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Posts Tagged ‘research’

Those of you that live in places where you bring individual trash cans to the curb have probably been in this situation before: One of your neighbors has taken their trash can(s) to the curb, and then another sees the curbside can(s) and does the same, and soon most of them have. You’re pretty sure that there was a holiday this week and that trash pickup has been delayed by one day. But the more people who bring their cans up, the more you start to wonder whether you’re correctly remembering. Perhaps you even double-check the calendar to make sure you are right. But in historical and genealogical research, there is no calendar to check. When the majority choose a different argument or interpretation from yours, you may find yourself looking for a signpost in the scholarly wilderness. People may write a piece disputing your research or contact you directly to express that your conclusions are inaccurate.

In researching historical events and people, none of us will ever know for sure what actually happened. The best we can do is come as close to accuracy as we can with the records and other resources available to us, reach our own interpretations and conclusions, and then always be willing to reexamine them if new records and/or research come to light. This makes research especially contentious, since even something as simple-seeming as an historical birth date can be up for debate.

“Truth is not a democracy”

The subheading is from a seminar I attended several years ago, and was the initial response when an audience member asked a question about when the majority disagrees with your conclusions. It’s a quip that has always stuck with me, because I have found over and over again that just because most people agree on something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best interpretation of the evidence, nor that the others have necessarily reviewed all the records and other evidence that you have reviewed. When I’m contacted by someone who disagrees with my conclusions, my own starting point is usually: Can you please tell me your evidence for your position?

Take the case of the two Simeon Lymans as an example. Simeon Lyman the father was born circa 1718, probably in Northampton, Massachusetts, as his family was living there at the time. Simeon moved to Salisbury, Connecticut, around 1744, as he bought 85 acres on the “highway to Sheffield” from Joel Harvey in that year. In 1747, Simeon was officially admitted as a “resident” of the town of Salisbury according to the town meeting minutes, which included the ability to vote at town meetings. In January 1748/9 he followed these steps with the common next step of marriage. Like most New England families of this era, Simeon and his wife Elizabeth (Beebe) Lyman proceeded to have a lot of children; in their particular case, I have identified nine, including children named after each parent, again as was typical. Their nuclear family was shattered when Elizabeth died in 1773, on the eve of the Revolution. A little over a year later, a Simeon Lyman married an Abigail Chipman in Salisbury.

And this is where the controversy begins.

I had been as thorough as I could, and had also found that a Simeon Lyman had married a Joanna Palmer in 1780. Simeon Lyman the younger was born on 7 January 1754, meaning that he would have been 20 if he had married Abigail Chipman in 1774, and 26 if he married Joanna Palmer in 1780. Is it possible that Simeon the younger married Abigail and Simeon the elder (or some other Simeon) married Joanna? Of course. But it makes a heck of a lot more sense for the widower who still has children at home to remarry quickly and for the young man to wait until he’s a bit more established to marry. And that’s not even getting into the question of ages and how much more sense it generally makes for an older man to marry a woman relatively close in age to him (Abigail was born circa 1730) and a younger man to do the same, and indeed, the Simeon-Joanna pair proceeded to have children of their own. My initial theory was greatly bolstered by reviewing Joanna’s Revolutionary War widow’s pension file, in which affidavits clearly state that she married the younger Simeon.

This has been an extremely basic overview of time-consuming research that I feel is solid. Having noted that most posted research conflated Simeon’s two wives into a single wife (squashing the maiden name of his first wife and the given name of his second wife into a single wife, probably copied uncited from a compiled genealogy that had made the same error), I decided to put a basic sketch of my research on Simeon the elder online, not realizing at the time that it might be controversial beyond the conflated Abigail-Elizabeth question. And that’s when the emails began.

You’ve made a mistake, they said: Simeon the younger married Abigail.

The first time I got one, my initial response was (as usual) to go back over my research to see if I had made an error that was obvious to me. I was relieved when my review confirmed that my conclusions were, to me, solid conclusions based on extensive research and what I considered a preponderance of evidence. However, as I have mentioned, the nature of historical research means conclusions can always change depending on what evidence and research an individual researcher has viewed.

Consequently, I would respond, Can you please tell me your evidence?

They would usually respond, Ancestry. Could you please be more specific? And then I would usually get, U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900. This is an index-only database that is described by Ancestry thusly: “This database contains marriage record information for approximately 1,400,000 individuals from across all 50 United States and 32 different countries around the world between 1560 and 1900. These records, which include information on over 500 years of marriages, were extracted from family group sheets, electronic databases, biographies, wills, and other sources.” None of the entries specify what the exact source is for a marriage, but given that the entry for Simeon and Abigail claims that Simeon was born in 1755 and that Abigail was born in 1757, neither of which is true, I don’t think it is an unfair educated guess to speculate that a family group sheet created by a rather bad researcher is probably the source.

So then I was left trying to explain that I had done hundreds of hours of research on the family and popping a name into an Ancestry search box and coming back with an index-only result is not a substitute for that. Finally I added a note to my posted research that if anyone wanted to contact me disputing what I posted, to please present me with evidence from records, and that I don’t count an unsourced index-only database entry as a record. I wasn’t sure what would happen, but nobody has emailed me since I added that note.

As a final aside on the Lymans in case anyone reached this post through searching on the family, Simeon Lyman the younger carved the powder horn that J. L. Bell blogged about over on Boston 1775 in 2012.

Discovering a new path in the scholarly wilderness

Sometimes something very different happens and you find something that it appears no one else has previously found. Sometimes everyone is immediately accepting of and excited about it. But sometimes not.

Late last year Susan Moore was going through a 16th century record set in England on my behalf and sent me a report about it. I found something in it that I had never seen mentioned anywhere before and was initially taken aback. I first wrote to ask if Susan thought I was correctly interpreting it. Then I checked through published scholarship to see if I had missed its being mentioned, and I could not find a mention of it anywhere.

I am lucky enough to live in a location where I often interact in person with well-established scholars, and I happened to be somewhere with someone who has researched this shortly thereafter, and mentioned it with excitement. It went over like a lead balloon; the response was deep skepticism. After going back and forth about it in my mind a good deal, I decided to try talking to a second scholar before giving up, and their initial response was the same as mine had been – to check published scholarship to see if anyone had mentioned it previously. They could not find anything either. They then congratulated me on making what appeared to be a new find and suggested Susan and I keep plugging away at the research to see what else we could find. (I’m not really sure how I constrained myself from doing a little dance until I was alone.) I readily admit that if the second scholar had similarly reacted with skepticism, I probably would have stopped trying to talk to people about it, although I wouldn’t have given up on the research altogether. Make no mistake that it can be a little scary and/or somewhat intimidating to posit something different than what has been publicly posited before you. Since this experience, I have even more respect for people who have published pieces correcting or disputing previous published research.

I apologize for my vagueness in this part; I hope to be able to publish something about this after having completed further research, and don’t want to spill the beans publicly as a result.

Alone with the research trees

It can be hard to be the one person who doesn’t take your trash cans to the curb on the wrong day, even if you’ve checked the calendar and know that your neighbors have forgotten about a holiday. Similarly, it can be difficult to know that people vehemently disagree with your research, even if you know that your research is as good as it can be and have faith in your own interpretations. In my opinion, part of being a good researcher is being open to being wrong or to discovering new information, and also reviewing your research from time to time to see if your greater knowledge now leads you to question one of your earlier conclusions or realize perhaps there is something you missed reviewing because you did not know it existed at the time. It’s important to read the research of others and to collaborate with others, but it’s also important to remember that others are not necessarily going to agree with you and that this in and of itself doesn’t speak badly of either of you.

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In the past few weeks I have very successfully added several more files to my blog drafts file while not publishing any actual finished posts. So I thought I would provide a bit of an update to a post from last November, “In defense of going down the chipmunk tunnel.”

As I noted in that post, the cause of the research that I turned into the post was my intent to mail off an order for a marriage record, and wanting to check to see if there was a second marriage amongst the siblings in the same city before sending it off, so that I could pool my order. In the end I discovered the other couple married in Ohio, and sent off the single request as originally planned.

But I never did hear back from the city. In my years of long-distance research, I’ve learned that there can be any number of reasons why a repository’s response never reaches me, from banal ones like a piece of mail getting lost to, as happened to me last year, the new archivist at an archive determining that as far as discernible, the previous archivist had cashed my check and never done the promised research. So after a while longer has passed than the estimated time for a response, I like to politely follow up with the repository to try to determine what happened. In this case, my second letter was answered with a letter from the city vital records stating that they could find no record of the marriage in their archive.

This provides an interesting research problem.

The marriage information I had was obtained from alumni listings. Those are generally provided by the alumni themselves, and then compiled into a listing by someone else. So a few of the major reasons I can see for this outcome are:

  1. The staff missed the marriage, possibly because a surname is misspelled. Unlikely but always possible.
  2.  The couple married there but had obtained their license elsewhere and/or went on to register their marriage elsewhere. I’m not sure yet of the law on this in this place and time, so I don’t know how likely it is that there would be no record at all of the marriage in the location where they were married.
  3. The alumni listings are wrong. Always possible as well since it is secondary information (which in this case specifically means after-the-fact information provided by one of the parties who was there) that has probably been compiled from alumni information by a third party, leaving additional room for error.

First next steps:

  1. Check on marriage laws at this time and place. Start with searches at Google Books and Internet Archive, as they have a lot of governmental publications and writings on the law (and not just for the US), including a number of past published state statutes.
  2. Depending on outcome of (1), widen search for marriage record and/or marriage license, and/or do further research on the couple aiming to find further marriage clues.

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Many long-time genealogy researchers tend to find just about everything interesting. A common comment for being more efficient with research time is the need to limit what I call “Shiny Object Syndrome” – the fascination with anything interesting that is wandering into the research view – and what many other researchers call something such as “following rabbit trails.”  While this is certainly important when one is researching for someone else or researching at a repository for a very limited amount of time, sometimes following the path wherever it leads can be beneficial.

Chipmunks, a Northeastern North American mammal that burrows in the ground, are fascinating creatures.  They usually have at least three entrances/exits to their tunnels so that they can come in or out at will, escaping predators and other chipmunks.  They also typically have multiple food stores in their tunnels, because chipmunks have a propensity to raid each others’ food stores, and this way, their entire cache of food won’t be wiped out in a single raid.

What on earth, you are likely thinking, does any of this have to do with genealogy?  I posit a somewhat offbeat idea – that sometimes going down the chipmunk tunnel will lead you to a cache.

For some days, I had a piece of mail almost ready to go, waiting to be sent to a vital records department.  Like some other vital records repositories, this one requires a money order to process, so I hadn’t taken the final step of getting one.  When I have to take an extra step like that, I like to pool my order if I can.  Since this couple had gotten married in a particular town, and I believe they likely did so because a sibling lived there at the time, I wanted to try one more time to find some indication of where the sibling’s marriage took place before sending the letter in, so that I could request both records at once if it turned out to be in the same locale.

I started by searching for an obituary of the husband.  I knew his death date from family papers that had been passed down to me, and had previously confirmed the place and date with an online index, but had not looked for an obituary nor ordered the original record yet.  (I had previously searched multiple times for an obituary of the wife, who outlived him by 34 years, but had never found one.)  I found a death notice in a newspaper, and then found a full-page article about his life and death in a trade magazine on Google Books.  The article went into great detail about his life, but only gave a year for the marriage, and no place.

I had not researched his family of origin at all, though, and the lengthy article mentioned his father’s name and that his father died in the Civil War the same year he was born.  So out of curiosity I checked to confirm (or refute) his father’s service and death, and when I discovered it appeared to be true, I thought I’d check to see if the widow (the husband’s mother) filed for a pension.  I confirmed this easily on Ancestry’s pension index cards, and then went to check the other record set of pension index cards, since the two sets often contain different information.  Much to my shock, Fold3 turned out to contain the entire pension file – the first time I have found a Civil War pension file on there (they are very slowly indexing them, and were up to 3% complete the last time I checked), though I know a few other researchers who have found several.  I ended up very glad that it was on there, as it was by far the smallest Civil War pension file I’ve ever seen, and if I had ordered it from NARA at their flat rate of $75 per pension file for up to 100 pages, it would have cost about $3 per page.

After spending a bit of time skimming through the file, I went back to working on my original goal – when and where the couple married.  I found that the husband had published some articles in the trade magazine prior to his sudden death, and that those are online too.  I also found in googling that the wife had applied to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and did a descendant search for her on DAR’s database, hoping the application would include marriage information, as many of them do.  I discovered that she applied under a different ancestor than the one I knew served in the Revolutionary War.  I paid for and downloaded the PDF of her application, as well as a later application for the same ancestor that would likely be more detailed.  This is for a line that I haven’t really done much work on – I’m not stuck on it, I just haven’t done much to date.  Her application was bare-bones like many of the early DAR ones, and did not include any marriage information.  But the other application was very detailed, and will be useful for clues as I work on this line.

And then I turned back to searching and found a scanned “social register” which listed his marriage to his wife – in 1896, in the city she was from.  The article about his life and death had stated that they had married in 1898, and the estimate based on the 1900 census data was for a marriage in 1897.  Most interesting of all – at least to me – is that the social register had two different marriage dates listed, one under each of their cross-referenced names!  The dates were only two days apart, so at least it gave me a narrow window to focus my initial search.

So I went to FamilySearch, as I knew from other research that they had updated their “Ohio, County Marriages, 1790-1950” database with more records this year, and I figured it was worth a try to see if they had been added.  I searched for them, and there they were!  One of the two dates in the social register was correct.  I was sure I had the right couple, because the husband had a fairly unusual last name and a very unusual middle name.

I had the answer to my question, and new records to add to my files.  And I went ahead and stopped by the bank that day to get a money order, and sent the lone marriage record request on its way.

This may seem like a convoluted way to reach my destination.  But even if I hadn’t gotten the answer to my question, I still think it would have been a valuable pursuit.  Here are some of the things I learned in my two hours of research:

  • The death notice states that he died “suddenly.”
  • The article on his death provided a very large amount of information I had not already had. While it will need to be confirmed with other records (as shown by the marriage year being incorrect), what has been checked so far has mostly turned out to be accurate.
  • Finding the article on his death and the articles he had published in the trade magazine both show that Google Books has added more trade magazines. This is worth pursuing for other folks in my tree as well.
  • The trade magazine’s extremely detailed article on his life and death also showed just what a rich source of information they can be, and emphasized that it would be wise to give them more priority in relevant searches.
  • Fold3 is continuously adding to their Civil War pension files, and it is worth checking any time a new pensioner is discovered in my research.
  • At least for this one widow, the fact that her husband died during the war and she applied nearly immediately appears to have gotten her a pension quite quickly – much different than what I am used to seeing in my Civil War pension research. But she was also dropped from the rolls after some time of failing to collect her pension, according to the last page of the file; this is not something I have encountered before, and plan to explore what it means more.
  • The pension file also indicates that he was the only child of this couple.
  • The DAR applications suggest a possible path for a line I haven’t done much work on, as well as some sources to try for it. Her application and acceptance also tell me that she was a DAR member, and that she knew enough about her lineage to apply through one of her ancestors.
  • It’s always worth trying googling for a research question. (Just a self-reminder of something I already knew, but it’s always nice to have confirmation.)
  • It seems worthwhile to try the rest of my names of people who may have married in Ohio, since FamilySearch’s “Ohio, County Marriages, 1790-1950” seems to have expanded so much this year.
  • The date and place of the marriage, with a scan of the original record now added to my files.

And in my wanderings through the chipmunk tunnel, I found a cache.

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Today’s task

My main genealogical task today has been to write the Hamilton County (Ohio) Genealogical Society asking them to make copies of some marriage and obituary listings.  I have an ancestor, Captain Thomas Jefferson Haldeman (often referred to in records as “Captain Haldeman”), who seems to have been quite a spirited and memorable individual, as he is mentioned in several narratives of immigrating families who had him as one of their steamboat captains.  They typically talk about him as being by far the most genial, kind steamboat captain they had on their journey to their new home.  However, so far for me he has been rather a ghost in official records prior to late in his life. The late censuses (I have yet to find him in any early ones) generally list him as being from Kentucky, but as to where (or if it’s even correct), I don’t know for sure.  I don’t know who his parents were, I don’t know his exact birthdate, and so on.  I know he likely arrived in Ohio in 1867 (according to a book on the 1800s history of Hamilton County) but before that his colorful life is scattered in bits and pieces instead of being a cohesive narrative.  So my biggest hope for this letter is that the Thomas J. Haldeman listed in the obituary database of the Hamilton County Genealogical Society is “my” T.J. Haldeman.  The time frame fits my death date, but I’ll just have to wait and see.

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