How do you research someone who was functionally illiterate? How do you learn the details of someone’s life who left absolutely nothing written in their own hand? The answer is simple, but deceptively so. Of course, you have to use only what others have written about them. But conceding that those kinds of sources are your only option doesn't solve the greatest problem with that approach. Since there is nothing written from your subject, there is no list, no master source for who your real sources might be. You know who your subject is but you don't know who wrote about them. So how do you find them? How do you find those sources?
You would correctly start with government documents. You could learn some vital statistics from the various Census records, marriages, births, deaths. Even taxes, court records, military and probate records if you are lucky. But these documents, no matter how useful, can only hint at your subject’s aspirations, disappointments, friendships, and allegiances.
If you are fortunate, your subject’s life intersected with the public consciousness in some way. Although my grandfather was not illiterate, I have been able to learn something more about him because his name shows up in a handful of newspaper articles. Nothing startling or scandalous, but simple events like a Millard County newspaper recording his weekend visit in 1931.
Being Mormon, I have been exposed to the wealth of information written by the ranks of LDS missionaries over nearly two centuries. Some of it personal, but all of it hidden merely because much of it is unsearchable electronically. Jim Conder, an uneducated 19th century man, met dozens of LDS missionaries during the last 33 years of his life. One by one I have created a list of them, often by seeing what other missionaries have written in their journals. Each new – to me – journal entry has the potential of identifying the name of another missionary who in turn wrote his own tidbit about Jim and his family.
Once you have gone through the census and combed the marriage, birth, and death records, you will probably have the basics about a person. But if you want to write more, learn more, and get to know someone on a deeper personal way, there are still many choices to pick from.
- Local histories: Exactly what was historic enough to preserve is a matter of opinion. State and county libraries often have extensive records of what someone thought was important enough to save. The variety of these records never ceases to surprise me. I've seen a collection of high school essays, school yearbooks, newspaper clippings carefully re-typed, a whole community who allowed the handwritten notes in their family bibles to be transcribed, unidentified photos by the hundreds and much more.
- Newspapers: What was news a hundred years ago would surprise you. Some papers printed the guest list at the local hotel each week. Or who was having a party on Saturday night. One ancestor made the papers because some of the animals he was raising for fur escaped their cages. The Utah Digital newspapers project has a large and growing repository (Tennessee, get the hint).
- Letters: These are sometimes printed in newspapers. LDS missionaries commonly sent letters to the editor just so they could be printed in their local paper. But they were also saved and donated to libraries and archives. Who else might have them? Relatives, friends, and who knows. My state has microfilm of people who wrote letters to the governor. Few letters were ever indexed, so get used to reading flowery cursive scripts, one by one.
- Journals & diaries: When written by friends and acquaintances, these can help you learn about some really detailed aspects of your subject’s life. One journal recorded every person the writer helped. From his daily notes I could see who was sick, who had stillborn children, who was having trouble with their landlord, who was growing corn, or watermelon, or tobacco. From that journal I can tell who was the drunkard in the community and who was the expert on herbal folk remedies. But the descendants of these people probably have no idea what has been written about their ancestor.
- City directories: Like the phone book (do we have those anymore?). Not only can you learn a person’s address, but also who was in business. Ours is a society of merchants. Many people tried to make a living by selling something. Most failed at it. But many survived just long enough to get listed.
- Other options? You tell me.