Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Three (3) Questions Rule

Expanding Your Research
In each class, workshop and presentation I encourage genealogists and family historians to create a minimum of three questions for each document/evidence/newspaper clip, etc. they touch. In a recent presentation, I was asked to give an example.  The idea is: each document leads you to not only answers, but your next set of questions.

 Here is an example (a reprint from 2010) from a one sentence newspaper article. This lengthy sentence gives us a plethora of clues, hints and information. So many more keywords, questions and research ideas could come from this one sentence, but let's start with a few.

"Colored Man Held to Answer
        As an aftermath of the recent melee which took place in the Dunbar club, a society of colored men of Tonopah, Dewitt Morris was bound over under $5000 bonds to appear begore [sic] the grand jury on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon, it being alleged that he shot his brother, Schuyler Morris, in the leg during the heat of excitement.” Nevada State Journal, Reno, 11/12/1915

Key Words
Before we ever get to the reason Dewitt was so excited he shot his brother, this one sentence article needs to be dissected. To put it briefly, this sentence gives us a peek at Tonopah and its “colored” community in 1915. Let’s not make the mistake of stereotyping or over generalizing, but there are tons of researchable topics in this one sentence. Let’s just review some of the key words:
  1. There was a melee, which indicates there might have been an opposing side to the “society” or they were attacking one another.
  2. There was a Dunbar Club. Who owned it? Who frequented it? Was it the known meeting place for “melees.”
  3. There was a “society of colored men of Tonopah.” Was membership based on social standing? Were they recognized by the community and periodically mentioned in the paper?
  4. Tonopah in 1915 must have had a way of sustaining “social clubs.” What industry or resources were in the area? Was this common behavior for Tonopah’s citizens?

"Colored" Men of Tonopah

Melee Madness
The melee madness was summarized in an 118 page court document. Dewitt (Dee) Morris owned the Pullman Saloon (with a piano player) and he also owned other rental property. The shooting occurred at the open house “masquerade ball” of a new rival “joint” called the Dunbar Literary Club where supposedly the U.S. State Senator was going to attend. Membership was .50¢ per month. Fighting began over a blackjack misdeal, at the masquerade ball, and there was excessive drinking. The newspaper heading was misleading, since the court order was due to Dee hitting another fellow over the head with the gun resulting in its accidental discharge. Schuyler was shot, but was expected to recover.

Dee’s obituary in 1944 fills in a bit more. Tonopah was a “silver ore” town when he arrived as a “pioneer Negro resident.” He belonged to the Masonic lodge and owned another saloon in Tonopah at the time of his death. Even a photo was given. 

The Rest of the Story
Discovering some of this background information, or as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story,” helps us to unravel the social environment of Tonopah in 1915 by giving us a glimpse of the lifestyle of some of the people. This allows the researcher to write not just events, but also circumstances, giving life to our ancestor’s stories. There’s so much more to learn about Tonopah and the life of Dewitt, and by investigating keywords on each document, the researcher can create a clearer picture.

Why not give life to your ancestor’s stories?

Kathleen Brandt


  1. I enjoyed the story and the example. The 3 question rule shows that we need to read between the lines to obtain the filling between the facts.

  2. Thanks for the important reminder Kathleen that these documents not only answer questions but raise new ones - so important for those of us who are trying to get more complete pictures of not just our ancestors but the world in which they lived. Will try to remember to employ the 3 question rule from now on!

  3. Kathleen, enjoyed this example. Even though I've not gotten much done this year, I have taken on a new mind sight asking more questions such as what other documents might be available, etc., etc. Thanks for this timely post. I will definitely try to remember to utilize the 3 question rule going forward.

    Thanks for this post.