Missing nails and black holes

Alicia Crane WilliamsMy “Devil’s advocate” pops up and waves red flags at me whenever something is not quite right based on “our” experience.  Our most often used flag is for “black holes” – too much missing information. The connection may be right, but it certainly hasn’t yet been proved, and skipping over these holes is like skipping two out of every three nails when you build your deck – it might hold for a while, but it isn’t safe.

Our ideal is to securely “bolt” our genealogy deck together with full and accurate birth, marriage, and death records for each individual, but that ideal is rarely achieved. Yet we quickly learn that relying on a single record can lead us down a garden path.  I once worked on a case where a groom stated at his marriage that he was born in Oklahoma, but when his wife made out his death certificate, she said he was born in New York. Normally, we give greater credence to a marriage record, where information is supplied by the principals, than to a death record where information may be supplied by a spouse or child, so I spent a good deal of time chasing Oklahoma records, until I discovered the wife was right. Because her husband worked in a “Wild West” show at the time they were married, however, a birthplace of Oklahoma was more fitting to his role!

Often blank spaces are left because an exact date or place is not known, but we can almost always extrapolate information from other records – e.g., an estimated birth year from a census record – that will give us parameters within which to make judgments.

Let’s say our sources tell us that John Smith and Mary Brown married in 1799 and had a daughter Abigail born in 1800. We also have a record that says an Abigail Smith married Harry Carey in 1816, but it does not give their parents’ names nor their ages, plus we have no probate record for John Smith nor death record for Abigail (Smith) Carey. It seems possible that these Abigails are the same person, but now let’s say we locate the 1850 census for the family of Abigail and Harry Carey that gives her age as 55, indicating she was born about 1795. Is the age in the census wrong or are we dealing with two Abigails?

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia is the lead genealogist on the new NEHGS study project, Early New England Families, 1641-1700. Prior to joining the NEHGS staff, she compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant, the Alden Family Five Generations project, and the Harlow Family : Descendants of Sgt. William Harlow (1624/5-1691) of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University. In October 2016, Alicia was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.

3 thoughts on “Missing nails and black holes

  1. Isn’t that the truth! Sounds so familiar. Also why we keep going. Where is?! Who is?! My great great grandfather is William N. Stearns. I am trying to find out when he died. I am not counting his parents etc until I have that piece of information. Daughter’s marriage has his birth in Jackson. His marriage (just a line in town records) has his residence La Grange. Found a William N. Stearns in La Grange 1880. Found all the info for A William Nathan Stearns born to family in Jackson.1870 on back three generations. Have not nailed it to my William until I can find….And my Polly Hilton…..oh, my! Local history is the only mention of her, her marriage and connection to family besides the Hilton in her grand children’s names. I have prime candidates for parents BUT….

    Sounds so familiar. And …..btw, did you get the last “nailed’ together? I’d love to know….

    1. Paula, Sounds like William is leading you a merry chase, but all the more satisfactory when it is solved.

      Abigail (Smith) Carey is a fictional combination of multiple problems for illustration. She will appear in more posts as we go through more red flags!

  2. Just a side note: I did DNA Ancestry and match a woman who is a direct of said William Nathan Stearns of Jackson’s sister. We could be related other ways though. Still need a paper tie together. A will perhaps? DNA isn’t something you can point to in most cases since another person is involved. Just a bit more confidence you are on the right track.

Leave a Reply