Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I can see you putting on your bifocals and then scratching your head to figure out what kind of a picture I'm using for my blog today.

Unless you read Latin, don't strain yourself too much, because the writing is completely in Latin and simply says that Robert B. Dobbins has completed the requirements to graduate from Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. About midway through you can see his name - Robertum B. Dobbins. The year is 1799.

I have often given a genealogy talk called "Research Surprises: Making Them Happen." The original talk was written back in 1985, when one's research was limited to sending letters, hiring researchers or traveling to distant places in an attempt to fill in the blanks on one's Family Group Sheets.

Since the advent of the Internet, I've had to change my talk a bit, and it is one of those changes that my photo above illustrates.

Within a year after I started doing my Dobbins research (1984) I had located (and been provided a copy of) a report of the 1911 Dobbins family reunion in Fulton County, Illinois. In that report there is a statement that the patriarch of the family, Rev. Robert B. Dobbins, had graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary and his Diploma was in Latin and was hanging on the wall of a certain family member.

Now in the intervening years this diploma's whereabouts had been lost to further researchers. I had given my best efforts at finding out if the information on the diploma mentioned in this family booklet was true or false, even to the extent of having a nice chat with an Archivist at Princeton. No record of Robert B. Dobbins existed there, although they were very helpful in suggesting other avenues of research.

After Internet research became a possibility I did plenty of searches for information on this old fellow - who by the way is my 3rd great grandfather - but really didn't find much that I didn't already have. And after 20 years of research, there was a whole cadre of us descendants who were in touch constantly, sharing with each other every tidbit that came our way.

In early 2004 my phone rang one night and a very excited Dobbins researcher told me quickly to go on E-Bay, that RBD's Diploma was up for sale and she was going to try to get it for us. I offered to help. To make a long story short, she did not make the top bid, and we learned later that the new owner was none other than Hampden Sydney college in Virginia. That was ok with us, because we now knew where it was and could go visit it anytime we wanted.

How to you make research surprises happen?

1) Do not believe everything you read; wait until you can prove it to believe it. Until then, it is just a theory, a likelihood, or a possibility. I always call things like this, things that are close but not exact, right church, wrong pew!

2) Do not stop with one search. Keep your eyes open. Especially with the internet what isn't there today may just be there tomorrow.

3) Keep contact with your other researching friends and relatives. Something you may never have known sometimes crops up in someone else's material.

4) Cultivate contacts in various areas. Over time and as they get to know you and your needs better, you might be surprised that they will actually contact you with information you didn't even know to ask. It has happened to me many times, both "BI and AI" (Before and After Internet). If you need them to do something very specific for you, pay them what they are worth to you if they don't already have a set fee.

Things like this are what keep us plugging away, moving our lines ancestor by ancestor, and learning enough about them to turn them into people we know, not just names on a pedigree chart.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Is that Archibald Alexander's signature on the diploma? He was the first professor and effective founder of Princeton Theological Seminary. Maybe your ancestor went to study under him at Princeton which was a Presbyterian seminary.