While it must have been a darling occasion—Chicago friends’ social calendar event of the year—the 1938 marriage of Helen Creahan and Robert Lee Woods ushered in a phase of family history research that I find most challenging: researching surnames as commonplace as Woods.
The first step, admittedly, wasn’t so difficult. The young couple made their home with Helen’s parents for a few years—conveniently coinciding with the tabulation of the 1940 census. Thus, I got a head start with the record of the Woods’ first child, Joan.
It wasn’t until long afterwards—and after sidestepping a tempting snare to accept, wholesale, some shaky-leaf “hints” extended to me on Ancestry.com—that I discovered any information on the Woods’ second child, and, indeed, regarding the final chapter in their own life story.
It was a dubious snare, that Ancestry “hint” that sought to convince me that Helen May Creahan Woods had ultimately reverted to her maiden name—possibility of divorce hinted at, here?—and spent her last days near Buffalo, New York. It seemed to be a reasonable hint. After all, the only date of birth I had found, up to that point, was the census estimate of her birth year as 1916. The Social Security Death Index helpfully suggested that the date should rather be July 31, 1917. Some Public Record Index entries shouted their agreement by supplying that middle initial “M”—see? that surely fits nicely with Helen’s middle name, May—to convince all unwary family history passers-by that this Helen M. Creahan died on September 27, 2008, in Erie County, New York.
Perhaps she did.
I, however—and this may come as no surprise to you—was hesitant about swallowing that presumption. After all, what happened to Robert? Not everyone who lived through the tempestuous sixties and beyond must yield to the midlife crisis scourge of divorce. I needed some additional information before I could assume this was a valid hint.
Sometimes, when Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org seem to come up empty-handed, I take my questions to Google to see what might happen. Admittedly, there is a gap of time between those archived moments considered old enough to be called “historic” and those dates new enough to be claimed by the “digital age,”—and that is one of the hardest time periods to research. But sometimes Google can cut through that dilemma.
Sure enough, I struck just the right combination of search terms—juxtaposing names Helen, Creahan and Woods—to find an index created by the Michigan City, Indiana, Public Library. While Michigan City isn’t as cutting edge as Monroe County in its services to deliver obituary copies to the ever-demanding American genealogy-researching public, it provides at least an electronic starting point. There in the sixty one listings for all Woods obituaries ever published in the Michigan City News Dispatch was an entry for Robert L. Woods. Granted, there were two different entries for a Helen Woods, siphoning off some of my confidence in this resource—after all, to even find out which of the two was the correct entry for our Helen, I’d have to snail mail my five bucks to them, along with a stamped, self-addressed envelope—but there was one more line in the index that buoyed my hope: an entry for someone named Charles Creahan Woods.
Who else would name her kid Charles Creahan Woods? This, in my opinion, was a promising sign.
The trail didn’t end there. As many letters to penpals as I put out in my younger years, I now am awful at playing the snail mail game, so I knew I had to look for an alternative. That, I found in one subscription service that happened to carry the Michigan City newspaper: GenealogyBank. Thankfully, the younger Woods’ obituary fit within the time period carried by GenealogyBank and though the man no longer lived in town, because of his parents’ roots there, the paper had carried a report of his passing.
That, in the end, was the very thing standing between me and getting sucked in by "helpful" hints that would have led me in the wrong direction in my research. Call it a sixth sense developed after years of steeping in genealogical material, but it can also be beginner’s luck just as easily. Whichever way it is, I’m thankful for the ability to keep looking until that second bit of corroborating evidence finds its way into my hands.