I was watching a rerun of "History Detectives" on PBS recently and the obvious parallel struck me. Most of the people featured on this program have some sort of artifact – an old photograph, a painting, an aircraft propellor (really), or some other "thing," and with it, a story, usually based on hearsay. They know little else, except that someone in the family "always said" this was what it was about.
The detectives of the program's title, two antiques specialists, an architecture historian, and a professor of sociology, take it from there, interviewing the individual and then seeking original documents, speaking with experts, visiting repositories and eventually establishing the facts from what are so often half-truths or exaggerations.
I particularly like the comment of historian Gwen Wright: "A good, scientific investigation has to have clarity - a specific question and strategy - since the results, as in science, may be unexpected."
That must be why I enjoy this program so much. If we are serious about our genealogical pursuits, we follow that very same process, often with unexpected results.
Several years ago a relative told me a story about Charles A. Minton, one of two Ohio brothers who married sisters in the 1880s. Later, she said, Charles and his wife went to live in somewhere Texas, where both were killed in an auto accident before the turn of the century. (The bit about the auto accident seemed a bit odd to me.) Then, the tale went on, their young daughter went to live with the surviving brother, her uncle, in the state of Washington.
Starting with that premise I did find Venna Minton, a niece, in the household of John C. Minton, in the 1900 census for the city of Bellingham. From various sources I learned that Venna married, lived there the rest of her life, and died in 1948. But no mention was found of the loss of her parents.
So I left that search and managed to find the death date for the uncle who took her in. (Whatcom County Cemetery Records, Family History Library film #1036400) . Dr. John C. Minton, a fairly well-known dentist, died in 1930, and the obituary I was able to obtain from the Whatcom Genealogical Society said he was survived by his brother, Charles A. Minton, also of Bellingham.
But wait! (As they say on those TV ads) This was supposed to be the guy who had died in Texas years before. I eventually got Charles's death certificate and brief newspaper notices about his death, but they did not shed much light on the situation. So I put it all aside and moved on to other things.
Then recently I decided to take another stab at this – trying to reconcile the story from Aunt Ruth with the facts I had, since it was pretty obvious Charles had not died in Texas around 1900.
I did an "advanced"search of the 1910 census on HeritageQuest for Charles, filling in just the fields for surname, gender, and birthplace. Lo and behold, there was a Charles A. Minton of the right age and birthplace, living in the Los Angeles suburb of San Dimas. Further, he had been married for12 years to a Texas woman. This certainly seemed to be the person in question. And if so, a second marriage had taken place around the time Venna went to Bellingham.
So ... it looks as if only Venna's mother died in that alleged auto accident. The widowed Charles may have sent his young daughter to live with his brother at this point, or perhaps the new stepmother proved too much for her.
An exhaustive search of the previous census (1900) did not show Charles at all and I do not have any idea how he landed in Los Angeles County. He was widowed at the time of his death, so I presume he came north after his second wife died – or maybe not. He is buried in Bellingham, but there is no sign of a spouse there.
As they say, more to come.
[Gwen also said: "An investigator must have curiosity, determination, and an interest in unraveling the "knots" of the past, not just the smooth, obvious strands." Doesn't she sound like a genealogist at heart?]