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  • Writer's pictureTheFormidableGenealogist

Down the Rabbit Hole

We've all gone down a rabbit hole in our research. You go to look at just one piece of information, only to realize minutes or hours later that you've deviated entirely from your original focus.

Last week I discovered a member of the tree I was working on may have been killed in a mining disaster in West Virginia around 1900. I read the digital newspaper articles of the event, and did some web searching to answer a few of the questions my head. Before I knew it, I was far from 1900's West Virginia, clicking around an interactive map about abandoned mines in North Dakota. I had learned a lot of interesting facts in the meantime, but I knew none of them were relevant to my mystery. I had to regroup and refocus.

One of the many challenges of researching a complicated genealogical problem is that sometimes you have to go down what feels like a rabbit hole. To make progress, you need to commit to collecting what seem like unrelated clues and then at some point see if they could be parts of the story you're looking for.

But how far down the rabbit hole do you go? How much time and effort do you potentially waste if this rabbit hole is the wrong one to be looking in?

My suggestion is to at least be organized about it.

  • Keep a record of where you've looked. There are many record sets I've been through multiple times, each time with more knowledge than the previous time. That can be frustrating and feel like a waste of time. But it's a better use of time than going through records that you can't remember if you've seen before.

  • Log the information you find that seems significant, and explain why you think so. So often we will not find that one piece of information that will connect all the dots for us. It's the many separate pieces that will contribute to the whole picture.

  • Set a timer or a deadline. There are some tangents that I might allocate 1 hour or 4 hours for. I gather as much as I can from that rabbit hole and then review the pieces. I can then evaluate whether I gained anything promising and want to dig further in that same area next time, or if I need to find a new area to mine. There are other tangents that I might allocate 1 or 2 months for. I gather what I can over the course of that time, usually in short spurts while I'm watching TV or baking cookies. This allows me enough time to feel like I gave some serious effort to collecting data, but not so much time that it consumed me.

  • Take a break. It's easy to get consumed by some of these questions. Taking a break or focusing on another research question for a while can help alleviate that. If you've left good notes, you can feel confident that you can let the search sit for a while and pick up later where you left off. Whether that's in a month or a year.

One rabbit hole that recently paid off for me was the search for the parents of a woman named Maude, born in Pennsylvania in the late 1800s. I committed to following one of the tiniest clues for the duration of one evening, while I was snuggled up with my laptop and not feeling well. I clicked around what felt like the entire Internet before landing on a death certificate for a woman whose name alone would have suggested no connection to Maude. However, the informant was the deceased woman's daughter Maude. My Maude.

Of course, I have virtually unlimited time for genealogy. For those who don't, having a plan for your detours and rabbit holes can help you manage your time and frustration.

P.S. We Formidables love maps and can't state enough the importance of maps in genealogy.

The interactive map about the abandoned mines is accessible via the American Geosciences Institute web site. The site has compiled maps from a variety of sources on a variety of earth science subjects. The compilation below is about coal mines. Such a map might help you visualize where a coal-mining ancestor in North Dakota may have come from, or where one from Pennsylvania may have gone.

map of coal mines


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