Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG
Evidence that Leads to a Verdict
In a court of law, there can be no guilty verdict not supported by evidence. Most recently this was demonstrated in the trial of Casey Anthony, now called "the most hated woman in America." The jury could not convict her of murdering her two-year-old daughter because the prosecutor presented insufficient evidence. If she is guilty, she seems to have committed the perfect crime as she cannot be tried again for the same crime.
Genealogists also base their decisions on evidence - but you, the researcher, are both judge and jury. The evidence convinces you, provides you with proof that a given event occurred in the life of your ancestor. As in a court of law, contradictions between pieces of evidence must be resolved before reaching a conclusion.
As in court, there may not be enough evidence to convict - you may have to continue research to resolve a problem. While a trial jury's decisions are life or death matters, a research decision may mean the difference between finding your own ancestor or wasting time chasing someone else's.
There are times, however, when you may have to spend time on someone else's ancestor. One of the traps we fall into in identifying ancestors is the "same name." Often two or more men (men are more likely to leave records) in the same town at the same time have the same name.
In Suffield, Connecticut in the 1700s several men named Noah Smith are identified as Noah1, Noah2, Noah3, Noah Sr. and Noah Jr. When Noah1 died Noah2 became Noah1, etc. Of course each Noah named a son Noah further muddying the waters as the sons came of age, and Noah1 was not necessarily the son of Noah2.
In "same name" cases you need to find every available record and look for distinguishing characteristics to help separate them. The evidence is in the records and it may take many records to untangle the name puzzle but what an accomplishment when it's done!
My ancestor Deborah Cass is an example of a "same name" problem. My great grandfather wrote that she was born April 16, 1784 in New Hampshire. She married Ransom Jenkins in 1810. They lived in Chautauqua County, New York and Erie County, Pennsylvania where she died after raising 10 children.
In the 1960s and 70s I often visited a prestigious genealogical library in Cleveland, Ohio. The librarian, an experienced genealogist, was convinced that my Deborah Cass had also married Wyllys Silliman, a prominent Ohio politician by whom she had a number of children. I couldn't believe my grandfather Jenkins could have been so wrong about his own grandmother, so I began tracking this other Deborah Cass.
I found she was born 16 April 1784 in New Hampshire, the daughter of Revolutionary War General Jonathan Cass. She was raised in Muskingum County, Ohio where her father received a large tract of land for his war service, and she died an elderly widow in California. I knew without a doubt she was not my ancestor.
Back in the 1930s I believe my grandfather, in trying to find his Deborah's ancestry, located the New Hampshire birth of the Ohio Deborah and assumed it was ours. The 1850 and 1860 censuses indicate our Deborah was born about 1795, but he likely didn't have access to census evidence at that time.
Many types of records provide evidence influencing our genealogical decisions. The validity of the record necessarily reflects on the strength of the evidence it provides. For this reason, we must analyze each record in the context of other records to determine its worth. The next column will discuss six questions to ask to help evaluate records and make right decisions.
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22 August 2011