"the devil is in the details."While I'm never certain who this
mysterious "they" is, one thing is for certain: The details can create
headaches or opportunities, depending upon whether they are noticed and
how they are interpreted.
Those Short Phrases
or four words "squeezed" in at the very bottom of a document may be the
largest clue of all, even if the handwriting is microscopic. Mrs.
Barbara Pickert marries in Hancock County, Illinois, in 1859. A slip of
paper included in with the marriage indicates in tiny script at the
very bottom of the page that Mrs. Pickert "has no lawful husband
living."I almost ignored the reference. Barbara's first husband Peter
Bieger (or Pickert) was known to have been dead by late 1855. It was
initially thought that the reference was to him. The longer I thought
the more odd it seemed that the phrase "no lawful husband living" was
used when the shorter term of "widow" would have sufficed. Later
research revealed that Barbara was apparently married for a short time
in 1856 to a George Fennan who abandoned her--hence the phrase "no lawful
How Long Have I Known You?
may be references in a record or document that have no bearing on the
case, but that do have bearing on the family being researched. Court
testimony from an 1877 court case indicated that Christian Williams had
known my ancestor Mimke Habben for at least twenty years. Mimke
immigrated to the United States in the 1860s. If I had not known where
Mimke was from in Germany, my research should have concentrated on
Christian. Since Christian had known my ancestor since at least 1857,
they had known each other in Germany. Court testimony and military
pension papers are great sources for finding references to individuals
who have known your ancestor for a specified period of time.
What Does It Mean?
a guardianship record from Kentucky in 1814, my ancestor is referred to
as an infant. In 1815 she marries. Before anyone draws any
inappropriate conclusions, it should be noted that the guardianship
record is using the legal definition of infant. Consequently the 1814
reference to Melinda Sledd as an infant only indicates she is under the
legal age of majority, not that she is a newborn. Viewed in this light
her 1815 marriage to Augusta Newman is no longer viewed as suspect.
Are They Sharing Luggage?
one of my ancestral families immigrated in 1853, the passenger manifest
indicated that they and another couple were sharing a set of luggage.
The clue was not obvious--just a bracket on the far right-hand side of
the manifest indicating that three bags belonged to the families of
George Trautvetter and George Mathis. I kept the Mathis family in mind
as I researched and eventually discovered that George Mathis' wife was
George Trautvetter's niece.
How Does One Notice These Clues?
it can be difficult to pick up on subtle references or turns of a
phrase. The way to avoid overlooking these clues is to make certain
- You know
the definitions of all words in the document.
determine if any words have specific legal definitions different from
the way the word is used outside the legal system.
additional things that can be done.
Obtain the Original Document
may occasionally leave out pertinent details. The Trautvetter and
Mathis families located on the passenger lists were originally located
in the series Germans to America. This finding aid, while a
great help, did not include the notation that the two families were
sharing luggage. Of course, this was a significant clue only discovered
by viewing the actual manifest.
Type the Document
a document, forces the transcriptionist (you) to look at every word
more closely. It is easy to overlook clues when you are reading
silently. I know of one genealogist who received a transcription of a
document that had an error. She could not determine what the error was.
When typing up the transcription as part of a report on the entire
family, she realized how the likely error occurred and was able to make
additional headway with her research. Reading the document over and
over did not bring about the revelation.
Read the Document Out Loud
this may not make you immediately popular with others in your
household, it can make it easier to notice details based upon the way
words could have sounded to your ancestor. Sometimes when we read
something aloud or hear it read something "clicks" that did not click
Read the Document Backwards
this forces the reader to look at every word. While the document
probably won't make too much sense this way, it may cause you to notice
a word or phrase that you had previously overlooked. And that is the
Create a One-Page Summary of Your Problem
who go with me on my research trips are encouraged to submit a one-page
problem for me to review. While the limitation to one page makes for
less to read, it forces the genealogist to narrow their problem and
determine what details are important. While there are situations where
one page is not sufficient, the hope here is to make the person look at
all the details and decide which details are crucial to the problem.
the twist of phrase, the scribbled reference at the bottom of the
page--it may be meaningless, but maybe not. But if you never notice it
and analyze it, you will never know!
John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of
Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also
on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael
is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical
Societies (FGS) www.fgs.org. He
conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of
genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several
genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical
Computing. You can e-mail him at email@example.com or
visit his website at www.rootdig.com,
but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.