Friday, June 5, 2020

Why I Can Plunge Down Rabbit Holes
With Wild Abandon

Ever since Lewis Carroll sent the unwitting Alice scurrying to follow this muttering miniature gentleman down his rabbit hole, the term has been synonymous with hopeless chases. Those, of course, are what we are often warned against when we are tempted to detour from our intended research objectives.

What we forget, however, is the point of research: to answer questions. To answer questions, we must, by necessity, first have questions that need answers. The dilemma arises when we equate all questions with what some laughingly call Bright Shiny Objects. Following the trail as we chase after potential answers is anything but a diversion: it is our method for bringing us closer to the information we seek.

It may have seemed like a stab in the dark when I went searching for any news reports regarding the several family members I was documenting in Savannah named George Mercer. Admittedly, it is quite possible that totally non-related people could have had the same name as those two brothers. After all, Savannah in 1900 had fifty four thousand people and got nothing but more populated as the decades wore on. Chances were quite good that chasing after a randomly discovered news clipping could mean I had just struck out.

But I had a question which needed an answer: could I find any additional verification that two brothers actually had the same given name as their father? I wanted to know what had become of each of them. Census records—which trail off at 1940 right now—could not provide me any answer to this question. I needed to look at more current documents.

Perhaps the problem erupts when a question, rather than leading straight to an answer, sets off a trail of further questions. But even in a tangled web of questions, we eventually can discern a network of relationships. Thus, the "random" facts of the Mercer surname, the Mercer home, and the Mercer murder all centralized under unifying information—hints like the famous relative named Johnny Mercer, a celebrity unfamiliar to me, engendered yet another question.

I can plunge down those nebulous rabbit holes simply because it is questions which lead me there. And it is the continued volley of questions as I continue to make my way which will keep me from getting ensnared in a totally unrelated issue. The key is to hold close to those questions and that original purpose, and be able to realize when the trail has truly gone cold.

If questions are what drive our research in the first place, we need to have enough faith in our ability to sniff out a good question and differentiate it from an unproductive question. More than that, we need to be able to shift, while in progress, when we discover that our original hunch was not as clear a signal as we had hoped at the first. But we certainly don't need to shy away from questions; they are what can potentially lead us to answers.

Even questions that lead us to dead ends are valuable: they mean we tested a hypothesis and demonstrated that it was not correct. That is also a useful bit of knowledge to document; it saves us from going down that trail a second time. Those who know how to fail correctly are often the first to make it past the finish line of success, as well. A flexible researcher can learn from her mistakes—and put even that benefit to good use.

All told, because of my infinite faith in the value of questions, I fear no rabbit hole. In fact—you may have already guessed this—I thrive on them. If it weren't for those "Bright Shiny Objects," I wouldn't have benefited from many of the outrageous discoveries I have made in pursuing my family's history.

It's okay to ask questions. Give yourself permission to do so, and let them lead you down your next rabbit trail. Whether, in plunging down that rabbit hole, you find the answer you were seeking or gain some valuable insight even through a failed mission, find a way to learn from the experiment, and it will benefit you.

Above: "The White Rabbit," Sir John Tenniel's illustration from The Nursery "Alice," the 1890 publication of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; image courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. I spent last night down in a hole myself. I had my gg grandfather's sisters common name. I am missing that 1890 census. I am not sure she exists or is using a middle or random misheard name in 1880. She could be married to someone by 1900. I found someone with the same first name and general area. Found her husband and there was the story! Newspaper clippings and articles, lists of children, etc. I was going to town until I finally found the marriage license. Wrong maiden name. Sigh. Several hours later, thanks to an obituary trail in my pandemic splurge - Access Newspapers, I did find the right lady. But gosh, what a story that wasn't mine.

    1. Some people do have the most fascinating stories, don't they?! I'm glad you did locate the right relative, Miss Merry. This was beginning to sound like one of those "exhaustive" searches we hear others speak of. That 1890 census turns out to be the crucial missing link for so many cases.

  2. Hello, I came across your blog yesterday while looking for information about my grandfather, H.M. "Pete" Chitwood and discovered your 2014 information about Chevis Davis Chitwood Kite. She was my great grandmother. My mother, Marsha Chitwood Edwards and I would love to talk with you about the information in your blog. Please let me know the best way to get in touch with you. I would love to talk.

    1. Thanks for getting in touch! I believe you are the one who also connected via Facebook message, so I have sent you a reply there. Looking forward to talking more!

  3. I often feel I've nowhere left to search but down the rabbit holes ;-)

    1. You've certainly got a unique set of circumstances in your research, Dara, but you do seem to come up with several inventive approaches to tackle the dearth of records. I know I'm impressed at your efforts!


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