When a Usually Reliable Record is “Wrong”

The early 1900s will of an ancestor named a granddaughter Katherine to whom a significant amount of money was left. The will was determined to be valid and was admitted to probate. The family had been extensively researched and no granddaughter with this name had been located. The executor of the will (a son of the will’s writer) in his initial report indicated he knew of no granddaughter Katherine. In the final report the executor stated that there was a granddaughter whose middle name was Katherine and, since she was not named in the will by her first name and her siblings were all named, it was concluded that this was the individual to whom the will writer was referring.

Civil birth and church baptismal records of this individual did not refer to her by the name of Katherine. She’s also been extensively researched and the estate settlement for her grandmother is the only place where she is referred to by Katherine. There’s a few lessons here:

  • any record can be wrong;
  • what appears to be wrong might not be wrong;
  • read the entire file or set of records;
  • not everyone knows the names of their nieces and nephews.



When Your Research Crosses a Border

Eventually your genealogy research will cross a border–a geographical one, a political one, or a chronological one. When it does, ask yourself:

  • How is research different here than where I searched before?
  • What different sources are there in this location/period?
  • Are there any ways the research methods are different?
  • Are there cultural differences I need to be aware of?
  • Is there any other way that the research is “different?”

Not realizing that research in a new location or time period could be different may lead to additional research roadblocks.


There’s Always an Assumption

It’s easy to make an assumption about the relative you are researching. Some assumptions cause us to look in the wrong place. Some assumptions can cause us to connect people who are not really connected. And some assumptions can make think information is inconsistent when it really is not. Generally, assumptions are any statements that cannot be backed up with some sort of documentation. Incorrect assumptions can hinder our research.

And sometimes they don’t really “hinder” our research, but keep us thinking things that are not necessarily true. My Irish immigrant ancestor was a farmer after he settled in Illinois in the 1870s. I assumed that all his family back in Ireland were farmers as well. They were not and held other non-farm occupations. It was an assumption that I had made. It really did not hinder my research, but the discovery has made me realize that my ancestor was different from his relatives in a way that I had not expected.


Was There an Supplemental Addition to That Certificate?

The death certificate for Granville Lake (died 1946 Marcelline, Linn County, Missouri) contains an omission: the year of birth. Part of Granville’s death certificate is shown along with this post entry.

This certificate was located on the Missouri State Archives Death Certificate website.
The year of birth is a detail I would like to have. On the Lake certificate, like others from this era, there is a supplemental certificate to correct the omission. It always pays to read the entire document or see if an additional document is filed after the first one has been located. Of course, they had to stamp “supplementary” OVER the year of birth, but it is still legible (1863).


Those DNA Matches Might Not Be As Interested

One of the first steps to working with your genealogy DNA test matches is to realize that their genealogy interest won’t be the same as yours. In fact their interest probably won’t be. They might not be as obsessed with genealogical detail as you. They might not be interested in tracing ancestors “across the pond.” They might not be interested in “digging up all the dirt” they can. They might not want to shared 3.2 million images of genealogical records with you.  Take it slow.

  • Your first real goal is to determine how the person is related–that helps you analyze other matches.
  • Your second goal is to see if they have any pictures of other family documents–that helps you get more information.

Then go from there.



Was that Age an Estimate?

US Census enumerators were told to estimate ages if they were unable to obtain them directly. Is it possible that your relative’s age was approximated in one enumeration when for some reason he was unwilling or unable to answer questions? Between 1850 and 1880  a relative is enumerated in four censuses. Three of them indicate a year of birth of 1803/1804–except for the 1870 which suggests he was born in 1800. That’s the only census where his age ends in a 0 and where I’m suspecting his age was approximated by someone. I don’t know this, but it seems plausible.

We don’t always know who provided information and we don’t always know when it was estimated.


Transcribe, Annotate, and then Analyze

Transcribe a document as it is written. Do not make corrections no matter how “wrong” it looks. The letters sic in buckets[sic] can be used for any error that is obvious (such as the use of “buckets” instead of “brackets”). Separate from the transcribe annotations can be made if necessary. Make it clear where the transcription ends and where the annotation begins.

Then analyze. I prefer to use [begin transcription] document transcription here [end transcription] to make it clear what is what.

Join Michael in Salt Lake or Ft. Wayne during the summer of 2019


Where Did I Get That Information?

Sound genealogy methodology suggests that two independent sources are used  to reach a conclusion about an event or relationship. The difficulty is in determining whether sources are truly independent or not–after all, knowing who was the “original” informant was can sometimes be difficult. I was the informant on my great-aunt’s death certificate and I provided the names of her parents and her date and place of birth. Where did I get that information? I was not alive when she was born.

But I got to thinking about what I really knew–without looking in a book and without remembering something I had been told–things I knew first hand based upon my own experience.

I was alive when my aunt’s mother was and I saw them interact as mother and daughter for the first twenty years of my life. I knew she was my grandfather’s youngest sister (there were three other brothers in between them) and that she was about ten years older than my mother.

The name of her father I knew because I was told it. The date of her birth came from the family genealogy book and email reminders from my late mother “not to forget” to send Aunt Ruth a birthday card. The place of her birth came from having been told the children were all born at home and being told they’d lived on the same farm their whole married life.

Just because I didn’t know if first hand does not mean it is wrong. It just means that I wasn’t there–and would we believe any genealogist born in 1968 that he has first hand knowledge of things born in 1931? I hope not.

Think about how you “know what you know.” It may help you analyze some of those earlier documents.


Seize the Genealogy Moment

When you have access to something, file it, record it, preserve it.

When you have access to a relative, ask them questions, see what document, papers, or pictures they may have.

When you find something on the internet, save it.

When you reach a conclusion or make a discovery, preserve it share it.

When you make a file, back it up. And back it up again.



Toes and Shadows

This picture taken by my daughter a few years ago makes two important points. Watch your shadow and avoid getting it on the stone. Of course, photo editing software can help in getting rid of the shadow, but that may take more time than avoiding it in the first place and you don’t want your photo to look “doctored.”

And watch the feet. There are toes in the bottom of this picture. Those are easily cropped out.

Of course, if your children are involved enough in genealogy to help with picture taking–don’t get too concerned about a few feet and shadows. Be glad they’re helping you to do something and one day their feet will be much larger than they are in these pictures.