Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)
There’s no way around it: if you want to discover the stories of people who are no longer with us, you will have to do research. I am happy to tell you that research can be a thrilling, exhilarating adventure. You can become a history detective!
Some of the most exciting research sessions were at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Ten years ago, I initiated contact by sending snail-mail letters. Now, at National Archives, you may be able to find the records you are looking for on-line. Or you may determine that you must visit in person. If you have the time and resources to make the trip, I highly recommend it. It took about an hour the first time I went–less the second, to provide the necessary ID to get an official visitor’s badge.
Once you have the badge, you can go as often as you want for a year. Each time, you request specific boxes of records that you want to see. Then you wait until someone comes with a cart bearing file boxes full of original documents that, in my case, were nearly 150 years old. You have to leave your coat, briefcase, purse, etc. in a secure locker, but you may bring paper for taking notes, your laptop, and digital camera into the reading room. It’s like going back in time; the old paper looks, feels, and smells different.
The earliest note I found in Entry #1567, Box #3, Record Group 92: Arrivals & Departures Northern VA – Oct 1863-May 1864 was exactly what I was hoping for:This was the beginning of what I learned from the Dispatch Entries of the USMRR of Northern Virginia; for I spent several days there.
The deck logs from the ironclad Montauk–on which John’s older brother Francis served as a coal heaver–were not available until my second visit, a few years later. I was amazed to discover the casual comment: “Francis Baily [sic] (Coll[ier]) in double irons by order of the Comd. Officer: Insubordination.”
Equally thrilling, were the Archives of Ontario in Toronto, where John and Francis grew up and where a reference librarian introduced me to one of my favorite resources: the City Directory.
Most large US cities have City Directories. Toronto City Directories are special for several reasons: they date back to 1833; they are organized both in alphabetical order by last name and by street address; and they are digitized. Go to Toronto Directories and you can access them from anywhere!
Some of the Buffalo, NY City Directories are also on line at Buffalo Research. I am sure there are many others.
City Directories tell stories. I found them more useful than Census Reports because they seem to include more individuals; but it’s best to search both. Like Census Reports, City Directories include names and occupations of everyone living in the household, but Census Reports also report age, country of origin, and a few other bits of information. When Directories are cross-referenced like those in Toronto, you find the individual(s) you are looking for, then you can check the street guide to learn who the neighbors were and what jobs they did. If you look at several years in succession, City Directories will reveal quite a bit about what happened to your characters.
We drove directly from Toronto to Jackson, MI, where John Henry Bailey, Jr. lived nearly half his life. At the Jackson District Library, I headed for the City Directories, which yielded all sorts of fascinating nuggets. I also spent hours reading micro-film copies of Jackson newspapers dating from that period–again with highly gratifying results. On several occasions while writing the book, I realized I needed a little more information from one of the City Directories or from a newspaper of a particular date. When I sent my request to the volunteers in the Jackson Library Reference Department–along with a small donation–I soon received copies of the information I had asked for. (I have since sent a copy of my book to add to the Jackson History section of the Library.)
From Jackson, we went to the Headquarters of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen in Cleveland,OH. John was a member of the BLE from 1867 until his death in 1900. In 1875, his brother Francis wrote: “…I have seen your name as Chief in the Journal of the BLE, frequently borrowing it for the purpose.” In 2003, I wrote to the current president of the BLE to request permission to visit their archives and read old copies of the Journal to see if Francis was serious. Permission granted, I spent a wonderful day learning that the Journal packed a lot into every issue: stories of dramatic accidents or averted accidents and other more heart-warming events, exhortations to members to be upstanding citizens and avoid consumption of alcohol, lists of men who had been dropped from the BLE because of bad behavior, lists of widows who were awarded pensions via their husbands’ insurance policies, and lists of current officers of each Division. Francis was joking: John did not become Chief of Div. 2 until 1881; he then served as Chief through 1885. I also borrowed two books– which I delayed much too long in returning.
I spent days in the New York State Library in Albany, NY–on two separate trips. John Henry Bailey saved twenty-seven letters that Francis sent him between 1863 and 1899. Francis was on the Albany Police Force and often referred to stories that had been published about him in Albany newspapers. I was able to find those stories and others on microfilm. Of course, I also learned a lot from the Albany City Directories and from several volumes in the Albany History section of the library.
Although I live thousands of miles from where my characters lived and worked, libraries near Portland, OR furnished an enormous amount of crucial information. Early in the course of this project, I enrolled in writing courses at Portland State University; thus I had access to the PSU Library and its impressive history section. I read about the history of Canada and Ulster and learned about 19th century medicine.
Since John Henry Bailey, Jr. was a locomotive engineer, I had to learn how a steam engine works. My best source was Matthias N. Forney’s Catechism of the Locomotive, both the 1874 and 1883 editions, which I found in the Reference Department of the Multnomah County Library. At the same library, I was able to find many useful Census Records–including passport application information–in Ancestry Library Edition, which you can use at no charge in most libraries.
A reference librarian at the architecturally-amazing new library in Seattle introduced me to Ancestry Library Edition . The last last anyone heard of Henry, youngest brother of John and Francis, he’d been seen in Seattle. I went to look for him in the City Directories, where there was, indeed, a “Harry J. Bailey,” who changed jobs and addresses with a frequency that was consistent with the impulsive behavior seen by both John and Francis in the 1870s. Harry was never in one place long enough to show up in a census report.
I used the Washington County Library for inter-library loans because I lived in that county during the research phase of my project. I had to figure out why a young railroad worker in Toronto, Ontario went to Alexandria, VA in early 1864 to take a job on the US Military Railroad of Northern Virginia. Because many letters in his collection mention newspapers, I thought it likely that he was influenced by what he read in the Toronto Globe (now the Toronto Globe and Mail). I spent days squinting at the microfilm reader at the Main Library, scrolling through a microfilm copy of the entire 1863 Toronto Globe–and I found what I was looking for!