Tuesday, June 28, 2005

History Defectives

History Detectives on PBS is a show I really want to enjoy. The premise is one that should hearten any genealogist: follow four researchers as they use "traditional investigative techniques, modern technologies, and plenty of legwork" to solve mysteries submitted by viewers. In fact, some of the mysteries entail genealogical research—like last year's episode featuring an detained Chinese immigrant, and a case two years ago involving letters written by abolitionist John Brown.

But inevitably the four researchers miss important clues, skip obvious steps, or jump to shaky conclusions. Last night's episode was par for the course. Mystery number one required that they find out whether the uncle of two viewers built the engine for Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. After some false starts, the researcher consulted an aviation expert, who pointed him toward an article published in 1970. The subject of the article was the uncle in question, who, as it turns out, did build Lindbergh's engine.

Granted, the article was published in some obscure journal. But the first rule of genealogy (or maybe it's the fourth or fifth) is this: Find out if someone else has already published an article on the mystery you're trying to solve.

The second mystery solved on the show—concerning a poison pin commissioned by the CIA—was handled pretty well, and was solved to my satisfaction. Since this doesn't fit with my thesis that the History Detectives are nitwits, I will ignore it.

The third was the worst of the bunch. A woman had found a blurry photograph of men on horseback, inscribed with the words "Geronimo saluting a crowd of 100,000 people and surrounded by U.S. soldiers at Ranch 101." The woman supposed that "Ranch 101" was the one owned by her ancestor in New Mexico, which sent the History Detective assigned to the case off to Santa Fe in hot pursuit. There she ran smack into a dead end, but was quickly rerouted by a fellow researcher to Oklahoma, where she discovered that the photograph depicted a staged event at a Wild-West-themed ranch, at which Geronimo was a main attraction.

The mystery was solved, certainly, but one important step was skipped. Try this experiment yourself. Go to Google, and type in the following query:

"Ranch 101" Geronimo soldiers -"history detectives"

(The last phrase needs to be excluded, because of recent publicity about the PBS program.) Only one search result is found: a page from Oklahoma Historical Resources—Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch. Browse the site for a while and you will find another page, which describes how in 1905 the War Department gave "consent to allow the old Apache chief [Geronimo] to be used for exhibition purposes at the '101'." This Googling wouldn't have closed the case, but it certainly should have kept PBS from funding a plane ride to Santa Fe.

Of course, the researchers and their producers might follow false leads intentionally, to heighten the drama and exaggerate the "legwork" involved. The Detectives almost always suggest the most obvious and least convenient place to find information. Have a baseball card you're curious about? Drive to Cooperstown! Wonder if your grandfather's brother was Harry S. Truman's butcher? Call David McCullough! Instead of suggesting good research strategies, the History Detectives are trying to make good television.

And failing.

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