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Archive for the ‘Evaluating Evidence’ Category

Getting better at genealogical research involves many things. One important skillset is understanding and learning how to find relationships when no document states the relationship. The early years of genealogy are filled with the “low hanging fruit” of census records, marriage and death records, online documents, etc. When that fruit runs out—which I assure you it will—are you equipped to keep uncovering relationships in your family? That skill involves learning new methodologies and ways of approaching your research, as well as finding little clues and piecing them together through analysis. Elizabeth Shown Mills calls it “harvesting clues.” Here’s a good, short example from my own research.

My 2nd great grandmother Martha Simpson was born a freed woman in Anne Arundel (later Howard) County, MD. I found her and her siblings living with their mother in 1850. She married Levi Prather in Montgomery County, MD, birthed 12 children that survived to adulthood and lived there the rest of her life.  I had a few pages from a family bible that recorded both Martha’s siblings names and some of her own children:

Prather_BibleB

Bible Page B

Bible Page B

When Martha’s husband Levi died in 1894, Martha purchased 75 acres of land in 1897 from a man named Nicholas Moccabee and his wife. Martha lived in the same house with Nicholas and his wife in 1880, and lived next door to a widowed Nicholas in 1900, probably because she’d purchased some of their land.

1880martha_clip

1900martha_clip

These kind of connections should always arouse suspicion and curiosity in the diligent genealogist. Who is this couple–Nicholas and Harriet? Nicholas was also buried in the same cemetery as my ancestor Martha. So I decided to delve into Nicholas’ life more deeply. An obvious impediment was his name, “Moccabee” which was spelled umpteen different ways. But take a look at what I found in land records–(these are the year and the grantor/grantee):

1876, Willie R. Griffith to Nicholas “Macbee” and wife Leanna
1896, Nicolas “Mackabee” to Harriet L. Mackabee
1897, Nicholas “Mackabee” and wife Harriet L. to Martha J. Prather
1897, Harriet Leannah Mackabee and husband Nicholas to Sandy Spring Bank

His wife’s full name—her first and middle name—is only ever given in the last 1897 deed record above. His wife’s name was “Harriet Leannah.” With this critical clue, I unlocked the puzzle. I remembered Martha named one of her daughter’s “Harriet (Ann) Leanna.” If you go back to the bible records above, you’ll also see the name of “Leanna McAbee” on both pages. All of this provides evidence for one conclusion: Nicholas married Martha’s sister, Harriet Leanna Simpson. Later, I found an obituary for Nicholas Moccabee that provided the full (misspelled) name of his wife-“Harriett Lena Simpson”:

Obituary

Obituary

Notice that no record told me directly that Harriet Leanna, Nicholas’ wife,  was Martha’s sister. But I could draw that reasonable conclusion from the compilation and analysis of the relevant evidence. Later when I went back to the cemetery, I also found “H. Leannah McAbee’s” headstone right next to her husband Nicholas, and in the same group of Simpson family headstones.

Learn how to do this by reading genealogical case studies and learning how to extract clues from various records. I also recommend Thomas Jones’ book, Mastering Genealogical Proof.

A few months ago, I joyfully discovered a descendant of Harriet Leannah who still lived in Maryland. He and his family surprised me by accepting my invitation an attending our family reunion which was a few weeks ago. I thought I would cry right there! Since then, I have gotten to spend time with their wonderful family and share all the things I have discovered. They shared priceless historical photographs, and the one I was most happy to see was the photograph below of Harriet Leannah. The two sisters have finally been reunited!

Another ancestor–reclaimed! Readers, in the comments, I’d love to hear stories of how you pieced together a relationship through clues you found in the documents, when no document stated the relationship.

Harriet Leanna

Harriet Leanna

Martha

Martha

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We all have those lines that seem to withstand all of our greatest efforts to uncover, and one of those lines for me has been my maternal ggrandfather Walter Springer’s line. I know the names of his parents–Lou and George Springer–but have only ever found Lou Springer, widowed, on the 1900 census. That is an *awful* census to be the only clue one has. In 1880 and 1910, Lou disappeared into the ether. Born in Alabama, she and George could still be there in 1880–who knows. I never found George Springer on any census record.

The one meaningful lead my grandmother provided in interviews before her death was her memory of her father’s half-sister Mary Neal.  She remembered her coming to visit, and especially that she looked “mixed,” with long, fine hair. Mary Neal indeed was the informant on her half-brother Walter’s death certificate in 1944, with an address in Lawrenceburg, TN. For 15 years now, I had been unable to find her with any certainty. I did find a death certificate for a “Mary Neal” years ago, with “Springer” parents, but I knew I didn’t have enough data to be sure it was her.

With the 1940 census release, I finally found a Mary Neal in Lawrence County, with husband Felix Neal. A search for a marriage between a “Mary Springer” and Felix Neal came up short. Felix married a “Mary Lyles” in 1934:

Neal Marriage

Neal Marriage

I’ve posted before on the need to be mindful of women’s multiple marriages, so I searched for a “Mary Springer” who married a “Lyles.” No such marriage was found. Now I was stuck. Of course, I searched multiple counties and name spellings. However, after spending long hours analyzing the evidence I had gathered–which consisted of mainly vital records and census records–I came to a valid conclusion: Even though the record above says “Mary Lyles” that record was mistaken. Her correct name was Mary Lowery. This illustrates that even original sources like marriage records are prone to error. People wrote down what they heard. In a county with several “Lyles” families, it is reasonable that the clerk may have thought that was her name.

This is how I uncovered the error: I found a marriage record between “Mary Springer” and Thomas Lowry in Hardin County, a few counties over:

Lowry Marriage

Lowry Marriage

Mary was found with her husband Thomas in the next 3 census records, in Hardin and Wayne Counties, TN:

1900 Hardin Cty

1900 Hardin Cty

1910-Hardin Cty.

1910-Hardin Cty.

 

1920-Wayne Cty.

1920-Wayne Cty.

The couple is living in Lawrence County when Thomas died:

 

Tom Lowry Death

Tom Lowry Death

In 1930, the newly widowed Mary “Lowry” is shown in the 1930 Lawrence County census, notably living amidst several African-American Springers (Caldonia, wife of Bill Blair was also a Springer):

1930 Mary Lowery

1930 Mary Lowery

It is at this point that Mary Lowery met and married Felix Neal–not “Mary Lyles.” Turns out the Mary Neal death certificate I found so many years ago was indeed the correct Mary Neal. Her parents are revealed as Frazier and Lou Springer:

Mary Neal Death Cert

Mary Neal Death Cert

At all times, but especially when researching people who lived in different places over time, we have to be careful that we are proving a person’s identity and not just matching names. This Mary can be tied together through the records above in several ways. Her 1920 census entry in Wayne County reveals one daughter Pauline, who is the informant on her mother’s death certificate above. That death certificate identifies her as the same Mary who married Felix Neal. Mary was first married in Hardin County, hardly surprising since it is the same county where her half-brother (my ancestor) married and lived. Mary Lowery’s 1910 Hardin County household reveals a Springer “sister-in-law”. All of these people were also buried at West Point Cemetery.

All of this hasn’t led me yet to Lou Springer’s pre-1900 origins, but to even have some success in a line long out of success stories is very meaningful to me. It’s also another lesson in the power of learning to analyze and make sense out of all the records we uncover, which can be loaded with half-truths, secrets, mistakes and out and out lies;)

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This week’s lesson comes from the Freedman’s Bank Records that I have been recently exploring.

I once heard a lecturer say that up to 60% of the time, people are researching the wrong woman as mother of the children. This example shows the need to prove the father’s relationship to a child separately from the mother’s relationship to the child. What does that mean? Here’s the Freedman’s Bank card for “London Mathies”:

London Bankcard

London Bankcard

London’s bank card dated 8 October 1867 provides the surprise notation that his wife “Martha died in Memphis on Vance St. July 2/67.” Of course, most cards don’t typically include dates of death, so this is a lucky find. Under the section for children it says “Willy Franklin 1 yr 2 mos” which could be interpreted as one or two children until we compare it with his 1870 census household as London “Matthews”:

Matthews

Matthews

In this document, his wife’s name is Amanda. With one year old son “Jackson” in the household, we can probably safely conclude that London has remarried and had another son. What these records *together* show is that Amanda is not the mother of the first son “William” or as the bank card calls him, “Willy Franklin.” William’s mother was probably Martha. If we viewed this census record in isolation, we might incorrectly assume this was a man and a wife and their two children. Of course we’ll try to find London’s marriage records to confirm our hypothesis. We could also try to find church or burial records that may confirm the death of his wife and perhaps births or baptisms of the children.

We can’t assume that the wife in any household is the mother of all of the children in the household. We have to prove that relationship separately.

Here’s another one (1910):

 

Campbell

Campbell

If you know how to properly pull every clue from census records, you’ll notice that the little “M2” means that John Campbell has been married more than once, while this is his wife Harriet’s first marriage (“M1″). You’ll also see that Harriet has birthed 2 children, and 2 are living. This implies that the last two children are not Harriet’s children (Thanks for the correction, Rolanda!)

Same thing with this third example (1910):

Burrow

Burrow

Samuel’s marriage to Carrie has not produced any children yet; it’s her first marriage and his 2nd (or more) marriage. The two children in the household are probably his from a previous marriage.

Notice that if it’s the husband’s subsequent marriage, the children will not be noted as “step” children because the census records only state the relationship to the head of the household. If it’s the husband’s first marriage and the wife’s subsequent marriage, and she brings children, the children should be properly noted as “step” children, as they are here:

Perry Davis

Perry Davis

Here’s the rub: only the 1910 census requires an “M1” or an “M2” designator for number of marriages. And, the “M2” designator means “married more than once.” It could be a 2nd marriage or a 4th marriage, and it should still say “M2”.

Additionally:

–the 1900 census provides the number of years married and the number of children born and living for the women. It does not provide the number of marriages as shown in this example.

–the 1930 census provides age at first marriage. Doesn’t necessarily mean the person was married at that time to the current spouse.

–the 1900-1940 censuses all require a “D” to be written for divorced; if you see that, be sure to find the divorce record.

As you can see, all of these differences in what information each census provides is critical to understanding and interpreting the document correctly. Incorrectly interpreting the census can lead you astray in your research for years.

It goes without saying that information in census records have high degrees of error rates and should be approached with caution. The censustaker may not have recorded the information correctly or the family member may not have accurately reported their marital status. I have several examples of women marked “widowed” whose husbands were in fact not dead.

It goes without saying that information in the census records should be correlated with other records that illuminate a family.

It goes without saying that people can and did have children before and outside of marriages.

So how can you prove the relationship to the wife as mother of the children? Here are a few ways:

  • Sometimes simple age deductions can rule out the current wife as mother of the children. (ie, most women aren’t birthing children at age 13).
  • If the husband dies first, and the widowed wife now heads the census household, the stated relationship of any children in the household will be to her.
  • Marriage and death certificates of the children can name parents.
  • Estate or probate records after the father’s death may illuminate children and wives.
  • Bible records, church records, military pensions, obituaries and land records are examples of other types of records that may be used to prove a woman’s relationship to household children.

So go back and pull out some of your census records. Ask yourself, for each family unit: Is the Wife Really the Mother of all of the Children? The answer may surprise you.

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Sometimes it can seem as if there is a civil war going on in the genealogical community. After we start researching our families, at some point we hear about the necessity of source citations. Once we figure out exactly what they are, and we see a few, some of us think, “That looks complicated. I don’t have time to do all that.” Or we know we need to do them, and just never get around to it. Or we actually don’t understand how to create them. Or people disagree on the format. Some think it’s just for those “high and mighty” oh-so-serious researchers. When someone asks where we got a piece of information, we think saying “the 1930 census” should be sufficient. We honestly believe we will be able to remember where we got everything. We don’t foresee the paper (and now electronic) chaos of five or ten years later down the road.

Then one day, it happens to us: We see a death date we have recorded in Family Tree Maker for Uncle Bob and honestly have no idea where we got it from. We check a record at a library only to realize we’ve already checked that record. Oh dear.

My first few years of research were indeed spent in the fog of not knowing about and not understanding source citations. Critical pieces of my early research have incomplete or missing sources.

Let me give just one very simple example of how understanding source citations allow for better research analysis and conclusions. I use this example in my class to illustrate the value of citations as well as the importance of examining original sources.

This is a source citation to the marriage of my 3rd great-grandfather, whose full name is Baltimore Merriman:

“Tennessee State Marriages, 1780-2002,” database and images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry/search/: accessed 4 May 2011) entry for Batty Merryman, 24 January 1868, Spokane; citing “Tennessee State Marriages, 1780-2002, microfilm, Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville.”

The citation above makes it clear that the document was reviewed from a database on Ancestry. Shown below is the image itself (I have clipped just my ancestor’s info):

Merriman Part 1

Merriman Part 1

Part 2

Part 2

 The transcriber has recorded the couple’s names as “Batty Merryman” and “Martha Barb.” But I’ve learned to be a diligent researcher. When inspecting the actual image, the first name “Martha” cannot actually be seen, nor can any of her surname. You can sort of make out the “M” but not anything else. Clearly there is water damage in the image, but the transcribed marriage date itself appears to be accurate (2nd image above). But I’m certainly not going to use this unknown transcriber’s interpretation of Baltimore’s wife’s name when I can’t see it myself.

Now, let’s look at another source citation for the same information–the marriage of Baltimore Merriman:

Hardin County, Tennessee, Marriage Records, Vol 1: 106, Balty Merryman to Martha Bailey, 24 January 1868; County Clerk’s Office, Savannah.

This citation tells me the information came from the Hardin County, Tennessee courthouse. And take a look at that image:

Baltimore Merriman Marriage

Baltimore Merriman Marriage

Getting to the original source now reveals the surname of my 3rd great-grandmother: Martha Bailey.

This is one small example of the power of source citations when you understand to use and read them accurately. You will know where that information came from and you can then try to find other places or sources (or just a clearer copy) for the information.

Three of my top reasons to diligently cite our sources:

1) We (and others) need to know exactly what sources we are basing our research on, and where we got those sources from.

2) We want to draw the most accurate conclusions, which can only be judged from the breadth, depth and accuracy of our sources.

3) We often invest decades of our lives to this quest; we want our life’s work to be considered credible.

Elizabeth Shown Mills’ book Evidence Explained (and website) is the Bible for creating genealogical source citations for good reason. Not only is it organized beautifully into categories of sources, Ms. Mills meticulously and clearly explains the why, what and how for each and every kind of source. I also highly recommend visiting the website above; she hosts a forum where genealogists answer questions about source citations, which I have made use of many times.

My personal process is to record all of the information needed for a proper source citation as I am researching. Usually every few months or so, I write-up the research on that line or person or whatever I was researching, and I have Ms. Mills’ book beside me. I turn each and every fact I uncovered into a proper source citation.

It takes a lot of time to do citations. But the payoff is incredible, and well-worth it.

P.S.: I wrote about this subject back in 2009 and that post is still a good read.

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I have recently realized I am utterly incapable of writing a short post. That said, I’d like to think I still have avid readers who value them and take the time to read them when they can. I thank you for that. I just had a wonderful Thanksgiving with my family & hope you all did too.

We have to continue pushing ourselves to learn more and better research methodologies. When we all start out, we’re basically doing name lookups in various record sets. What we found is what I refer to as the “low-hanging” fruit. It’s what the Genealogy Gods use to suck you into this hobby;) The tough stuff comes when the records relevant to your family/area/timeframe have been exhausted, AND, you only know how to look up names. If you don’t learn other ways of “connecting the dots” you’ll have trouble uncovering other relationships. Things will appear to be brick walls, that really aren’t. They may just require a research methodology that has not been learned. And I promise, you can learn them.

One of the critical skills to learn is how to analyze and correlate the information you have. Start spending more time practicing this. Lay out all the data you’ve gathered to answer a particular question such as: Who were Jane Smith’s parents? Who were her spouses? Having a specific question frames your research and allows you to work towards a conclusion. Learn the genealogical standards for evidence evaluation and learn how to pull out clues from each piece of evidence. There are excellent genealogy books and lectures for every conceivable type of record. Ask yourself the pertinent questions: Who said this? When did they say it? How did they know it? Who recorded it and why?  When evidence gives conflicting data (such as birthdates or death dates) learn how to address the conflict. Purchase one of the core genealogy reference books like “The Source” edited by Loretta Szucs or “The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy” by Val Greenwood (you can buy them used, but try to get a recent edition).

I often encounter people who have only researched in census records and maybe a few vital records. Think of census records as bookends on a shelf like this:
BookshelfIf you have discovered your ancestor in say, the 1900 and the 1910 census, that’s a great start. But the shelf itself is still empty –you still have a 10-year gap for which you don’t have any data. We must get in the habit of filling up that shelf—which represents our ancestor’s lives– with other information from other sources than just the census records. A lot can happen in 10 years.

Case in point: I have blogged before about my 4th great-grandmother Matilda and the years long odyssey to uncover her complicated roots. Her identity was hidden behind a veil of mis-transcribed records, moves between at least 4 counties and 2 states, and 4 marriages! Of the 4 men she married,  3 died within a few years of their marriage to her. The chart below illustrates her sojourn through the census  years, counties and states, with M1 through M4 representing her 4 marriages:

MatildaTimelineMatilda only appears as a married woman twice in the census (1900 and 1910 to her 2nd husband, Perry Davis). Each of her other husbands died before the other census years rolled around, so she was constantly showing up with a different name in those years as a widow. In fact, I thought there were 2 different women named Matilda.  Those other marriages were almost “hidden.” I gave more details about cracking this case in a previous post.

Had I only looked at census records, this case would never have been broken. There is just too much happening in 10 years time. I had to piece together the information I gathered from state censuses, city directories, vitals, oral history, cemetery records, deed records and more. That process allowed me see the errors in the evidence. It also led me to revisit my own assumptions. Matilda’s first marriage record –an original record—mistakenly recorded her name as “Matida Mealy”, not Matilda Nealy which was her name. The clerk probably heard it as “Mealy”. Simple enough right? But because both her first and last names were incorrect on the document, I could never find that marriage. Eventually, tracing all 4 of her marriages (not just the one to my direct ancestor) led me to the names of her parents, Charles and Lavinia Nealy in Hamilton County, FL. I added another branch to my tree.

I have never felt so proud about cracking a case as I did this one. It affirmed that I’m on the right track in terms of developing my skills.  I still have plenty more ahead of me, so right along with you, I continue to keep on learning.

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Two Doughnuts on a Plate

Mmmmm..yummy

This is a phrase I’ve been using to refer to that Bermuda Triangle between 1880 and 1900…the Donut Hole. Now I like donuts just as much as the next person. But I’m not the first and sure won’t be the last to lose relatives on either side of it. We all know about how the aftermath of the fire that destroyed a large percentage of the 1890 census. First, you’ll want to be sure to check that your research area is not one that has a surviving 1890 census fragment. After that, you’ll want to use all your genealogical sleuthing skills to ensure that the person “on the inside” of the 1880 donut is the same person you find “on the outside.” Minus the frosting.

One of the things I’ve encountered is the fact that a couple can have a child right after 1880 that is grown and gone by 1900. If this is a family whose makeup you’ve built by using only the census, you can easily miss a person. For example, according to her death certificate Julia Adams of Montgomery County, TN was born in 1881:

Julia Adams

Julia Adams

However, if you look at her father Lucas Walker’s household in 1900, she is not there:

1900 Lucas Walker

1900 Lucas Walker

And that’s because she married James Adams in 1897:

Marriage Record

Marriage Record

If you didn’t find out about Julia from some other record or source (like this death certificate), you would have missed her completely.

Zeffie Whitaker was born in 1883. Her father Sam Whitaker’s household in 1900, likewise, does not include her:

1900 Whitaker

1900 Whitaker

She had married the neighbor’s son Robert Allison in 1899:

Marriage Record

Marriage Record

She was living next door to her dad in 1900.

These examples were meant to illustrate the point: they were easy to show because the parent was listed on the death certificate. But how many death certificates do we see that have no parents listed? Also, you would have never found the death certificate if you had known this child existed AND their married name. In those cases, you’ll miss an ancestor. I know I have.

So beware and be extra vigilant of those people born in the early 1880s “inside the donut.” Tell me in the comments if any of you have “lost” an ancestor in the gap? If you found them, how did you verify that it was the correct person?

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MC900390920My friend Aaron calls them artificial. They can also be called self-imposed brick walls. We say this to mean we have labelled something a brick wall that really isn’t a brick wall. We call them that even though we haven’t done our due diligence in terms of careful research. Consider these examples:

We declare the brick wall of not being able to find an ancestor in a census year but we haven’t tried multiple spellings and pronunciations,
haven’t used wildcard searches,
haven’t searched surrounding counties,
haven’t searched other census websites other than Ancestry,
haven’t considered a migration out of state and biggest of all—
haven’t done a line-by-line search in the district or county we expect to find them in.

We declare a brick wall, but we have only been to one or two repositories in person, or worse still, have done all our research online.

We declare a brick wall,
but have used books and websites to collect information without ordering and examining firsthand the original record.

We declare a brick wall,
but we’ve only searched 2 or 3 TYPES of records such as census records, vital records and the “easy” databases on Ancestry (like World War I draft cards). We haven’t even tried to search land records, court records, church records, maps, city directories, probate records, newspapers and other record sets.

We declare a brick wall,
but we’ve only been searching for our direct ancestor and maybe his wife and children. We have not expanded to the group (or “cluster”) of people that were associated with our ancestors and would significantly increase our chances for success.

We declare a brick wall,
after jumping back several generations, and not doing extensive research within each generation on all the siblings and children of each sibling.

We declare a brick wall, but we’re wearing cultural blinders. We aren’t considering that people may have had children outside of or before marriage, or that they may appear in the records as a different race.

We declare a brick wall,
but have never actually analyzed and correlated the evidence that we DO have. In fact, we don’t know how to evaluate the evidence. We believe everything we see in print is factual, accurate and true. If two records give conflicting information, we have no idea which one is correct.

We declare a brick wall,
and have never tried to find living descendants of any of the family members.

We declare a brick wall,
but never stopped to consider our ancestor may have had multiple marriages. We also never actually verified the mother of each child separately from the father.

We declare a brick wall,
but have never expanded our search to less common but potentially valuable records stored onsite at universities, historical and genealogical societies. And-

(my personal favorite)

We declare a brick wall,
but have never actually read a book on genealogy methodology or any of the thousands of teaching articles published in genealogy journals. We have progressed mainly by asking others what to do next instead of taking the time to learn ourselves “what to do next.”

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Genealogy is a learned skill and a profession with defined standards. You get good at it by practice and by education. I define “good” as using best practices for careful research and ultimately being able to discern clues that don’t jump off the page. That’s what will set you apart from when you were a beginner. I look at evidence I gathered in earlier years and see things now I couldn’t possibly see then. You have to progress away from “looking up” people in databases and learn how to “look into” people’s lives, which is a different animal altogether.

I have been guilty of many of these artificial brick walls myself and have had to overcome my special tendency to declare someone dead when I can’t find them;) But I’ve gotten better over the years by constantly educating myself and learning about methodology and resources. I hope you will too. Tell me in the comments, which artificial brick walls you have been guilty of?

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