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Genealogy and Creativity

Originally published 13 May 2014

If someone told you to think creatively about your genealogical research, what would you envision? Genealogists have worked for years to promote evidence based research for the discipline. So what's this about creativity?

According to Elizabeth Shown Mills, a very well-known genealogist, we should employ creativity in our genealogical research and while attacking brick walls. This means incorporating our knowledge of other areas such as geography, weather, politics, race, religion, law, psychology, etc. to develop new hypothesis for our difficult research questions.

During a session of the National Genealogical Society 2014 Conference in Richmond, Virginia, Ms. Shown Mills walked her audience through a wonderful example of how she used her creativity to determine if two men appearing on census records in adjoining states were the same man. She gathered all the evidence she had located to date. Then she analyzed the documentation for Friends, Associates, and Neighbors, something Ms. Shown Mills calls our ancestors' FAN Club. In the 19th century US, people didn't usually go far to find a mate; often a neighbor became one's spouse. Often people who lived next to each other at that time were related. I've found this to be true many times in my own family.

When the typical avenues did not yield an answer, Ms. Shown Mills thought creatively by locating and reviewing marriage certificates of associates of the man, analysis of property records, property maps for people who lived along a particular creek, (the name of which could easily have been discounted as a trivial detail), and maps of counties before boundary lines were redrawn. Before the problem was solved, Ms. Shown Mills had employed sociology, geography, statistics and more. --And this research was based in what she termed a "burned" county where government records had been destroyed.

Her presentation caused me reflect on a genealogical problem that I've been trying to solve for quite some time. Where was my 3rd great grandfather, Willard Fleming, during the 1850 and 1860 censuses? His headstone indicates he died in 1861, but I have been unable to locate him in those years despite reviewing Federal, State, and County census records, property records, wills, probate, newspaper articles from that period, as well as searches on,, and Where did this guy go?

Thinking creatively, so far I've come up with the following list:

  • His name was incorrectly transcribed and I have yet to determine the spelling variation

  • He was living with a sibling outside his county/state

  • His father and mother were feeble and he lived with them for a time before their deaths

  • He was in jail or a mental institution

  • He was a Forty-Niner who stayed in California for a long time

  • He became ill or injured while traveling and could not return home

  • He left the country

  • He became estranged from his family

My mission now is to follow Elizabeth Shown Mills' methodology. First, I will gather all the documents I have about Willard Fleming and carefully review them. I will note names other than Fleming. I will look for and take note of seemingly trivial information. I will analyze and develop a hypothesis. Finally, I will think creatively about obtaining indirect evidence that will enable me to test my hypothesis. Please wish me luck.

Now, I issue a challenge to you. Revisit one of your difficult genealogical problems. Follow the above methodology and see what happens. I would love to hear where it leads you.

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