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Genealogy: Research 101 or how to ask specific questions

Steamboat research for the I & M Canal, William Schuler pilot
Steamboat research for the I & M Canal, William Schuler pilot
scanned by Selma Blackmon

In family history research, every piece of information offers details and questions. How does the genealogist transition from detail to questions? In this article, the family historian will learn by example how to ask specific questions.

This example is of my research trip planned from Georgia to Illinois, expressly the National Archives at Chicago. As a volunteer for the Atlanta branch of the National Archives many questions sound like this, “Give me all you have on steamboats. I am looking for information on my grandpa and his time on the canal.” Yes, we encourage your visit to YOUR archives. But, please come with detailed information on the research topic and a identifiable goal.

A copy of William Schuler’s 1918 pilot license started this pursuit. The copy was obtained from the National Archives, St. Louis, MO. A newspaper clipping lists the name of his steamboat as the “Niagara.” A general question was sent by email to the Genealogical and Local History Department of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Ohio. My return response was “Yes” the library has a very large collection with information on ALL canals and waterways. A digital article from library’s archives of the The Waterways Journal uncovers that Capt. W.H. Wallace of Joliet, Illinois, is the proprietor of a fleet of nine boats including one steamer named the “Niagara.” As Lockport and Joliet are located next to each other on the Illinois and Michigan Canal could William Schuler be one of the pilots for Capt. Wallace?

Specific research for the National Archives at Chicago:

  • Is William Schuler a pilot for Capt. W.H. Wallace on the steamboat “Niagara”?
  • Record Group 41 contains the Marine Inspection and Navigation records. Will inspection records for the “Niagara” be on file? Are cargo records available?
  • Record Group 36 contains records of accidents and engineering work on the towpath. William Schuler’s father John was the pilot of a mule powered tug boat. In 1885, the towpath bank caved in and three mules drowned. Will a record of the accident and work on the towpath be available?

Stay tuned, an article with the answers to the above questions will appear after my trip to the National Archives at Chicago.

Questions or comments, please write to Selma Blackmon.

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