Genealogy Sleuth Work: Introduction


These fellows are sharper than I expected. They seem to have covered their tracks.
- Sherlock Holmes

What genealogist has not accused ancestors of the same evasiveness, even conspiracy? One friend even accuses his ancestors of setting fire to the courthouse every time they moved away, for his ancestors from the time of the American Revolution until Reconstruction lived in counties that have had major loss of records due to fires.

Literary detectives constantly face the dilemma, What have I learned and where do I go from here? The same is true for genealogists. We can learn from these experts when we realize the extent to which our pursuits are similar.

Many parallels exist between literary sleuths and genealogists. Both gather and unravel sets of facts and circumstances. We try to answer unanswered questions. We seek to place people in a given place at a given time, reconstruct events, and understand their causes and results. Like detectives, genealogists want to determine who was where when, doing what and with whom, why they came or left, and where they are when we need to find them. Both literary sleuths and genealogists look for missing persons and sometimes need to identify skeletons in closets. Being a detective or a genealogist requires a certain amount of innate curiosity and the courage to talk to strangers, go to new places, and try new approaches. Both activities involve the skill of observation, the need to discriminate between things observed, and the ability to analyze and draw conclusions. We both tend to become thoroughly engrossed in what we are doing, to the neglect of house and yard work.

Obviously, the two disciplines have their differences. Genealogists are not usually trying to solve a crime or identify a criminal. Genealogists do not always need to figure out who had a motive and an opportunity to commit a crime or an act and who could benefit from it. Certainly, genealogists do not tend to put themselves in harm's way to the degree that detectives do. Although we all accumulate paper in the course of our investigations, we genealogists are the ones who, because of it, frequently lose the use of our dining room tables and spare beds. And genealogists unfortunately do not usually have the opportunity to confront and question their "suspects" when they are found.

Since the early nineteenth century, many sleuths have worked the pages of literature, and some have shared with their colleagues, and therefore with us, the methods and secrets of their successes. Since the disciplines of genealogy '' and sleuthing share considerable common ground, why can't we genealogists
learn from the sleuths, make ourselves better at what we do, and have fun in the process? All of us can continue to grow in skill and understanding. And all of us would like to solve, during our lifetimes, some of our tough questions, to get beyond some of the proverbial brick walls.

As the incomparable Sherlock Holmes said, "There is a mystery about this which stimulates the imagination."2 This can be a crime waiting to be solved or an ancestor waiting to be found. This may be one newly discovered fact or the whole process of genealogy. Whichever it is at any given time, we genealogists are more likely to be successful with it when we let our imaginations roam, when we question and ponder in the spirit of the sleuth, and when we remain open to imitate the sleuths.

I have an idea! . . . This time it is an idea gigantic! Stupendous! And you - you, my friend, have given it to me!
- Hercule Poirot to Captain Hastings

     Emily Anne Croom, "Genealogy Sleuth Work: Introduction," extracted from The Sleuth Book for Genealogists: Strategies for More Successful Family History Research, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008), Chapt. 1, pp. 1-2; digital edition, ( : posted 26 Jul 2012)

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