Last week's article on my paternal grandmother's place of birth generated
a great deal of reader response. In brief, all primary data collected on
Grandma's birth indicated she was born in Elderville, Wythe Township,
Hancock County, Illinois. All records where Grandma was the informant
indicated her birth in Tioga, Hancock County, Illinois.
The Metropolis of Elderville
There's not even a building in Elderville anymore. As several readers
pointed out, Grandma really wasn't born in Elderville anyway. Grandma's
birth was likely one of millions that took place on an outlying farm. Birth
certificates for those born in rural areas are rarely specific enough to
list an "exact" place of birth (such as: the birth took place in the
southwest quarter of section five in Wythe Township). Elderville likely was
the town nearest to where the family lived in 1910 (the year of Grandma's
birth) or possibly their post office address at that time. In some cases,
the doctor might not have remembered where the birth took place and might
have "guessed" as best he could.
Where Are These Places?
Elderville and Tioga, Illinois, can both be located on
Mapquest. Readers who perform such a
search will see that we are talking about a rural area of the state.
Maps of any region where family members lived are always helpful. In this
case, there is an online map showing the townships in
Hancock County, Illinois. Tioga (where Grandma said she was born) is in
Walker township, directly south of Wythe Township (listed on the "official"
records for Grandma's birth). Tioga is about a mile north of the Hancock
County-Adams County line. Thankfully in this case there's no debate about
the county of birth.
Topozone.com is another good place for
locating places. Both villages can easily be located using the search
At the 1:50,000 scale, the section numbers of the township are clearly shown
in red. Readers who are familiar with the area or who took a look at the map
may realize that there is not as much discrepancy between the two locations
as one might think. Land and tax records for my grandmother's parents in
1910 should provide the exact location of their farm. This would not be
proof of where Grandma was born, but if the farm is located in southern
Wythe Township, it would even be closer to Tioga than the village of
Did Grandma Mean She was Born "in" Tioga?
When Grandma said she was born "in Tioga," I never thought she meant in the
town itself. And I never asked her "just exactly how close to Tioga?" she
meant. Even if I had asked such a question, it might not have been possible
for her to be specific. Just how close to Tioga Grandma meant I'm not
certain. She might not have been either.
Did They Know Where They Were Living?
Obviously the family knew how to get to their home, but the names people
sometimes use to refer to their residence may appear inconsistent. In some
cases, they may refer to former names by which the location had been known.
A certain area of a county, a township, or a city may be referred to by a
former name or a nickname by some residents. As a result, this nickname for
the location, perhaps known only to locals or "old-timers," may be used on
various official records even though the place is no longer listed on any
Did They List A Nearby Large Town?
While not the case in Grandma's situation, some individuals may not give
their actual place of birth. Instead, they may use the name of a nearby
larger village or town, one more likely to be known by those not familiar
with the area. I even do this myself. If someone from within ten or fifteen
miles of where I live asks where I live, I'll give them the name of the
town. If it's someone from within the state of Illinois, but outside our
"local area" I'll tell them I live near Galesburg or a short distance from
Moline, depending upon where I'm at. To others, I'll say two hours west of
Chicago. It is easier than explaining the precise location to those not
familiar with our local geography. I have several ancestors, especially
those who were immigrants, who did the same thing on various records when
listing their foreign place of birth or origin. Several listed their place
of birth on some records not as the actual village in which they were born,
but instead listed the county seat.
Grandma's Knowledge of Her Birth
Grandma is no longer living, so I can't ask her how she knew she was born in
Tioga. Either her parents or another relative told her, or she just assumed
it to be true. However she obtained the knowledge, she did not learn it from
her own experience. If several different family members (old enough to
reasonably have first hand knowledge of the event) had told her the same
thing, one could lend more credence to the Tioga place of birth. Of course,
the secondary nature of Grandma's knowledge of her place of birth does not
necessarily mean the place of birth she listed was incorrect. Indicating
that a clue or piece of information is secondary does not mean the
information is incorrect. It just means her knowledge of her place of birth
was not first hand. If Grandma were alive, I could ask her how she knew she
was born at Tioga. If I had asked her how she knew, she could thought that I
was getting "uppity" or a "little big for my britches" and left the question
unanswered. One sometimes has to watch how far one pushes one's questions.
It is worth remembering that if my knowledge of an event is secondary there
is always the possibility that the primary source (either a document or a
person) was intentionally incorrect. I don't think Grandma lied about her
place of birth or that the person who told her lied to her. But I have seen
cases where secondary sources were intentionally wrong, frequently to
obscure the facts or make it impossible to find out the "real story."
Born at A Relative's House?
An expectant mother may stay with relatives in the later stages of her
pregnancy and give birth to the child at that location instead of her actual
residence. While this is a possibility in this case, I have no evidence
(either on paper or from family lore) to support the "birth at a neighbor's"
theory. The father had relatives who lived closer to Tioga, but the mother
did not. In this case, the primary paper evidence (the birth record, the
christening record, and the family's known 1910 residence) are all
consistent with a birth in Wythe Township.
Some will fault me, but I'm going with the Wythe Township as Grandma's place
of birth unless I locate some other record to the contrary. My reasoning
basically boils down to the fact that all the "original" sources are
consistent. If they were not consistent the situation would be different.
The Tioga information obtained from Grandma's marriage and death records
will be clearly referenced in my notes. The upside to this situation is that
all my work to "reconcile" the differences has lead me to more information
on the family and their life around the time of Grandma's birth. And isn't
that the goal of family history?
Is it a Big Deal in This Case?
Probably not. The names of Grandma's parents are not in question and the
birth locations that I have are not all that different. In my case,
Grandma's birth place is not a great genealogical mystery. Next week we'll
look at my paternal grandmother's mother, born in 1874. This woman was born
in Illinois, Iowa, or Missouri, depending upon which record one chooses to
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:
or visit his website at:
http://www.rootdig.com/, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with
Copyright 2002, MyFamily.com. All rights reserved.