Note: A somewhat longer version of this article ran in the Ancestry Daily News on 11 December 2002.
Today we’re asking questions of ourselves that we should also ask of our ancestors. If any of your ancestors are still living ask them the questions yourself (as politely as possible though, as some are somewhat sensitive). Most of us will not be able to get direct answers to these questions from our ancestors. However, thinking about how we might have responded ourselves might get us thinking differently about some of our own family history problems. Sometimes we tend to forget our ancestors were human and susceptible to the same frailties as we are. Putting yourself in your ancestor’s boots, shoes, moccasins, or clogs might help you get over that brick wall. There are no hard and fast answers—just questions and suggestions.
General advice on the problems we’ll be discussing is to learn about the time period, the geographic area, the cultural and political climate, and the records themselves. Asking questions and being willing to learn is an excellent starting point.
Have You Ever Answered A Question Wrong On An Application Or A Form?
Is it possible your ancestor gave a wrong answer on a document or record? Perhaps he lied about his age in order to get in the service. Perhaps she lied about her age in order to get married. Perhaps he thought the value of his farm in 1860 was no one’s business or wanted to deflate the value in case the taxman was within earshot of the census taker. There are many reasons why one might “fudge” an answer on some form (although I’m not encouraging fraud and deceit). An ancestor might have done it as well.
Obtaining all records on your ancestor may allow you to establish an approximate date of a specific event. Just keep in mind that not all these documents will be consistent. Record the information exactly as you find it. Analyzing the information is necessary to potentially reach a consensus—correcting the information as you copy it is not. Your ancestor might have intentionally lied or given quick answers to just placate the questioner. He might also have been confused about his actual age. It is also possible that he was just wanting to confuse his descendants and keep his past buried.
Have You Ever “Approximated” Your Place Of Birth Or Residence?
Some of us who live in the “boonies” find it easier to not give our exact residence as no on ever knows where it is anyway. Many times it takes more time to explain the exact location than it is worth. Consequently I frequently tell people I live 45 minutes from Davenport, Iowa, or several hours west of Chicago. It is easier. While my ancestors did not live where I did, some of them estimated their original residence of place of birth. Some of my German-born forebears listed on some American records the county seat as their place of birth, instead of the little village where they were actually born. They were not concerned with the discrepancy or the possibility of someone researching the records one hundred years later. Inconsistencies in locations may be due to approximations and listing the nearest “big city” instead of the actual location of the event.
This problem is not always easily solved. Researchers should locate as many records as possible, focusing on any source that might list the place of birth for the focus person. These searches should include the children of the focus person, and concentrate on those records that might include the place of birth for the parents. Those unfamiliar with the area being researched should obtain detailed maps and learn something about the political jurisdictions that have covered the area being researched.
Have You Ever Made A Mistake And Did Not Want Anyone To Know About It? Did You Intentionally Hide Your Past From Someone?
Is it possible your ancestor had an embarrassing secret he wanted to leave buried in the past? Was he vague about his origins in an attempt to keep the secret hidden? Did your ancestor leave Europe to avoid compulsory military service? Did you ancestor want to “turn over a new leaf in a new location?” Did your ancestor leave a painful past or childhood and never want to talk about it or think about it again? All of these are reasons to be vague about their past on official records.
I know one researcher whose ancestor left the coal mines of Pennsylvania as a child and had absolutely no intention of returning. He rarely talked of his past, and consequently, his family knows little of his origins. This ancestor did not live during a time when providing a copy of a birth certificate was necessary for employment. Mentioning specifics about the past is not conducive to establishing a new identity.
Did You Contemplate Naming A Child Something That Had Absolutely No Connection To You Or Your Family?
Many family names are passed down through the generations and some families name all their children for other family members. Some do not. Does your child’s name have a family connection? Or, did your ancestor simply pick a name for their child out of the air?
Your ancestor might have picked a name out of their contemporary culture as well. There were many individuals named for Lorenzo Dow, once a popular American figure. Not everyone who had “Lorenzo Dow” as a part of their name was related to him, and making such a conclusion is not wise. But learning that there was a famous person for whom your ancestor was named can help you from going down the wrong path.
Determining if your ancestor was named for a once famous person may be as easy as typing the name into a search engine such as Google. If my ancestor was named Abraham Lincoln Smithshire, for example, I would type “Abraham Lincoln” into the search engine, not my ancestor’s surname of Smithshire. If I find a match, there is a good chance it is not a coincidence that the particular name combination was chosen. Of course, for this particular example, if I have many American ancestors and I’m unaware of whom Abraham Lincoln is then it is time to brush up on my American history.
If your ancestor gave a child a first and a middle name that appears to be someone else’s first and last name, search for that first and last name combination in online databases and indexes, particularly census indexes. This is a more effective approach when the person who originally had the name is relatively obscure.
Have You Moved Somewhere Because You Had Family Or Close Relatives In The Area That Would Help Out Until You Established Yourself?
Is it possible your ancestor had acquaintances in a new city to which he moved? While some move to a completely new area to establish a new identity or a new life, many move to areas where they have some type of connection. This connection may be a family member, a former neighbor, a job, etc. The connections to family or friends may be easier to make than the connection to employment.
Analyze your ancestor’s neighbors for the first few years he lives in a new locality. If he became naturalized, determine if anyone vouched for him during the naturalization process. If the ancestor moved to a rural area, determine if any neighbors are from the same state or country. If research on your ancestor does not reveal a specific place of origin, research neighbors or associates from the same area to determine if their records are more specific in regards to their place of origin.
Did You Contemplate Eloping When You Got Married?
Is it possible your ancestors did the same thing? Did they “run off” to get married where no one would know their ages or no one would know that their parents objected to the marriage? Did they run across the state line to get married where there was no obligatory waiting period after the license was issued? These are factors that should be considered when looking for marriage records.
Some Things Do Not Change
Some things about how our ancestors and we acted are the same; certain aspects of human nature have changed little. For example, our culture, society, and the expectations we place on individuals have changed. Remember that the obligations of family and social status may have played more of a role in your ancestor’s decisions than you realize.
While you probably can’t wear your ancestor’s shoes, put yourself in his position as much as possible. Given the likely distance of time, geography, and culture, it is not always possible to imagine our ancestor’s motivations completely. However, making the attempt is always worth the effort.