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.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Is it possible?

Three weeks from this morning (God willing and the creek don’t rise), I will be sitting in a small LDS congregation in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. It will hopefully be my last act of official devotion prior to a week of intensive research in a neighboring county’s courthouse.

I have gone looking for David Scott’s family many, many, many times. So many times, in fact, that it is tempting to become discouraged before I even wend my way to Pennsylvania.

It all began in June 1973. It was my first trip to the Family History Library following a December 1972 return from an 18-month mission to eastern France. In order to be able to serve that mission, I had prayed to be released temporarily from the driving obligation I felt to my ancestors. They had been almost a tangible weight on my shoulders ever since my conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

So as I walked into that facility (then located in the Church Office Building at 50 East North Temple), I relaunched my boat on those tempestuous waters of family history research. As it turned out, that was the day I selected the branch of the great river of humanity which would virtually occupy my life for the subsequent almost four decades. And what a ride it has been!

Given half a chance, I could (and would!) tell you story after story...not only about the information I have found, but also about the serendipity that led me to the source. But we shall not go that direction today. Today, I simply want to record for myself and for anyone else who cares the feelings of my heart as I approach this next substantial research effort.

This is will not be my first visit to Lewistown. In September 2008, my sweet, patient, long-suffering husband accompanied me on another week-long expedition. Sweet, patient, and long-suffering he is, but genealogy fanatic he is not! And the long hours in the basement of the courthouse soon got to him. He helped as much as he could stand. And then, in the inimitable tones of Popeye the Sailorman, he got to the point where he couldn’t “stands no more!”

It is with intense chagrin that I recall that last Friday, after we had checked out of the motel. It was a raw, rainy day in Pennsylvania. The general color was gray. That also happened to be the color of our pick-up truck in which he spent all too many hours that day and into the night—some of it just sitting, waiting for a crazy wife who didn’t know when to quit, and the rest of it driving through the darkness back to the relative sanity and security of home.

Well, this year, his husbandly concern for a wife traveling alone has given way to his dread of having to repeat that September’s experience. We will rendezvous at the end of the week and travel to visit living relatives. For those, my husband has considerably more tolerance. And we will have a wonderful time.

But I can’t help but wonder what my feelings will be at that time, when I have to walk out of the courthouse in time to drive to meet his flight. Will I once again be leaving with the understanding that I will have to return and delve at least once more into the venerable old books, looking for that one clue, that one phrase that might—possibly in combination with other tiny clues and phrases—lead me to the identity of David’s parents...or even just a sibling. Please, dear Heavenly Father, just one additional peg in the board which will allow all sorts of new triangulations.

I suppose there is a remote possibility that I will leave rejoicing, having received that additional piece to the puzzle which may open up a whole new section of the image I am so blindly constructing. However, I almost dread even going there mentally, hesitating to allow myself even to imagine the soaring exultation so akin to emotional fireworks that is associated with a major new discovery (and one which is also usually accompanied by an abundance of tears).

Yet, I have had those experiences, some with David. Two stand out. The birthday present one year when I finally ordered the film containing Brice Collins’s will and learned that his daughter Catharine was indeed David’s wife, and that my second-great-grandfather was definitely, irrevocably, unquestionably their son.

The other, another May, after having accompanied my son to the Missionary Training Center and enduring that two-door experience that would separate us for two years. My reward for holding it together emotionally was time to research once again in the Family History Library (by then in its current location). That afternoon, I found a lead to a new Iowa resource. The next day, I followed it up and located David’s will, written in January 1857 and filed in 1871. As far as I know, he died in 1866. You figure it out!

So by a month from today, the answers will be in. The tally of new records viewed and reviewed will have increased geometrically. The hours will have been expended as enthusiastically and aggressively as I can muster. The missed lunches won’t really have been missed. The computer will have received its usual workout, accompanied this time by an expanded camera capability. My head and dreams will have been filled with almost-desperate pleadings for assistance and direction.

All those are the knowns. It’s the unknowns that tease me. Will I ever solve this in mortality? Or will I have to wait for the eventual unraveling that will be hopefully be made available in that “distant” spirit realm? As much as I love life and hope to stick around for a long while yet, the prospect of that face-to-face interview would make leaving at least bearable.

So, David, it’s you and me...again...once more. May our Heavenly Father be both guardian and guide on this next foray into the past.