Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Dr. Thomas W. Jones on Research, Teaching, and SLIG

We are gearing up for registration opening on June 2, 2012 at 9:00 AM. To get you excited about all of the great offerings this year we've asked each of our coordinators to either be a guest blogger or participate in an interview on our blog. For more information on the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy please visit 

Without further ado I give you Dr. Jones:

Most family historians have a favorite ancestor, and I’m no exception. Mine keep changing, though. One will grip me and not let me go until I figure out his or her life story, write it up, and share it with others. Then another comes along.

One of these was Ellender Crow, a Virginian who became the second most important woman in my life (after my wife) for a couple of years. Only Ellender’s third marriage was recorded, but she wanted me to document her first two husbands, offspring of all three marriages, and her unrecorded parentage and to tell her life story. This took hours and hours of in-depth research, reading between the lines, piecing evidence together, testing hypotheses, correcting other researchers’ errors, and making inferences about what “really happened” in the 1700s and early 1800s. I learned that I descend from two of Ellender’s husbands, not just the one I knew about, but also through another husband’s prior wife.

After Ellender loosened her grip, Charles McLain grabbed me. Charles seemed to have appeared out of nowhere to marry my great-grandmother in Muskegon, Michigan, in 1873. She divorced him a few years later, and he disappeared. Figuring out what happened to him was the easy part, though the key record dates almost three decades after the divorce, and only indirect evidence shows that another woman’s husband was “my” Charles. Records before his first marriage appear under three names. These complications, along with strained and unconventional relationships within his parental family, offered intriguing challenges. Eventually I was able to assemble his life story, including his motives.

Once I wrote about Charles McLain and his parents from birth to death, George Edison came along. He left records under four names in five Midwestern states between 1861 and 1940, married five times (including twice to the same woman with no intervening divorce), committed bigamy, and was tried for adultery and fornication—of which a jury found him not guilty. His first three wives were ages 14, 15, and 19, but the last was 75—twenty years his senior. As a union leader George shut down two major American cities with electricians’ strikes. I had great fun figuring out that records under different names with different wives in different states referred to the same man. In the process I learned about George’s good and bad traits. George probably didn’t want his story told, but his eldest child (of twelve) seemed to have different ideas.

For me, family history research is at its best when I study my subjects’ lives thoroughly enough to understand their personalities. This was true of my experiences with Ellender Crow, Charles McLain, and George Edison. For all three cases I used many kinds of records—online and off—and milked them for all they were worth, noting details and reading between the lines. The effort paid off in the insights I acquired—not just about these subjects’ vital statistics and relatives, but their activities, the contexts of those activities, how they responded to those contexts, and why they responded the way they did.

Every one of these cases taught me new skills. I learned about more kinds of records, and I learned how to get more out of record types I had used before. Experiences like these keep my enthusiasm for genealogy at a high level.  

The course I coordinate at SLIG, Advanced Genealogical Methods, includes the knowledge and skills I acquired and executed in my research on Ellender, Charles, and George, and much, much more. It’s an intense course, definitely not for beginners, not even “early intermediate” researchers. Experienced researchers who want to acquire more advanced skills might consider taking it in 2013 or beyond. SLIG also offers other advanced and in-depth courses. 

I’ve just sent George Edison’s story to a journal editor. Now other ancestorsthe pre-Civil War Buss family, early New Yorker Julia Greenfield and her absent grandfather, and othersdemand my research attention. Researching their families promises steep genealogical challenges, but I’ll enjoy surmounting the barriers and getting to know the families.

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