Thursday, August 5, 2010

The pursuit

I’m sitting here at my desk. The view from my window indicates that the world is stable and the room isn’t spinning, but my brain is in a total whirl.

A couple of days ago, I was corresponding with a distant cousin when it occurred to me that I didn’t have any documentation for his ancestor whose existence and supposed descent from my illustrious 3ggf David SCOTT, Sr., permitted us to call each other cousin.

So I began searching in the censuses. Found Andrew with a wife and children. The “wife’s” name wasn’t what I expected it to be. Then in 1870 Andrew appeared again, this time with his second wife and some children whose names I recognized. Back in 1850, there was an Andrew living with a younger John and two children whose names matched the 1860 family. But the occupants of that second line in the censuses were so discrepant with each other and with the story I had been told about marriages and so forth that I was really confused.

This sent me off on a wild goose chase through the hills of Missouri and back to Iowa and even back to Ohio. I began wondering if some egregious error had been made by the other cousin who originally put this family together. Had we all spent years of research based on faulty assumptions???

Thanks to a good friend who patiently listened on the phone and answered disjointed questions, I finally decided that we are probably talking about the same family. The two older children in 1870 turned out to have belonged to his second wife. And yet disturbing questions remained.

Where was Andrew’s first wife in the 1850 census and why was Andrew shown as having been born in Kentucky??? Who was the 1860 woman when Andrew should have married his second wife the year before? And what happened at least to the younger children of the first marriage when the second marriage took place, since some of the older children could have been on their own by then but others shouldn't have been.

So my first point should probably be that we can’t live and die by the census. Someone once told me that the poor census takers had to make three copies (by hand, mind you) of their records, the third of which was sent to Washington. Were they tired? Were they careless? Were they just as confused as those of us who have come along a century and a half later and tried to make sense of their entries? (Witness our own experiences trying to make sense of handwritten notes a few weeks after they were taken.)

Does it help that Andrew’s first wife was born in Kentucky (and maybe the enumerator had just skipped her name and entered only her birthplace)? Would it help if we knew for sure that the Sarah listed in 1860 really was Andrew’s sister (as reported by the older researcher) and she was helping out for some reason? Could one of the twins shown in 1860 have died? And maybe even the youngest child also since he’s not there in 1870? As far as that youngest child goes, how did he survive without a mother’s care (since she had reportedly died at the time of his birth)?

But if Sarah was his sister and she had come to help out, where was his second wife Mary, whom he was supposed to have married in April of the previous year? Had she gone on a trip? Maybe to visit her family since she should have been five months pregnant with their first child by July 1860 when the census was taken?

This is another illustration of why it is so important to write a personal history. Had Andrew done that, just think of all the mental stress that would have saved me, for crying out loud!

But the second point is this: I’m not even supposed to be looking at this part of the family. I’m supposed to be preparing for my upcoming research trip to Pennsylvania. And the only tie Andrew has to Pennsylvania is that he was born there, probably just before the family moved to Ohio. I’m spending a lot of time in the mid-1800s in Missouri that should more properly be directed toward the late 1700s of Pennsylvania when Andrew's father was born!

So here’s the real message (after I bored you to tears with all those twisted details). Do you know why the big cats are such successful hunters? It’s because they pick a target and pursue it until they capture it or it gets away. They don’t make a second decision. They lock their eyes on that animal and don’t even glance at another possibility.

Perhaps that’s where we get in trouble so often. We are so easily sidetracked. And then, when we’ve exhausted ourselves with the effort of tracking another line that has popped into our view, we find ourselves at the end of a branch on the family tree wondering how we got there and how we can get back to where we really intended to go in the first place.

When I served as a missionary, we were taught another “animal” lesson. The illustration was what would happen if we were transporting a bunch of chickens and the cage door got loosened so that they all escaped. The image of chasing chickens (obviously, not a very organized activity) represented a directionless day, where a lot of little (usually insignificant) tasks wind up consuming all available time and effort, leaving the really important things undone.

May I recommend the feline approach—pick your target and center your research around that individual or family until you have gleaned every available detail. Then, after you have stored your findings in a way that will allow you to find them again, pick another subject and aggressively follow that line until it peters out (or proves to be too elusive).

Let’s not lose the race just because we lost track of the end goal and expended all of our energy out on the fringes. Focus, focus, focus!