This week I had a conversation with a researcher who was asking for some help with a brick wall. He wasn’t sure if he was dealing with one person or two people with the same name and he wanted to know what his next move should be. My advice was to plot everything he knew on a timeline. Timelines are one of my favorite strategies to figure out that very question, is it one person or two. I have a blog post about Timelines in general where I explain what records/events you need to be looking for to put on your timeline. In this case the researcher already knew that there were other record sets that he needed to examine to find more data. Remember, a person can’t be in two places at one time and a person can’t have two different wives, two different sets of parents nor different siblings. (Well, as a general rule he can’t. We aren’t going to get into bigamy in this post). You are also looking for other subtle differences like unexplained differences in ages, land purchases and sales that don’t quite add up, two distinct sets of witnesses on documents, subtle differences in the name (you have records in the name of John Doe and in the name of John W. Doe), etc.
I use a simple table/spreadsheet to keep track of my timeline data. I usually just do this in Microsoft Word but for very complicated cases I will use Excel because I can sort my columns so that I can look at my data in different ways. For example, I used a spreadsheet to extract all of the data from the books, Chalkley, Lyman. Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish Settlement in Virginia, 3 volumes. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1965, that involved a Patton. My ultimate goal was to separate out all of the Mathew Patton entries because I was sure there were at least two, possibly three Mathew Pattons in Augusta County, Virginia at the same time. I needed to follow all of the other Pattons as well because I wanted to see who was related to whom which would help separate the Mathew Pattons. I can’t put my spreadsheet on the blog for you to look at because there are 357 entries. This is the most involved timeline I have done to date. I have 63 entries just for Mathew Patton. Because I used a spreadsheet, I can sort by date or by person or by type of event. Using this spreadsheet I was able to say with all certainty that there were at least two Mathew Pattons. I was also able to separate the records out for each (pretty much) and I was able to find both Mathews in later records (both migrated to different areas). I still have some records that don’t quite fit either man and that is why I think there is a third. I am still working on that.
I want to add that the above books are an extraction/abstraction of documents. Normally I work with original records but in this case extraction/abstraction books were much more helpful in sorting everything out. It is similar to using indexes to get your research going. I would of course request the pertinent originals at some point.
Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis