Every time that I do more research on the house I have to filter through a lot of information and decide what is reliable and what might be straying from the truth. I was fortunate to have great history teachers in high school and college who taught me how to research well. As I’ve researched recently, I started thinking about what processes I use and have come up with a list of rules for historical research.
- First and foremost, never trust any source. What I mean by this is that no source on its own is reliable without being backed up by additional sources. Census records are notorious for being unreliable. Part of the problem is that census takers would often times ask neighbors for information about a resident if they were not home. Neighbors tend not to be great about know what country your mother was born in or how many years you’ve been married. Generally if I see the same “fact” in three separate sources, I take it to be true.
- When you look through a modern lens, history is incredibly biased. Not only do all of history’s prejudices make their way into historical documents, but past historians had a very narrow way of reporting things. Historians tended to only write about people who were wealthy or powerful or profoundly impacted a certain event (but they are happy to negatively talk about the scapegoat of the day). Poor immigrants like the man who built our house don’t get written about, but his neighbor who was an elected township officer got a full paragraph mention in a book I read written in 1881. This is not to say that information can’t be found about these average joes. Census records, property records, city directories and the like provide records of everyone (for the most part). You just need to find the right documents.
- Get the whole story. It’s tempting to just focus on the particular subject of your research, but no person, place, or event exists in a vacuum. People have neighbors that impact their life, places are surrounded by other places that tend to be interconnected, and events usually have a list of things that cause them and a list of things that are caused by them. For example, as I mentioned in my previous post, John Blomberg, the man who built our house, boarded with a man at a neighboring property before building the house. I have just learned, by looking into that other man, that the house he lived in, and thus the house where John Blomberg boarded, is the house that was torn down on the property were the monks now live.
- As strange as this is to say, before you go digging in historical records, learn 19th century cursive. Before typewriters, everything was written by hand and was in cursive, but not the cursive that we are taught today. Be prepared for “S”s that look like “L”s, extra curves on letters, and the letter “ſ” (pronounced like “s”), etc. Some documents that were hurriedly written are almost unintelligible and require careful study to decipher what they say.
- On a related note, don’t expect spelling to be consistent in different documents. I’m not talk just about places changing name by losing or adding an apostrophe or Highwood Station becoming Highwood Park, I’m also talking about people’s names. I’ve seen three separate spellings of the last name of one of the major landowners to the north of where our house was built (photo above). Part of this can be chalked up to Rule #1; a record taker may have written down someone’s name wrong. But the moral of the story is to be sure to check similar, alternate spellings of places and people’s names when doing research or you may miss something.
- Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of your research. It can be daunting trying to research people that historians didn’t find important (see Rule #2) living in a place like McLean Township which no historian really ever thought to write about. However, the people that came before you left a mark in one way or another on your house, the surrounding neighborhood, or the people that they interacted with. Everyone has a story that is worth telling and the time you spend learning about and telling that story is a great service toward preserving the memory of those that came before us.