As so frequently happens in genealogy research, I recently stumbled upon an unsourced narrative written by a descendent of someone related to someone way back in the family tree I’m currently working on. The narrative gave some colorful details about the life and death of a family group in west central Georgia in the mid-1800s. A young father, killed by a falling tree, leaving a wife and three children makes for great family lore. Sadly, the information did not help me at all…or did it?
About a year ago, as I was realizing I could “do” genealogy professionally and was busily implementing a plan to learn as much as I could, I agreed to help my aunt create a family history narrative using her 20+ years of research as a starting point. I quickly realized that her research, like mine until then, and that of so many others, was simply a collection of presumed facts. I had no reason to doubt her work, but the more I learned about the Genealogy Standards, the more serious I became about work I was producing. This effort to write a family history narrative, much to her dismay, became a testing ground for my newly learned documentation skills.
To her credit, my aunt is a furious note keeper. And, again to her credit, there is some very fine analysis she employed with much of the information I’ve verified. The first three generations have been easy, as most of the direct line ancestors had a combination of modern vital records, we simply needed to order them and cite them in our work. In one or two cases where a birth happened before those were recorded, we’ve had a baby book or family bible that is an acceptable substitute – if properly documented.
But any person born in the early 1800s and dying before the early 1900s in the south presents challenges. As I began validating the vital information for the 2nd Great Grandfather, I knew it would be in interesting test of the skills I’d learned all year and most recently tested in the Boston University Certificate course in Genealogical Research. The only records that gave any hint of 2nd Great Grandpa’s birth were census records and a collection of Civil War pension files. While it was easy to calculate his age from the census records, his actual birth date was included on a page in the pension application, as was the date of his marriage and his wife’s name – all direct evidence in an original source by a primary informant. (Yay!) The dates also matched the calculated information in the census. So as it turned out, filling in the vitals for this 2nd Great Grandfather wasn’t as challenging as I’d thought. Until I realized none of the available information gave any suggestions of his parent’s names.
My aunt’s files contained a lot of clippings, email correspondence, and notes copied from message boards – some dated and attributed and some not. For this particular family group, there were several mentions of an estate transfers and divisions, parent’s names were stated as fact, and there was indication that there may have been a step-father in the picture at an early date in this 2nd Great Grandfather’s life. Many of the clippings and notes mirrored each other in detail, if not context, and there was apparently no reason to doubt the information – some of it apparently coming from a family bible that someone had seen. The narrative mentioned above was a seemingly well-researched narrative about this 2nd Great Grandfather’s parents – his dad having been the man killed by a falling tree. It was written by a professor and shows up in many trees as a “source” for many facts. But the write-up lacked any mention of where the facts came from – surely not all of the information that followed was in this family bible?
In my early days of ancestor collecting, this is the exact place I would have moved on – I had the information, it made sense, nothing seemed to dispute it, and it “fit” the puzzle. But not now. Those tidbits of information clipped and snipped from emails and message boards in the early days of online research, while not evidence themselves, are valuable hints that when used as a starting point rather than a stopping point can lead you to a trove of records with reliable information to give your research a firm standing. It’s the difference between then and now for me, and doing the extra work to confirm and document the information will mean no one else has to do it later and our work will stand the test of time. What follows will be a series of proofs tying all of the tidbits and hints together with record evidence. I’ll try not to bore with the minutiae of scrolling through un-indexed images in online databases, but that is exactly what is often required – and how fortunate we are that so much is available online!
I’ll not leave you with a cliffhanger – I did find names for 2nd Great Granddad’s parents, and his father did die at a young age, though I’ve not yet been able to confirm it was due to a falling tree. But someone somewhere wrote that – so it must be true, right? Check back for the case study – after all, I’ve got to write it up, right?