Research Note: Don’t Overlook the Simple Way

Chris Dunham at The Genealogue has made genealogical “challenges” a somewhat regular feature of his blog. These are quite interesting, fun, and test one’s rapid research skills. I enjoy them a lot, because I always learn something, either about the particular subject or about some research resource I may have not known about before. I always have to work fast if I want to post an answer because the East Coast folks have a time zone advantage!

Sometimes, a Challenge is so complex or obscure that it takes days and many folks working to figure it out. Sometimes they are disarmingly simple.

A few days ago, Chris’s Challenge #126 was set up about “Stephen and Emilie Preen, who lived in Newark, New Jersey, in 1900.” There was this link to a discussion thread about Preen family history. The Challenge was to discover Who was their very famous step-grandchild?
The link gave some important clues. [Don't look at the comments to Chris's Challenge #126 yet if you want to learn what I learned!]

The Challenge went unanswered for an unusually long time. I really didn’t have time to do it, but I took a shot anyway. I first used some of the clues in the discussion thread along with census records to determine the names of the Preens’ children. Then using census records and birth and marriage databases, I tried to determine their grandchildren. I had to check each of the children. A couple were quickly eliminated, and I soon focused on Sydney David Preen as the likely step-father. The somewhat unusual spelling of his first name likely came from the fact (found in the discussion thread and confirmed in census and passenger records) that Stephen and Emilie Preen had lived in Australia in New South Wales for several years. Indeed, their two oldest children, though not Sydney, had been born in Australia.

I then tracked Sydney to California and this made sense because perhaps the step-child was in the entertainment industry. Well, I wrestled with Sydney’s records for quite awhile before giving up, partly because, as I said, I really didn’t have time, and in part because I was now convinced that the answer could be found only by using some obscure database or research technique.

But the next day, I noticed in the comments that someone had come up with the right answer. Unfortunately, she didn’t describe how she got there. [Don't look yet!]. But I discovered that knowing what was in the discussion thread or even just the question itself, a good thinker could come up with the answer in just a matter of minutes.

Try it yourself. Take the information in the question itself and find the name of their famous step-grandchild in fifteen minutes. Go ahead, we’ll wait here.

–Fifteen Minute Interval–
Now, how long did it really take you to come up with John Wayne?

Here’s how to do it: Look up the names of the Preen children in the 1900 census. “Google” each one in turn. For Charles Preen, you’ll get about 98 hits, which you can click through quickly with no mention of anyone famous. For Albert Preen you get nine hits; again, not seeming to lead to anyone “famous.” Now for Sydney Preen, you’ll get five hits; again nobody of special notoriety. But then, the thinking researcher would decide that “Sydney” is not the only way, nor the typical American way, to spell that name for a male. So now you search Google for “Sidney” Preen, and guess what? The first two of five mentions refer to John Wayne’s autobiography. Time elapsed: less than fifteen minutes.

Lesson: don’t overlook the simple ways!

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3 Responses to “Research Note: Don’t Overlook the Simple Way”

  • Janice says:

    Very slick, Craig!


  • Chris says:

    I figured that the Sydney/Sidney spellings would trip some people up. “Preen” is a pretty uncommon surname (which might have made the challenge easier), but there is very little info online about Wayne’s step-father.

    By the way, it all started with this Ask MetaFilter thread. I found the answer in the California Death Index, which is how I learned that she had remarried.

  • Kate says:

    I turned to Google after exhausting all the usual sources in a search for the parents of my 8x great grandfather and the second or third result was a link to a message on a history forum which had some data about him. I contacted the poster who responded with a huge amount of info about the family. So, I agree! The simple ways can pay dividends.

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