Every Little Detail

reprinted from the Ancestry Daily News 
  Michael John Neill – 6/15/2005

Every Little Detail

They say “the devil is in the details.”While I’m never certain who this mysterious “they” is, one thing is for certain: The details can create headaches or opportunities, depending upon whether they are noticed and how they are interpreted.

Those Short Phrases

Three or four words “squeezed” in at the very bottom of a document may be the largest clue of all, even if the handwriting is microscopic. Mrs. Barbara Pickert marries in Hancock County, Illinois, in 1859. A slip of paper included in with the marriage indicates in tiny script at the very bottom of the page that Mrs. Pickert “has no lawful husband living.”I almost ignored the reference. Barbara’s first husband Peter Bieger (or Pickert) was known to have been dead by late 1855. It was initially thought that the reference was to him. The longer I thought the more odd it seemed that the phrase “no lawful husband living” was used when the shorter term of “widow” would have sufficed. Later research revealed that Barbara was apparently married for a short time in 1856 to a George Fennan who abandoned her–hence the phrase “no lawful husband living.”

How Long Have I Known You?

There may be references in a record or document that have no bearing on the case, but that do have bearing on the family being researched. Court testimony from an 1877 court case indicated that Christian Williams had known my ancestor Mimke Habben for at least twenty years. Mimke immigrated to the United States in the 1860s. If I had not known where Mimke was from in Germany, my research should have concentrated on Christian. Since Christian had known my ancestor since at least 1857, they had known each other in Germany. Court testimony and military pension papers are great sources for finding references to individuals who have known your ancestor for a specified period of time.

What Does It Mean?

In a guardianship record from Kentucky in 1814, my ancestor is referred to as an infant. In 1815 she marries. Before anyone draws any inappropriate conclusions, it should be noted that the guardianship record is using the legal definition of infant. Consequently the 1814 reference to Melinda Sledd as an infant only indicates she is under the legal age of majority, not that she is a newborn. Viewed in this light her 1815 marriage to Augusta Newman is no longer viewed as suspect.

Are They Sharing Luggage?

When one of my ancestral families immigrated in 1853, the passenger manifest indicated that they and another couple were sharing a set of luggage. The clue was not obvious–just a bracket on the far right-hand side of the manifest indicating that three bags belonged to the families of George Trautvetter and George Mathis. I kept the Mathis family in mind as I researched and eventually discovered that George Mathis’ wife was George Trautvetter’s niece.

How Does One Notice These Clues?

Sometimes it can be difficult to pick up on subtle references or turns of a phrase. The way to avoid overlooking these clues is to make certain that:


  • You know the definitions of all words in the document.
  • You determine if any words have specific legal definitions different from the way the word is used outside the legal system.


There are additional things that can be done.

Obtain the Original Document

Transcriptions may occasionally leave out pertinent details. The Trautvetter and Mathis families located on the passenger lists were originally located in the series Germans to America. This finding aid, while a great help, did not include the notation that the two families were sharing luggage. Of course, this was a significant clue only discovered by viewing the actual manifest.

Type the Document

Transcribing a document, forces the transcriptionist (you) to look at every word more closely. It is easy to overlook clues when you are reading silently. I know of one genealogist who received a transcription of a document that had an error. She could not determine what the error was. When typing up the transcription as part of a report on the entire family, she realized how the likely error occurred and was able to make additional headway with her research. Reading the document over and over did not bring about the revelation.

Read the Document Out Loud

While this may not make you immediately popular with others in your household, it can make it easier to notice details based upon the way words could have sounded to your ancestor. Sometimes when we read something aloud or hear it read something “clicks” that did not click before.

Read the Document Backwards

Again this forces the reader to look at every word. While the document probably won’t make too much sense this way, it may cause you to notice a word or phrase that you had previously overlooked. And that is the entire point.

Create a One-Page Summary of Your Problem

Those who go with me on my research trips are encouraged to submit a one-page problem for me to review. While the limitation to one page makes for less to read, it forces the genealogist to narrow their problem and determine what details are important. While there are situations where one page is not sufficient, the hope here is to make the person look at all the details and decide which details are crucial to the problem.

The mark, the twist of phrase, the scribbled reference at the bottom of the page–it may be meaningless, but maybe not. But if you never notice it and analyze it, you will never know!


5 thoughts on “Every Little Detail

  1. Debra Meyer says:

    The technique of reading the document backwards is sometimes taught in junior high language arts classes as an editing tool. Your brains sees spelling errors, especially, since they are not in a context that fulfills your expectations as you skim a document forward. Thanks for reprinting some of the older Tips. I am retired now and am reading at a relaxed pace than I could have before!

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