Researching Elusive People


27 August 2014

Biographical research is always a gamble. Our person of interest may or may not have been literate. Among those who were, many created few records to document their existence. The records we expect to find for a place and time will likely have suffered some destruction. The answers we seek to specific research questions may not appear in any surviving record created by our person. Yet even the most elustive people are traceable.

Rule No. 1: The best clues to a person's origin are usually in the earliest proved place of residence. And, yes, this strategy holds true even if that place is a burned county!

But, bear in mind: this injunction about "earliest proved place of residence" doesn't mean a reference to a New Hampshire birthplace on an Indiana census. Census statements of that ilk aren't proof. They're only assertions.

If the only known place of residence for this person is, say, Washington County, Indiana, then that's the place we focus our search for clues to origin, identity, or kinship. If we apply there the FAN Principle, then somewhere in that network of friends, associates, and neighbors we'll find the clues to our person's origin.

EE's QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer's Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle) has many more ideas. EE's QuickLesson 11 demonstrates how it works using a yeoman farmer's wife and daughter named—yes—Mary Smith.



Photo credit: "Shadow of a man on pavement," CanStockPhoto ( : downloaded 4 August 2014), used under license.