Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Whaddya know?" --- "Not much. You?"

Thus begins a popular public radio program. That’s an interesting set of questions, and they have particular significance for family history researchers.

Those of us who have been dealing with the LDS Church’s “new”* FamilySearch database** the past year or so may find themselves asking that question over and over---sometimes in amazement at the new information made available there, sometimes in dismay over the fallacious connections that have been made out of ignorance, carelessness, haste, or various combinations of all three and possibly even other factors as yet unenumerated!

Currently, I am trying to figure out why virtual contemporaries of my second great-grandmother were entered as her parents. Depending on the birth dates involved, her mother would have been about 12 or 13 when she was born. Not impossible, I suppose, but pretty unlikely. I would like to see the documentation.

In addition, one submitter gave her marriage date as her birth date. Obviously, this might explain how she could have received the set of parents she did.

The oldest son of my third great-grandfather is an enigma of sorts. He went west with the family when everyone moved to Iowa, but fairly quickly returned to Ohio by himself. That created a distancing from the family which prompted his descendants to assume initially that he was his father’s younger brother.

Add to that the fact that when he married and bought land, he had a different surname. His father’s will referred to him as “my son,” which I assume confirms his paternal line. But this surname change made me wonder if he might have had a different mother than the rest of the family. So I was delaying making the official connection to his mother until I could research further.

Meanwhile, some well-meaning soul came along and connected him to the known wife. He/She apparently had no clue that there was any question about the relationship. How I wish we could have had a conversation about it first!

Another situation arose with respect to the supposed mother of this boy and her mother. (I’m trying very hard to avoid giving names in order to protect the guilty/innocent.) There is at least one reliable source that this woman’s oldest sister was born to an Ann. However, I strongly suspect that the younger sister from whom I descend had a different mother, the one named Martha who was listed as the father's wife in his will. The supporting evidence is that many of the children named one of their children Martha, but few if any named a daughter Ann.

I’m sure that a stepparent might be appreciated enough that a stepchild might extend the honor of naming a child after that stepparent, so it’s not a definitive case. But it is definitely something that ought to be looked into.

Oh, and one more example. An early researcher made an assumption that has been passed down multitudes of times through the ensuing decades. The assumption was based on the fact that a descendant carried the ancestor’s first given name but also had a middle name. For some reason, this seemed to indicate to the researcher that the ancestor should also have had the same middle name because this child was obviously named for him. So that middle initial appears on list after list, even though I have never seen it on any record about him during my almost 40 years of researching this family specifically.

Whenever there is a discrepancy in the records, we ought to take a close look at the documentation. If I make a claim about a certain fact (like the fact that this ancestor did not have a middle name or initial), then I ought to have some evidence to support that opinion. If others believe strongly that he did, it would be helpful if they could bring their proof for evaluation.

So what was particularly helpful about today's issue over my second great-grandmother’s parents was that it made me go back and take another look at what I DO know about her...for sure. I tried to find her in all of the census records. I reviewed her obituary (which, incidentally, indicated that she moved to Kansas in 1870 while the 1880 census clearly shows her still being in Iowa).

As frustrating as the “new” FamilySearch has been with its completely open access, I can see some good things coming out of it. The beta version that has just been released for review has a new feature called “Discussion” where dialogues can be initiated regarding the data that has been submitted. That may at least allow us to begin examining what each of us can bring to the table as far as evidence is concerned. And then we can hopefully learn to be humble and accept new evidence, even when it contradicts a long-held and highly cherished family tradition.

So when I (hopefully) hear from the person who submitted the ill-fitting parents for my second great-grandmother, perhaps a good beginning to the conversation might be the following:

“Whaddya know?”

“A little. You?”

And then we can begin to sort through the pieces which each of us is able to contribute toward a complete picture of who this woman was, where she really was in 1880, who her parents might or might not have been, and whether we’re actually even talking about the same person in the first place.

It will be good, eventually, in spite of the growing pains. I have a feeling that that humility aspect is going to be critical, though, in making it all work. If your census record proves that my obituary is inaccurate, I would be foolish to cling stubbornly to my hearsay obituary information. And yet we family historians are frequently guilty of doing just that.

In addition to humility, another key element will be the desire to see the final result of all this work be records that are complete and accurate. And in this, I think the new FamilySearch (whatever its final name) will be a very valuable asset. It’s just going through some temporary growing pains.

Personally, I’m waiting for the swan to appear!


* The reason the “new” is entered in quotes is that it appears not to have been the intention of the FamilySearch team to have this modified database labeled as “New FamilySearch.” In fact, when I was working as a proofreader for a family history-related company, I came across specific guidelines that were supposed to be followed with respect to any reference to the collection...and it was not supposed to be New FamilySearch. It may indeed receive a different name at some point. So just realize that there has been a good bit of confusion over the official name.

** As of this writing (July 2010), this database is only available to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, from what I understand, preparations are underway to open it up to the general public.

*** I guess in some ways that might not be a bad thing. After all, it alerts me to how well these researchers have verified the information they received from someone else. So I know to be a little careful about how much I accept from them wholesale. The really disheartening thing was that I saw a different middle initial associated with this ancestor in a database I stumbled upon just the other day.

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