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Ancestry Daily News
Michael John Neill – 12/11/2002
Have You Ever?
Today we're asking questions of ourselves that we
should also ask of our ancestors. If any of your ancestors are still living
ask them the questions yourself (as politely as possible though, as some are
somewhat sensitive). Most of us will not be able to get direct answers to
these questions from our ancestors. However, thinking about how we might
have responded ourselves might get us thinking differently about some of our
own family history problems. Sometimes we tend to forget our ancestors were
human and susceptible to the same frailties as we are. Putting yourself in
your ancestor's boots, shoes, moccasins, or clogs might help you get over
that brick wall. In this week's column, there are no hard and fast
answers—just questions and suggestions.
There are no easy solutions. General advice on the problems we'll be
discussing is to learn about the time period, the geographic area, the
cultural and political climate, and the records themselves. Asking questions
and being willing to learn is an excellent starting point.
Have You Ever Answered A Question Wrong On An Application Or A Form?
Is it possible your ancestor gave a wrong answer on a document or record?
Perhaps he lied about his age in order to get in the service. Perhaps she
lied about her age in order to get married. Perhaps he thought the value of
his farm in 1860 was no one's business or wanted to deflate the value in
case the taxman was within earshot of the census taker. There are many
reasons why one might "fudge" an answer on some form (although I'm not
encouraging fraud and deceit). An ancestor might have done it as well.
Obtaining all records on your ancestor may allow you to establish an
approximate date of a specific event. Just keep in mind that not all these
documents will be consistent. Record the information exactly as you find it.
Analyzing the information is necessary to potentially reach a
consensus—correcting the information as you copy it is not. Your ancestor
might have intentionally lied or given quick answers to just placate the
questioner. He might also have been confused about his actual age. It is
also possible that he was just wanting to confuse his descendants and keep
his past buried.
Have You Ever "Approximated" Your Place Of Birth Or Residence?
Some of us who live in the "boonies" find it easier to not give our
exact residence as no on ever knows where it is anyway. Many times it takes
more time to explain the exact location than it is worth. Consequently I
frequently tell people I live 45 minutes from Davenport, Iowa, or several
hours west of Chicago. It is easier. While my ancestors did not live where I
did, some of them estimated their original residence of place of birth. Some
of my German-born forebears listed on some American records the county seat
as their place of birth, instead of the little village where they were
actually born. They were not concerned with the discrepancy or the
possibility of someone researching the records one hundred years later.
Inconsistencies in locations may be due to approximations and listing the
nearest "big city" instead of the actual location of the event.
This problem is not always easily solved. Researchers should locate as many
records as possible, focusing on any source that might list the place of
birth for the focus person. These searches should include the children of
the focus person, and concentrate on those records that might include the
place of birth for the parents. Those unfamiliar with the area being
researched should obtain detailed maps and learn something about the
political jurisdictions that have covered the area being researched.
Have You Ever Made A Mistake And Did Not Want Anyone To Know About It?
Did You Intentionally Hide Your Past From Someone?
Is it possible your ancestor had an embarrassing secret he wanted to
leave buried in the past? Was he vague about his origins in an attempt to
keep the secret hidden? Did your ancestor leave Europe to avoid compulsory
military service? Did you ancestor want to "turn over a new leaf in a new
location?" Did your ancestor leave a painful past or childhood and never
want to talk about it or think about it again? All of these are reasons to
be vague about their past on official records.
I know one researcher whose ancestor left the coal mines of Pennsylvania as
a child and had absolutely no intention of returning. He rarely talked of
his past, and consequently, his family knows little of his origins. This
ancestor did not live during a time when providing a copy of a birth
certificate was necessary for employment. Mentioning specifics about the
past is not conducive to establishing a new identity.
Did You Contemplate Naming A Child Something That Had Absolutely No
Connection To You Or Your Family?
Many family names are passed down through the generations and some
families name all their children for other family members. Some do not. Does
your child's name have a family connection? Or, did your ancestor simply
pick a name for their child out of the air?
Your ancestor might have picked a name out of their contemporary culture as
well. There were many individuals named for Lorenzo Dow, once a popular
American figure (www.curbstone.org/index.cfm?webpage=56).
Of course, not everyone who had "Lorenzo Dow" as a part of their name was
related to him, and making such a conclusion is not wise. But learning that
there was a famous person for whom your ancestor was named can help you from
going down the wrong path.
Determining if your ancestor was named for a once famous person may be as
easy as typing the name into a search engine such as Google. If my ancestor
was named Abraham Lincoln Smithshire, for example, I would type "Abraham
Lincoln" into the search engine, not my ancestor's surname of Smithshire. If
I find a match, there is a good chance it is not a coincidence that the
particular name combination was chosen. Of course, for this particular
example, if I have many American ancestors and I'm unaware of whom Abraham
Lincoln is then it is time to brush up on my American history.
It also may be necessary to visit the reference section of your local
library to determine what biographical dictionaries they have in their
collection. Larger university libraries are more likely to have specialized
and or foreign collections.
General Online Biography Sites
A Million Lives
Online Reference Shelf-Biographical References
Reference Shelf—Finding Biographical Information
Lists Of Biographical References
The library sites listed here are representative and are intended as a
starting point to locating biographical information. These institutions do
not loan out the references listed on their sites, but are intended as
finding aids to indicate what printed biographical references may be
Biographical References in the Western Connecticut University Library
Biographical Resources at the University of Illinois
Biographical References at the Newberry Library
Biographical References at the University of Tennessee at Martin
Ancestry.com also has several important reference tools for locating
biographical materials available to subscribers. They include:
American Genealogical-Biographical Index (AGBI)
Biography & Genealogy Master Index (BGMI)
If your ancestor gave a child a first and a middle name that appears to
be someone else's first and last name, search for that first and last name
combination in online databases and indexes, particularly census indexes.
This is a more effective approach when the person who originally had the
name is relatively obscure.
Have You Moved Somewhere Because You Had Family Or Close Relatives In The
Area That Would Help Out Until You Established Yourself?
Is it possible your ancestor had acquaintances in a new city to which he
moved? While some move to a completely new area to establish a new identity
or a new life, many move to areas where they have some type of connection.
This connection may be a family member, a former neighbor, a job, etc. The
connections to family or friends may be easier to make than the connection
Analyze your ancestor's neighbors for the first few years he lives in a new
locality. If he became naturalized, determine if anyone vouched for him
during the naturalization process. If the ancestor moved to a rural area,
determine if any neighbors are from the same state or country. If research
on your ancestor does not reveal a specific place of origin, research
neighbors or associates from the same area to determine if their records are
more specific in regards to their place of origin.
Did You Contemplate Eloping When You Got Married?
Is it possible your ancestors did the same thing? Did they "run off" to
get married where no one would know their ages or no one would know that
their parents objected to the marriage? Did they run across the state line
to get married where there was no obligatory waiting period after the
license was issued? These are factors that should be considered when looking
for marriage records.
Some Things Do Not Change
Some things about how our ancestors and we acted are the same; certain
aspects of human nature have changed little. For example, our culture,
society, and the expectations we place on individuals have changed. Remember
that the obligations of family and social status may have played more of a
role in your ancestor's decisions than you realize.
While you probably can't wear your ancestor's shoes, put yourself in his
position as much as possible. Given the likely distance of time, geography,
and culture, it is not always possible to imagine our ancestor's motivations
completely. However, making the attempt is always worth the effort.
Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical
Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and
is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois.
Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board
of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars
and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and
contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry
and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at:
visit his website at: www.rootdig.com/,
but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.
Copyright 2002, MyFamily.com, Inc.
Used by the author on his website with permission.