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Heritage Hunting: Like any great detective, you have to investigate

You must be a thorough detective, like Columbo, to investigate one’s genealogy.
You must be a thorough detective, like Columbo, to investigate one’s genealogy.
Published Jun. 10, 2016

Editor's note: Today we introduce the Hunting Heritage column by Sharon Tate Moody, a professional genealogist. Her column will appear every other Sunday, alternating with Rodney Kite-Powell's History and Heritage column.

Our life experiences greatly influence how we analyze and solve problems.

In 2000, I retired from a 28-year career as a police officer and converted my family history hobby to a new career as a professional genealogist. I brought along almost three decades of investigating and solving crimes to my new job.

Investigating crimes and then presenting my evidence in courts of law allowed me to have an unusual approach to genealogical research. I conjured up the crime of "living" and began to approach a family's history as a crime scene. If living were an offense, I could use basic law enforcement techniques to find those "criminal ancestors."

Such an approach to the study and investigation of an ancestor is a valuable one because no matter how adept criminals are, they always will leave evidence of their deeds. The limiting elements include how thorough and well-trained the investigating genealogists are and their determination to solve the crime.

Investigators wrap their yellow plastic tape around the crime scene, protecting from loss (from anything going out) and from contamination (by something coming into the scene).

Then they meticulously examine everything they've isolated within the perimeter for a possible connection to the crime. The study will tell the detectives much and will provide clues that require varying degrees of follow-up investigations.

Researchers can equate genealogical quests to such crime scenes: Inside that imaginary yellow tape they will explore the basics of such common records as censuses, probate files, vital event certificates (birth, marriage and death certificates), land, church, cemetery and military records.

The raw evidence taken from a true crime scene seldom convicts anyone. Sometimes, however, genealogical researchers strike bonanzas with this initial research — the evidence seems compelling and conclusive. From those basic searches they think they have fingered the true John Smith, and they have connected him to his ancestors and descendants.

Case closed. Guilty of living.

But that is sloppy police work. Do we want to convict the wrong person (i.e. identify the wrong "John Smith" as an ancestor)?

To avoid that we must conduct an exhaustive search for evidence for whatever person or relationship we seek. That means we investigate beyond the initial crime scene to prove relationships or answer other research questions, even if we "are sure" we've found the answer or made the identification.

How do we do that? Well, here's what Columbo, Joe Friday, Harry Bosch and Alex Cross do:

First they canvas the area to determine who saw something unusual at the time of the crime. This canvassing process is nothing more than a series of interviews.

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For their next steps the detectives interview the suspect's family members, friends, enemies and other associates (such as neighbors or persons from his work site). What were these people doing when the crime was committed? What can they tell detectives about how he lived?

Through interviews, the genealogical detectives will develop a strong feel for the community around the crime scene. What events (disease, floods, war, etc.) in the neighborhood might have impacted this crime scene (i.e. the ancestor's life) or contributed to a chain of events?

With these basic investigative techniques in mind, a genealogical Sherlock Holmes can take the same fact-finding steps to build a family's history.

In the genealogy world, however, it is still possible to interview the dead. We can't exactly look 'em in the eye and watch their body language to assess their truthfulness, but we can find records they created to see if they "talked" about the ancestor.

We should look for these witnesses in letters, journals, area histories and records of key events for the time and place.

Prosecutors expect detectives to bring them thoroughly investigated cases filled with evidence that soundly and solidly proves a defendant's guilt.

Family historians who present equally strong arguments, backed with hard evidence, in the court of genealogy, can indeed prove their ancestors guilty of living.

Moving forward, I'll tell you about records you can use to convict your ancestors. We'll explore records you might never have thought to use, examine the Genealogical Proof Standard, learn the difference between evidence and proof, and discover why it is critical to cite and analyze our sources.

So, see you here in two weeks.

Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to Sharon Tate Moody at stmoody0720@mac.com.