In Defense of the Curious Meander

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” 51

In May’s issue, I wrote about the importance of starting your research plan with a focused question based on known information.[1] Doing so significantly increases the chances you’ll achieve your research goal as well as the efficiency with which you’ll reach it. Adhere to that advice consistently, and you will absolutely be a better researcher.

But I am nothing if not a bundle of contradictions. And I certainly don’t follow my own advice at every turn. So in this article I make an argument for setting aside at least some time in your research to explore without a focused question, to wander off the beaten path and sniff around, to roam aimlessly until you stumble onto answers you weren’t looking for, sometimes to questions you didn’t know you had.

I was researching Mary (—?—) (Adams) Ryan (say, 1778–1838) and her son Joseph Adams, sea captain, of New York City to determine her family of origin. A thorough search of Adamses and Ryans of the City had revealed no particular connection to any of them. It was an idle meander that led to a tantalizing land record in Putnam County, up the Hudson River. In that transaction, Mary and her son Joseph Adams joined three Bassfords and a Waldron to jointly sell land as heirs of Thomas Bassford. In this case, having just discovered a Putnam County connection for Mary, I would have eventually found the land record anyway. But it was the end of a long day, and I had stopped researching according to plan. It was an idle meander that led me to an online post that referenced the record, sending me directly to the deed. (Don’t get too excited. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how she and her son are heirs of Bassford. It’s not straightforward.)

I was researching John Gregory (1798–1842), who died intestate in Delaware County, Indiana. I had already gotten the probate records produced during the settlement of his estate from the county Probate Court, via FamilySearch. I contacted the Probate Court directly to see if they had additional probate records there that hadn’t been microfilmed. They did not. It was idle meandering that led me to discover there were, in fact, more probate records for John. A set of probate records had somehow been separated from the probate court, went to Ball State University for a number of years, then recently transferred to the Muncie Public Library. Those additional settlement papers (and the names on them) were critical in placing John’s wife, Nancy (Shideler) Gregory with her correct family of origin.

I was researching Andrew Williams (abt. 1794–1878), a free African American of Seneca Village (now part of New York City’s Central Park), when idle meandering led me to a newspaper article about the felony case of perjury against Andrew’s son, Jeremiah Williams. He was convicted and imprisoned for lying to the courts about his father’s estate and absconding with his sister’s and nephew’s inheritance. The District Attorney’s case file included pages and pages of testimony about who was related to whom in the Williams family. I hadn’t thought to look into criminal courts after Andrew’s death to see if one of his heirs committed a felony in the course of settling his father’s estate. I certainly didn’t know it would lead to a significantly expanded family tree.

I was researching George Woodcock (abt. 1845–1864), Civil War soldier of Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, and his mother Dorothea (Hoof) Woodcock (abt. 1828–?). George’s father Caleb died in 1855. Did Dorothea die shortly thereafter? No Dorothea Woodcock appears in 1860 or subsequent censuses, or in any records in that timeframe. It was an idle meander through the card catalog of New-York Historical Society that led me to a volume of the Pennsylvania State Agency, a Civil War-era agency intended to provide relief to Pennsylvania volunteers and their families. That volume ultimately showed that Dorothea had remarried by 1864.

Yep, you read that right. The solution to a Pennsylvania problem was found in New York City on a Saturday afternoon when I was bored and decided to search the N-YHS card catalog for any Pennsylvania-related manuscripts. I wasn’t even looking to solve any particular problem. I just have a large swath of ancestors from Pennsylvania; I was curious; and N-YHS is eleven blocks from my apartment. My idle meander led me to discover a series of passes for the transportation of dead soldiers’ bodies, one of which told me that George’s mother was then (1864) known as “Doratha Decker” and that she asked for a pass to take George’s body back to Coffee Run in Huntingdon County.

Maybe you’re familiar with this kind of meandering. Maybe you’re overly familiar. But if you’ve never tried it, give it a whirl. Try two different versions: one in which you’re trying to solve a particular problem, and one in which you have no specific problem to solve. My constant companions for this kind of meandering are Google, library catalogs, and open shelves. Start with whatever is nearest you and just start exploring. It’s hardly an efficient process, and there will be plenty of days in which you stumble across absolutely nothing of interest. But when you do discover gold, it will be gold well worth the mining.

[1]Aaron Goodwin, “What’s Your Problem?” NGS Monthly, May 2019 ( : 5 June 2019).

  1. July 22, 2019 7:10 pm
  2. July 23, 2019 5:44 pm

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