One of the most enjoyable aspects of genealogy is its variety of research opportunities. Running into a blank wall where great-uncle Joe is concerned? Look for someone else for a while. (Maybe a married sister of his -- which might lead you back to him at some point) Tired of sorting out Joneses and Millers and Smiths? Take a break with a more unusual family name -- where searches are more likely to be rewarding.
But this opportunity for striking off in different directions can also be a drawback (or happy indulgence, if you prefer). A while back I wrote about my own fascination with the Hammond family in Indiana, all because my great grandmother, Nancy Jane Sherwood, had married a David Hammond in Bartholomew County in 1849. He died five years later in a gun accident, and she was left with two small boys. Soon after, she married my great-grandfather, Samuel Parker Howard. Within a few years she died, and her two Hammond sons died as well, with no known issue. In trying to pin down the exact dates, places, and causes of the boys’ deaths, I found myself looking for records for all 15 of David Hammond’s siblings and half siblings (his father married three times). This led to many tempting byways, but at some point I had to stop -- at least for the time being.
In my last entry I discussed my hunt for the elusive Els (Eliza? Elizabeth?) Andrew, named in the 1795 will of my ancestor, Thomas Cain (Caroline County, MD). Alas, it has led me to Smiths, since Thomas’s 1791 marriage was to a widow, Frances Smith. I found evidence that the Smith and the Andrew lines had connections going back at least to 1750, when a Levin Smith married an Ann, who had been administrator of the estate of a Richard Andrew. Not only are there at least five Levin Smiths, there seems to be at least one Richard Andrew in every subsequent generation! I find myself fascinated with the many Levins, exasperated by the Richard Andrews, and, so far, am no closer to discovering anything specific about Thomas Cain’s “daughter.”
BUT -- in trying to sort these people out, I have been reminded -- again -- of the importance of looking at every piece of evidence thoroughly. When wills or court cases are involved, you have to be sure to note any mention of lands. Names of tracts which show up over time can link families and individuals. Where ANY kind of document is concerned, take a serious look at the witnesses, bondsmen, or other signatories. These duties are often performed by kinsmen and, again, can help tie together otherwise seemingly unrelated facts. And remember, wills may be made (and dated) years before they go into probate. "Clues" to marriages may be dated long after the event itself, having been taken from sources other than returns.
And, of course, if you really want the most reliable, comprehensive background for information you find in a published compilation, GO BACK TO THE ORIGINAL. The actual documents-- whether they be wills, land records, court cases, marriage bonds, or anything else -- may provide nuggets of information the transcriber left out (or misread). Published works without citations to the original sources are, at best, mere clues, and should be treated as such.