Tracking Elusive People through the Past


Elizabeth Shown Mills

Research problems are rarely solved by simply learning what records exist and where to find—then looking for names in those records. Most tough problems are solved by spotting connections and patterns between seemingly unrelated things.  Here are seven tips guaranteed to sharpen your skills at tracking elusive people through past times.

  1. Different research problems require different research processes. We need to build a repertoire of techniques to apply in different situations.
  2. Names were often spelled phonetically. The legal principle idem sonans—if it sounds the same, it is the same—applies to historical research also.
  3. Each legal document we find has to be interpreted according to statute law as it existed in that place and on that day the document was created. Laws do change, and words today have different meanings than they did in the past. Situations that may appear to us today as cold or callous may have represented something entirely different at the time.
  4. To interpret census data correctly, we study the Census Bureau’s instructions to the enumerators for each particular year. Those instructions set limits the enumerators had to work within. They define many words differently from modern concepts.
  5. Continue your search for records long after the death of your person of interest. Heirs and excluded heirs often challenged wills or estate settlements, carried on lawsuits for decades, and reopened probates generations later. When our person-of-interest did not pay to have deeds filed, offspring might later deposit those documents in the courthouse to clear property titles. “Later” can be even a century or more.
  6. Learn naming patterns within the community. When using local records, do not just search for the names of interest. Use those records to learn which names are common and which ones were rare. Solutions to problems often rest on this kind of insight.
  7. Study the linguistics and culture of the region. Spelling variants suggest differences in pronunciation and both can offer clues to origin.

For other tips, The Evidence Series also offers QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to the Research Process.


PHOTO CREDITS: "Three Star Label," Presenter Media ( : downloaded 7 March 2015), item 11741; used under license.


Posted 21March 2015