Bob Genealogist: Private Eye

This week in my genealogy writing class we had to write a blog.  Then we had to develop it into a magazine article for a genealogy hobbyist publication. Of course, it didn’t end there. We also had to write a second magazine article. Since I now have this actual blog for my visual media class, I figured I might as well upload my articles and have something to show for all that work.. Now they’ll be kind of published. (Sorry there are no pictures. If I were to seriously publish them, I’d add pictures. Because all those words look boring).

Enter the fun and exciting world of GENEALOGY! It’s like being a detective… for DEAD PEOPLE.

The work of a private detective and the work of a genealogist have a lot in common. Just like a trained private eye, a genealogist uses problem solving skills, interviewing skills, and careful analysis to solve cases. Both fields research records that provide background information on people, and reconstruct lives through the events their target person experienced. The following are some detective/genealogist parallels.


Like a detective investigating an alibi, genealogists build timelines to show where a person and his family were living at a certain point in time. Through records from the past, such as the U.S. federal censuses, genealogists can discover hints about a name such as occupation, literacy, home ownership, relationships, and immigration. By applying locations to various records, they can deduce the major events people experienced: political frameworks, natural disasters, fantastic inventions, traditions, and trends. For example, an ancestor of mine was born in Kentucky in 1847 and died in Colorado in 1905. That was quite a distance to travel before the invention of airplanes and automobiles. However, by comparing his timeline with national events, his census locations coincide with the building of the transcontinental railroad. Timelines show the dominant experiences in the arch of a lifetime.

Migration routes

Tracing migration routes is another skill of detection used by genealogists. Across the ocean on a ship, across the country on a train, or across town as a newlywed, the genealogist can build a case to show an ancestor’s motive by putting together dates and places. For example, the ancestors in my mother’s line were born in England, married in Nauvoo, Illinois, buried children in Winter Quarters, Iowa, and died in Toole, Utah. Their migration route strongly suggests they were Mormon pioneers. Knowing the possible motives through migration routes can change the ancestor from a name on a chart into a real person.

Money trails

Like following a set of footprints, genealogists can follow money lines through probate and tax records. They know what was inherited, and what was bequeathed to others. Personalities emerge, with favorite relatives, likes, and dislikes. Lists of property show how wealthy or destitute a person from the past was. Records can also show if they owned slaves, and where they stood on that issue. Genealogists can know who was important to a family by the names they gave their children. They can spy on the neighborhood through census records and land deeds. They know who lived next door or over the fence, and these families sometimes merged. They can be clues for finding maiden names.

Research Skills

Private eyes don’t spend all their time on exciting undercover assignments. They also have to spend time in the office, finding facts on the computer. Efficient research skills are helpful to genealogists, too. Knowing how to use different search engines, different phrases, and wildcards can make a difference and glean a document that could crack the case.


Detectives consult many sources to gather information. Genealogists also conduct interviews to further their investigations. They record the memories that roll out, and the details as they are remembered and click into place.

So if you’re stuck on a missing person case, or want to bring a name to life, consider using detective skills to aid your genealogy. The details of their lives are there in the paperwork. Pick up the magnifying glass and join the agency!


article #2

Paleography Primer

Have you been frustrated by an old document that you couldn’t understand because the handwriting was indecipherable? There’s help! Paleography is the answer. Paleography is the study of old handwriting. Just like styles in clothing and architecture, handwriting changed through time. Political movements, social trends, and the invention of the typewriter are some of the factors that caused handwriting styles to shift. The further back you trace your ancestors, the more crucial paleography skills become to you as a genealogist.

Here are some paleography pointers for deciphering older documents:


  • It’s very helpful to have reference sheets of various scripts to compare as you’re transcribing. Print off sheets of old alphabets to have on hand. Contrast letters from words you recognize with the letters in words that are unfamiliar.


  • Transcribe the document. Write the words you know, leaving underlined blanks for words that are a mystery. Then go back over it; many words will fall into place.


  • If a word is confusing, try tracing the penmanship with the computer cursor. Or, print the document and write over the words with a pencil. The motion of your hand may help you to recognize a letter or two of the word, so you can begin guessing what the other letters could be.


  • Download an older handwriting font and transpose familiar items on your computer into to the older writing. You can practice reading your email in these old fonts.


  • If you’re stuck on a particular letter, narrow it down to a couple of possibilities and then search the document for those specific letters in words you recognize and compare them. Even if you don’t find an exact match, it may help you to eliminate some letters.


  • Use common sense. The words and names should be somewhat familiar. If you can’t clearly read the location, Google it and compare the results of the Internet search engine to the document you’re trying to read. That will confirm or possibly narrow down your choices.


  • Scribes had personal nuances. In a document, look for small words like “the“ and “and,” or the names of the family, the city, and the state. The combination of these letters could give you half the alphabet to work with.


  • Become familiar with common contractions and abbreviations of that time period. Realize that everything had to be hand-written; so shortened words were more efficient and often used.


  • Spelling didn’t matter until around 1890. Capitalization was random, and punctuation wasn’t standardized either. Don’t apply modern grammar rules to colonial or old English documents.


  • Search for common words in the document. Records have their own vernacular. For example, the phrase “In the name of god Amen” was used to begin wills in the eighteenth century. Use Google to find common phrases to watch for in land deeds, probate records, pension records, etc.


  • Watch for word pairs. When William the Conqueror began ruling England in 1066, the ruling class spoke French and Latin, while the peasants spoke old English. The lawyers of the day used word pairs (joining an English word with a Latin word) to make sure the meanings in legal documents were absolutely clear. We still use them today: free and clear, terms and conditions, null and void, breaking and entering. Look for the word “and,” then examine the words sandwiching it. If one word is “will,” there’s a good chance the other could be “testament.”

These documents of the past had purpose and meaning. Despite the first impressions they give of chicken-scratch, they are not gibberish. Using paleography can help you decipher them.