A Carefully Crafted Research Question and Plan Can Solve A Family Mystery

I used to be one of those people who assumed that I didn’t need to take the extra time to write out a research plan. I figured all the information I needed was either in my head or in my family tree. Sometimes I had success while researching, while other times I didn’t. Often, I would go off down the proverbial rabbit hole and be up until 2 o’clock in the morning chasing dead ends.

It wasn’t until I began to attend some intermediate-level courses that the idea of a research question and plan was drilled into me. I encourage everyone who would like to improve their research skills to seek out a class, society meeting, webinar, and/or article on how to develop a research question and write a research plan. You and your ancestors won’t regret it!

This July, I went to the Institute of Genealogical & Historical Research (IGHR) in Athens, Georgia. I decided to make a genealogical road trip out of it, since most of my paternal grandmother’s side of the family was from the South, Virginia mostly. I knew I wanted many different types of records and numerous ancestors I wanted to explore further, but what would be my best option to narrow down the countless choices? You guessed it — a carefully crafted research question and plan.

I decided to write down as many questions as I could think of about my paternal grandmother’s family tree. Most of her family has been researched over the centuries in published articles and books, as well as unpublished family papers. So I was able to narrow my focus quite a bit because of that previous research. One question I kept coming back to concerned my third great-grandfather, Henry “Hal” Grafton Dulany. It was because my grandfather introduced me to Hal and his wife, Ida Powell Dulany, through their involvement in the American Civil War, that I became interested in history and genealogy as a child.

There were rumors as far back as I can remember, and I’m sure well before that, that Hal had been in an insane asylum at some point in the latter years of his life, and possibly even died in one. In every source I had, which was not many, Hal’s death was barely mentioned, if at all. I had a date of 10 October 1888, and most published works agreed on that date. However, most of these authored works lacked proper citations, especially for Hal’s death date and especially for his place of death.

I found a few clues online which would eventually lead me to the answer. On FamilySearch, I came across an indexed Virginia death record in the collection, “Virginia Deaths and Burials, 1853-1912.” Unfortunately, the images are available only at a family history center or FamilySearch affiliate library. In retrospect, I should have taken the time to get to one near me, but I couldn’t find the time before my trip. Luckily, it all worked out in the end.

“Virginia Deaths and Burials, 1853-1912,” database, FamilySearch.org (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XRS8-6J2 : accessed 8 November 2019), entry for Henry G. Dulaney, 10 Oct 1888, Staunton, Staunton, Virginia; index based upon data collected by the Genealogical Society of Utah, Salt Lake City.

This record looked very promising, but I noticed several problems. My Henry Grafton Dulany did not spell his surname with an “e” before the “y.” However, it is very common to see it misspelled this way. My third great-grandfather, Henry, was born in 1834, not 1855. To complicate matters, my Henry had a nephew, another Henry Grafton Dulany, born in 1854 (Henry’s nephew died in 1890).

Loudoun County was accurate for the birth place for both Henry Dulanys, but the death place was intriguing. While Staunton was over 100 miles away from the Dulanys’ home in Fauquier County, it was also home to one of two state insane asylums in Virginia during this period. Western State Lunatic Asylum, now in operation as Western State Hospital, was quite a large facility by the late 1880s. Was the Henry G. Dulaney who died in Staunton on 10 Oct 1888 the same person as my third great-grandfather?

Another interesting wrinkle to my online research was the couple of death notices I found for my ancestor. The newspapers reported that Henry Grafton Dulany died on Sunday, 14 Oct 1888 at his home in Fauquier County, Virginia. His burial in the family cemetery near Middleburg, Loudoun County (only a few miles away) was also noted.[1] Were these death notices, the indexed record on FamilySearch, or another record not as yet uncovered correct as to my third great-grandfather’s death? Which record is correct?

I needed a detailed research question and plan in order to find more evidence of Hal Dulany’s death. The question I posed above would be the basis for my research question: Was the Henry G. Dulaney who died in Staunton, Virginia on 10 Oct 1888 the same person as the Henry Grafton Dulany who died at home around Oct 1888 in Fauquier County, Virginia?

I spent a considerable amount of time researching the best libraries and archives to visit in the short amount of time I would have. The three best resources I have used to find the collections I needed onsite are: 1) the citation of an online record, 2) the FamilySearch Research Wiki, and 3) a Google search. What I found was then put into my research plan. In order to guarantee that my trip would be as successful as possible, I wanted to be able to tell the librarian or archivist exactly which items I needed. I made sure to note every detail that would help a staff member locate the material, as well as help me craft my citation later.

I also considered my time constraints at a repository when I put my research plan together. I allowed myself extra time to complete my tasks, while I also left myself with plenty to do if I finished early. Without a research plan, it is very easy to spend a day chasing after dead ends. Dead ends happen much less frequently with solid research plans, however.

I realized that the Library of Virginia should have most of the records I was looking for. This repository held the county and city death registers on microfilm for the time period I was researching.[2] As an extra bonus, most of Western State Asylum/Hospital’s archives had been transferred to the manuscript collections of the Library of Virginia. There were extremely helpful and detailed finding aids online, which my searching for my ancestor a lot easier.[3]

After my first two hours at the library, I had examined the death registers for Fauquier (home county) [4] and Loudoun (border less than a mile from home and buried there)[5] counties, as well as the city of Staunton (indexed record indicated death here).[6] I checked the year I thought he died (1888), as well as the few years before and after.

I came up empty in Fauquier County. However, that was a good piece of negative evidence because if he had died at home, he should have been listed. The only Henry Grafton Dulany I found in the death registers of Loudoun County was Hal’s nephew, who died in 1890. I could distinguish the two because of his age, residence, and parents’ names.[7] Even more negative evidence. Great!

I found the death register entry for Henry G. Dulaney in the Staunton City microfilm.[8] This was the entry which I had seen previously indexed on FamilySearch. It was such a relief to be able to finally see the actual image from the indexed Staunton death record. Not surprisingly, there was more information available than was indexed online. The microfilmed death register listed a cause of death and a specific place of death: W. L. Asylum (short for Western State Lunatic Asylum)! However, this Henry was listed as being only 33 years old just as it stated on the indexed version of this record on FamilySearch. I had more evidence to collect and more questions which needed answers.

My research plan pointed me to the Western State Asylum admission registers next. These registers are on microfilm at the Library of Virginia. Each new admission was given his/her own number. The admission registers are organized by date of admission. Since I knew a date of death, I could try to approximate an admission date.

I found a H. G. Dulaney Sr., who was admitted on 15 May 1888 and died on 10 October the same year. The register listed him as being a farmer from Loudon[sic] [County], but it did not list his age.[9] Still feeling good that this was my third great-grandfather, I continued my research. (I should mention that even if I did not think I was on the right track, it would still be a good idea to trace this person through the records to see exactly who he was. Negative evidence is still evidence.)

The next step in the process was to move to the manuscript room. There I could request materials from the closed stacks by filling out call slips. From my research plan, I already had my list of items to request. I requested the case books from 1888 when H. G. Dulaney Sr. was a patient there.

Jackpot!!! Not only did I find daily medical notations, but the first section gave a brief biography and medical summary of the patient. This included his marital status (married), how many children he had (three), his age (54), his residence (Loudoun Co.), and the reasons he was admitted. From everything I read and already knew about my ancestor, the patient named H. G. Dulaney Sr. was my third great-grandfather, Henry Grafton Dulany.[10]

The story I uncovered was quite sad actually. According to the medical staff’s notes, my ancestor was admitted because he “suffered from repeated attacks of “Mania a Potu,” which has gradually inflamed his intellectual faculties. Has delusions and has made threats against members of his family.”[11] I have to wonder if his service in the Confederate cavalry during the Civil War affected his mental state and caused him to become a heavy drinker. He lost an eye fairly early into the war. I can only imagine some of the horrors Henry witnessed, as well as the physical pain he endured from his wound.

Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view), Henry Grafton Dulany died less than five months after being admitted to Western State Asylum. His condition, as well as the so-called “treatments” at the asylum probably led to his early death.

On my way back home, I made a stop at Sharon Cemetery in Middleburg, Virginia. I felt like I needed to visit Henry, and the rest of his family, who are buried there. I’m getting emotional as I’m writing this, so you can imagine how I was when I found his tombstone. I think Henry and I had a nice moment together. It was a fitting conclusion to my research journey.

Without my research question and research plan to guide me, I don’t think I would have found this information, at least on this one trip to Richmond, Virginia. I did my research before I went to the repository, and it paid off. The Library of Virginia is an easy place to get sidetracked, as are many other repositories. Take the time to craft your research question and plan. You may just unearth a decades-old family secret or solve a family mystery!


[1] “Death of Capt. Dulany,” Alexandria (Virginia) Gazette, 17 October 1888, p. 3, col. 2; image copy, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/87783259 : accessed 8 November 2019). “Death of a Well-Known Virginian,” The Democratic Advocate (Westminster, Maryland), 20 October 1888, p. 3, col. 4; image copy, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/348166076 : accessed 8 November 2019).

[2] Library of Virginia, “Birth, Marriage, and Death Registers On Microfilm,” Library of Virginia (https://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/BMDregisters/ : 10 Nov 2019).

[3] Virginia Heritage, “A Guide to the Records of Western State Hospital, 1825-2000: A Collection in The Library of Virginia,” Virginia Heritage: Guides to Manuscripts & Archival Collections in Virginia (http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=lva/vi00937.xml : accessed 10 Nov 2019).

[4] Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, Death registers, 1853-1896; Fauquier County, 1853-1896, reel 10 (Essex – Fluvanna); Library of Virginia, Richmond.

[5] Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, Death registers, 1853-1896; Loudoun County, 1854-1896, reel 17 (Lancaster – Louisa); Library of Virginia, Richmond.

[6] Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, Death registers, 1853-1896; Staunton City, 1853-1896, reel 38 (Richmond City – Winchester); Library of Virginia, Richmond.

[7] Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, Death registers, 1853-1896; Loudoun County, 1854-1896, reel 17 (Lancaster – Louisa); 1890 section, District 1, entry for H. Grafton Dulaney, line 15; Library of Virginia, Richmond.

[8] Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, Death registers, 1853-1896; Staunton City, 1853-1896, reel 38 (Richmond City – Winchester); 1888 section, entry for Henry G. Dulaney, line 26 (number 61); Library of Virginia, Richmond.

[9] Entry for H. G. Dulaney Sr, admission register number 4040, 15 May 1888; “Admission Registers, 1828-1941 and Admission Register Index, 1828-1930, miscellaneous reel 6301, v. 266; Records of Western State Hospital, 1825-2000, State government records collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond.

[10] Entries for H. G. Dulaney Sr, notes of medical staff at Western State Asylum (Hospital), 15 May – 10 October 1888; Case Book (Number 2, possibly Volume 3), 1882-1889, Male Patients, vol. 278; Series IV, Subseries C, Case Books, 1828-1910; Records of Western State Hospital, 1825-2000, State government records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond.

[11] Entry for H. G. Dulaney Sr, notes of medical staff at Western State Asylum (Hospital), 15 May 1888; Case Book (Number 2, possibly Volume 3), 1882-1889, Male Patients, vol. 278; Series IV, Subseries C, Case Books, 1828-1910; Records of Western State Hospital, 1825-2000, State government records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond. Mania a potu is a Latin medical phrase commonly used in the nineteenth century to refer to what basically is alcoholic insanity. It is similar to delirium tremens. The symptoms can include “…uncontrollable trembling, seizures, intense paranoia, and vivid hallucinations.” Matthew Warner Osborn, Roy Porter Student Prize Essay Winner: Diseased Imaginations: Constructing Delirium Tremens in Philadelphia, 1813–1832, Social History of Medicine 19:2 (August 2006): 192; image copy, Oxford Academic, (https://academic.oup.com/shm/article/19/2/191/2259046 : accessed 13 Nov 2019).

A version of this blog post was originally published in the September 2019 issue of The Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania’s online newsletter.

2 thoughts on “A Carefully Crafted Research Question and Plan Can Solve A Family Mystery”

  1. Hi Joe,
    Nice seeing you last weekend at the Bucks County Conference. Loved the article about Research Questions. I’m been down the rabbit holes too.


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