What Does a Child’s Name Change Mean?

“Adoption” is one of those words that has meanings both inside and outside the law. It’s also one of those words that gets thrown around in genealogical writing, genealogical software, and any time families and relationships are written about. It is also a relationship that genealogy researchers sometimes assume took place during a time period when legal practices were different than they were today.

My great-great-grandmother was born in 1851 in Illinois. Her father died less than five years later and her mother was married to another long-term husband by 1859. My great-great-grandmother was listed with that step-father’s last name in the 1860 census and in her 1868 marriage record.

Was she adopted by him? Do those references prove that she was? A census taker may have simply listed all the children in a household by the same last name whether they were adopted. This practice was common in census records in the 19th century. when children were living with their step-father. The marriage reference is more suggestive of an adoption and she is stated as being his daughter in a letter of permission. Her guardianship record names others as her guardian (not the later step-father) and being a guardian of a child’s estate is not the same thing as formally adopting them.

Were she legally adopted by her step-father, she would have been an heir to his estate as would her sister who is also claimed by some to have been legally adopted by him. Neither were listed as heirs. Neither were listed in any list of children of the step-father in his obituary or any other records of his children created during or shortly after his life time.

Children’s names often get unofficially changed to that of their step-father. It does not mean they were formally adopted. There is a difference. Formal adoptions in the 19th century were much less common than they are today.

Is that Address Contemporary?

In some cities, streets have been renamed and renumbered between the time your ancestor lived there and today. If your family lived in the same house from 1880 through 1930, make certain the address didn’t change during that time period. Chicago had major changes to addresses in 1909, and other cities did as well. A larger town may have absorbed all or parts of bordering suburbs or towns. Before you type that 1890 address into Google Maps or another modern map site, make certain the address hasn’t changed.

Search NewsBank’s GenealogyBank for your ancestors.

Four Identifications

A 1931 era photograph of my grandmother and her nephew has four separate sets of identification written on it.

Two are written on the front and two are written on the back. The photograph was apparently removed from a scrapbook which has removed part of the identification that was written on it. Three of the identifications name both individuals. One only names my grandmother and, interestingly enough, is written in her handwriting. Fortunately it’s not the only identification otherwise I might have wondered if “Dot” was the baby or the young child holding the baby.

The printed name in pencil on the reverse serves as a good reminder to avoid jumping to conclusions. After some reflection and some research, I concluded that it says “[probably Dot or Dorothy] + Dale Edward.” Dale Edward is one person–not two. It is the first and middle name of the baby in the picture.

And while I did roll my eyes when I saw my grandmother’s handwriting that only named her, I realized that had I not known who Dot and Dale were the “Dorothy Habben” identification would have been extremely helpful.

Sometimes four identifications are better than one. I just wish I knew what happened to all the other photos that were probably in the scrapbook from which this was taken.

Research a “Different from Yours” Family

For some genealogists, their ancestral families are fairly homogenous, coming from the same ethnic background, geographic area, social class, religious background, etc. In cases such as these it can be easy to develop a tunnel vision in terms of research.

I see this on various message boards when advice is asked for and someone will say “land records always help,” “church records always provide parents,” or some other generalized answer. Land records help if your families usually owned at least a few acres of land. While church records should always be on the research to-do list, some denominations keep more detailed records than others.

One way to find a different family to work on is to use that of an in-law who grew up in a significantly different environment than you. For me, that’s usually someone whose family was urban and usually lived in rental properties. That’s different challenge from my rural ancestors who were generally at least small amount of property owners.

I had researched for twenty years before I discovered my 3rd great-grandfather was a native of Vermont. He was my first New England ancestor and that research was different from all my families from Maryland, Kentucky, and Virginia during the same time period. Researching him was a good change of pace and broadened my research skills.

That’s never a bad thing. A different perspective always helps.

Search NewsBank’s GenealogyBank for your ancestors.

Refining That Chart

This chart containing ancestral residences was mentioned in an earlier post. The chart itself could use some revision and modification.

The pedigree chart layout–I’m on the far left, then my parents to the right of me, then my grandparents to the right of them, etc. In hindsight, because a time line along the bottom might be helpful, I think I would flip the chart horizontally as shown in the draft image (note the locations are also flipped).

This would make the timeline along the horizontal easier to make and understand. Boxes would be shorter or longer based on individual lifespans which has not been done in the image.

I’d also make the colors similar for areas that areas that are geographically close to each other. It might be easiest to make a list of all the places that will be in the chart and think about colors before making the chart and just choosing them on the fly.

I used a spreadsheet to make the chart, but there are other ways it could be done.

Search NewsBank’s GenealogyBank for your ancestors.

Are You Operating Under Assumptions

From a while back…

One thing that creating the various pedigree charts has reminded me of is that I think I know more than I actually do. The drafts of the charts have been created from memory and there is usually at least one factual error in each rough draft.

It makes me wonder, “are there other times when I’m searching that I’m operating under premises that are not true? Do I have something in my head wrong that is making it more difficult for me to find someone?”

Try creating one of the charts of your own based on memory. Then check it with your records. You may be surprised at the results

How Reliable is that Birth Date?

A genealogy record provides a date of birth. Despite what some may say, there’s no guaranteed way to know the conclusion you have reached about that date of birth is accurate. But here are some things to think about:

  • Who was the likely informant for that date of birth?
  • How likely was the likely informant to have first hand knowledge of the date of birth?
  • Was the likely informant providing information when their memory was still fresh and reliable?
  • Any chance the informant was heard wrong or the clerk made some sort of error?
  • How possible was it that the informant guessed?
  • Am I using a reliable copy of that record or could there be an issue with the digital copy or transcription that I am using?

And there may be other issues with the record that are not addressed here. There is no formula that guarantees you’ll always make the correct decision when deciding how reliable you think a piece of information is. But we can reduce the chance we make a mistake and use the wrong date by carefully understanding and interpreting the information we have located.

You Can’t Retract It

Years ago, when I was very new to genealogy, I was “certain” that a certain ancestor was born in 1820. I put that year of birth on all my pedigree charts and family groups charts. I put that year of birth in queries that I had published in print genealogy query magazines.

That’s not the year he was born. I had no source for that year. Now it’s all over the internet. It is virtually impossible to get a wrong date of birth for someone out of all the genealogy sites.

This is not to fault individuals who make honest mistakes. This is not to say don’t publish or share any information. This is a warning to be careful and make certain you have some evidence for a date or place of an event before sharing it.

Three Things You Learned

Pick an ancestor at random–preferably one you know a little bit about.

Ask yourself what are three things researching this ancestor told you about research? Thinking about what you had to learn to research that ancestor or what you learned by osmosis while researching that ancestor may give you a bit of insight into your current problems.

Or it may remind you that there was a time when you did not know as much as you do now. Sometimes we all need to be reminded of that.

I wrote an extended series of posts of this type for my Rootdig blog several years ago.

A Magic Number

Some say you have to have at least three sources before you know a fact or statement is true. Like many “rules” in genealogy research, the suggestion is well-intentioned.

The reality is more nuanced.

Sources can be wrong or they can be correct. It’s the perceived reliability of a source about a certain piece of information that is key. Three different sources can agree even if they are incorrect–particularly if they actually have the same informant, either directly or indirectly. If Grandpa was wrong about where he was born and told that to his children, any record on which they were informants would be incorrect. The key would be to try and get sources that had independent informants with first hand knowledge of the event. For Grandpa’s birth, that likely would be birth certificates, baptismal records, or other materials created closer to Grandpa’s birth.

It’s easy to say that there’s no magic number when it comes to sourcing genealogical information and to throw out the statement. But it is important to remember the usual intent behind the statement: getting information from individuals whose knowledge of the event is independent of each other.

And sometimes that is easier than others.