Shut Up, and Keep Digging
October 13, 2009
Q: Mommy, Mommy! I don’t want to go to China!
A: Shut up, and keep digging.
That’s how I feel researching my family history sometimes. I keep digging and digging, and the hole gets bigger and bigger, but I never seem to arrive.
Case in point: my great-great grandfather, William Thomas. I’ve been searching for his death certificate for twenty years. It doesn’t help that both of his names are very common, but even so … twenty years? It’s in the 20th century, for heaven’s sake!
But I am a bulldog, and once I get a hold of a bone, I keep digging at it.
He was not in the state where I expected him (Kentucky). Nor was he in the county in West Virginia (Logan) where I have looked for him.
He lived much longer than I thought, so my searches were futile back in the day when you had to specify a span of predetermined years.
He’s listed only by his initials, so he didn’t come up when I initially searched the West Virginia database. In fact, they’ve got his middle initial wrong, so even if I had searched for his initials, he would not have come up.
His wife wasn’t much easier. Her name is Sarah Thomas — equally common. But at least with Sarah, I had an idea when she died (the 1940s or 1950s — 1954, as it turned out). And I knew the family had moved to West Virginia by then.
When I realized through census work that many of their children lived from 1910 through 1930 in the county where Sarah died, I went back to the West Virginia database and searched just that county for every person with the last name Thomas. Then I ground through hundreds of death certificates. In the early years, I found several I didn’t know about — mostly infants that died between censuses, but about halfway through it got tedious. I almost bailed, certain there was nothing more to find.
I did mention I’m a bulldog, right? I never let go of a bone, and this might have been a tiny, dry bone, but it was still a bone. I kept digging, and it paid off.
But I’m going to take the lesson in the photo above: if you have to dig to China, rent a backhoe. Anybody who’s ever searched for death certificates by sending $4 to a Vital Records department to have them search a span of two years recognizes things like the WV database and Ancestry.com for what they are: very powerful tools to help you dig.