Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A riff on research

WHEN blessed -- or faced -- with a substantial stack of genealogical research results, whether they are handwritten notes, photocopies of book pages, typed extracts or abstracts (what’s the difference? see below) of various documents, it is tempting to consider the work done -- after all, the research efforts were rewarded and here you have this great assortment of apparently relevant information. But of course that is just the beginning.

Now you need to analyze it all. First, ask yourself how reliable each source was -- you did make note of the sources, didn’t you? Did the paragraph come from a published, but undocumented, family history? Or was the note taken from a filmed copy of an original document -- or as near to the original as you can get? Was the set of dates taken from a tombstone transcription, which can be erroneous? Or from a photo of the tombstone itself (even the engraver may have made a mistake or been given incorrect information)?

So, with that dose of skepticism we must unfortunately carry with us, take a hard look at each of the items, and try to evaluate its credibility.

Then, arrange them all, as best you can, in chronological order. Did Jack Abernathy marry in 1867? And is he the same person whose DAR-transcribed Bible entry showed he was born in 1855? Not likely. Sometimes just simple arrangements like this can separate the identities of similarly-named individuals. Consider, too, whether a single man shown in the 1870 census for an Iowa county could be the same one who was enumerated ten years earlier in Connecticut with a young family. Possible, but is it plausible?

I was searching at the Family History Library last month for information on an elusive female named in my ancestor’s 1795 will, probated in Caroline County, MD. “Els” (probably Elizabeth) Andrew is named by Thomas Cain as “my daughter.” I know Thomas married a Frances Smith late in life, so for the sake of forming a hypothesis I presumed she was a second wife, previously married, with children from that earlier union. I thought that Elizabeth might have been her widowed daughter.

My goal was to find evidence of this previous marriage for Frances (I had already searched in vain for evidence of a marriage for an Elizabeth to a man with the Andrew surname). In this I was successful, determining from the orally-delivered will of a Frances Cain that she had a son named Matthew Smith. (It actually took more that just that will to prove the relationship.) I also found her previous husband had been James Smith, and that the Smith and Andrew families had been inter-related in various ways. Unfortunately, with such a common name to deal with, I have not yet solved the question of Elizabeth’s provenance. Though she was named by Thomas, she is not mentioned in the subsequent will of Frances Cain, who emphatically states that all she owns (except her “wearing clothes”) should go to Matthew.

Also, James Smith’s will did not name Elizabeth among his children, so why would her step-father choose to name her? Elizabeth might be Thomas’s own child, after all.

This search took me on all sorts of by-ways, of course. There seem to be Leven Smiths in at least four generations, starting in about 1750. They are heirs, guardians, authors of wills, and, in one case, the deceased spouse of a widow trying years later to obtain her “wright of dower.”

My thought for the day: genealogical research can often be frustrating, but it is always fascinating.

Here is the distinction between the terms “abstract” and “extract,” courtesy of the book From A to Zax, by Barbara Jean Evans:

An abstract is an abridgement of a document which gives the main points and deletes repetitive language.

An extract is simply a quotation from or part of a written document.

More on my research adventures next time (and some lessons I learned).

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