been a wedding present; a piece of jewelry could have been presented to a new mother by her husband to celebrate the birth of a child. Important clues are often found by simply turning a picture over and seeing what is written.