Thursday, September 13, 2012

To tell the truth

If you want to bring to light the gaps and flaws in your genealogical research, there’s a straightforward solution -- try writing it down as a story.  Not a chart. Not a “report.” A story. 
Four Cain brothers, ca 1899: Cornelius, John (standing),
 Jonathan, Eli

And as you go along, make sure to confirm every statement of fact. Great-aunt Josie was born in Oklahoma.  Who says?  Cousin Bunkie was a sheriff’s deputy in Georgia. When? What proof do you have?

I’m rediscovering the value of this process as I try to knit together the people and facts that make up one of my family lines. It isn’t quick-and-easy, but every step along the way gives me a sense of achievement.

I chose to start with my earliest-discovered Cain ancestor, Thomas, who died in 1795 in Maryland or Delaware (not that far back, compared to some). As I work forward in time emphasis is on the direct ancestor in each generation, though I’m trying to give equal time to the wives, and am not overlooking the siblings and their families. To help make sense of the inevitable flood of names and dates, I am devising simple charts to accompany the text, and footnotes will refer to the documentation, much of which accompany the narratives. 

Since I started doing genealogy many years ago, and have learned a lot since gathering those earliest pieces of information, it has been a journey of rediscovery. For instance, I never used to give much thought to the occupations listed in every census since 1850 (most of the men were farmers, but not all). In more recent censuses I didn’t always know enough to try to work out the home addresses, or make note of any property valuations that were given. There is so much more that census records can tell us than just name, age, and place of birth.

And when I went back to unearth a paragraph in a county history about my great-grandfather, with an eye to finding a better copy, I read it more carefully.  Dr. Cornelius Cain was married in Brookville, Indiana, but he began his medical practice in the nearby town of Laurel, the article said.  This, I knew from another document, was where his father-in-law was a Justice of the Peace, and, later, postmaster. 

I began to sort through the photographs and documents that will illustrate this narrative, and found that I still need copies of some original materials.  Work at a project like this long enough and you begin to understand the importance of looking at the real thing -- not just a name in an index, a will abstract, or some other researcher’s notes. 

Those early research deficiencies need to be remedied, and in the process of doing that, I am making new discoveries and connections that had not occurred to me before. The point of writing the narrative is, in part, to make my research results more palatable to non-genealogists, but as I dig into it I am finding it is also a great way to tie up many loose ends, uncover and correct long-standing errors and omissions, and make new connections.  So satisfying!

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