“Sometimes … the actual source is just fine: it’s our perception of that old document that may need a bit of work.”
“Yesss!” said I when this quote popped up as I was Google-Reader-ing the other day.
It comes from AGS fellow and author Henry Z. Jones, who gives a talk called “When the Sources are Wrong” that I’d dearly love to hear someday. [Note: If you're going to the Chula Vista (CA) Genealogical Society meeting tomorrow, you can!]
Mr. Jones’ wise words remind us how easy it can be to take a wrong turn to Genealogy Nowheresville. I’ve flirted with disaster a few times (cough), but never more temptingly than when I was trying to unravel the mystery of an Irish great-great-grandmother’s maiden name.
I’ve written before about the search for Mary Haigney’s birth name. I started with death certificates for the two eldest of Mary and her husband Martin Haigney’s surviving children: my great-grandfather Joseph (1859-1938) and his brother William (1867-1930). They differed on the mother’s maiden name. Joseph’s said it was Mary Mahon; William’s said Mary Carroll.
That earlier post focused on analyzing evidence that was very specific and personal to my family: death certificates, an obituary, a handwritten genealogy and, ultimately, my great-great-grandfather’s Civil War pension file. But there was another, less personal source to consider: census data. And here’s where perception could easily have led me astray from reality.
Conflicting death certificates in hand, I revisited the census data I had on this family, which at the time was limited to the federal censuses of 1860, 1870 and 1880.
1860: Martin, age 28, laborer, born in Ireland, listed at two addresses: by himself in a barracks at the Watervliet Arsenal, and at a dwelling in West Troy (later renamed Watervliet) with his wife, Mary, age 26, born in Ireland, and their son, Joseph, four months, born in New York state.
1870: Martin, age 40, laborer, living in West Troy with wife Mary, age 37, and children Joseph, 11; William, 2; and Margaret, 6 months.
1880: Martin Haigney, age 53, laborer, living in Watervliet with wife Mary, age 50, and four children, William, 12; Margaret, 10; Mary, 8;and Martin, 6. Joseph F. Haigney, age 21, was living in a boardinghouse across the Hudson River in the city of Troy.
Can you see the tempting wrong turn in this data? I thought the changes in Martin’s household between 1860 and 1870 were a potential red flag. There he was in 1860 with a wife named Mary and a baby son. There he was in 1870 with Mary and what amounts to two sets of children — an 11 year old and two little ones, separated from the first birth by 8 years.
And there I was with two Marys on two death certificates — a Mahon and a Carroll. Could the first Mary (Joseph’s mother) have died, and a second Mary (William’s and Margaret’s mother) have replaced her? A lot can happen in ten years!
Well, a lot did happen — just not that. In my defense, my original theory wouldn’t have been unheard of at the time. But the real story was also sadly common. There was only one Mary, as it turned out, and her name was Mahon. The reason for the big gap between Joseph and William was that Martin and Mary had three little girls after Joseph, none of whom lived to be counted in the 1870 census.
The “two Marys” theory officially died when I obtained a copy of a handwritten family genealogy compiled by one of my aunts. It listed two of the children who died young, bringing the total of Martin and Mary’s offspring to seven. Then I found a 1958 newspaper story about their daughter Margaret, which asserted that she was one of eight children. Finally, on a trip to Watervliet last fall, I was able to gather the baptismal dates of all of Martin and Mary’s children — and there were indeed eight. The three daughters missing from the 1870 census were born in 1861, 1863 and 1865.
When exactly they died, I don’t yet know.
But I do know that for a time there, I had some perfectly good census data in hand — and was tempted to imagine my way into a perfectly wrongheaded conclusion.
(Coming up in Part 2: Another naming mystery!)
A great new aid for finding families in this record, and apparently it only just went up. Here is the link to the searchable index.
This is an online name index only. To see an image you need to order the film from a Family History Center. If you find the name you’re looking for, you’ll also see the film number on the entry, along with the page number and family number.
Or, if you’re in NJ, you could see it at the NJ State Library in Trenton at 185 West State Street. Here is a chart that explains the ins and outs of New Jersey censuses and tax lists since 1772 — what’s destroyed, what’s survived and where you can find it at the library or state archives. Very useful.
h/t to Gary at the NJ-GSNJ list.
A while back I attended an Ancestry.com webinar on how to make the most of your searches. I know Ancestry’s search engine twists and turns are a hot-button topic. Last fall, for example, Randy Seaver did a succinct rundown of old vs. new interfaces, at least as things stood at that point. (All I can repeat is that in case you didn’t know, you can still use the “Old Search” button at the top right of the “Search All Records” page.)
But this post (like that webinar) isn’t for searchers expert enough to know just which part of the interface annoys them the most. It’s to pass along some basic procedural tips that struck me as useful for those just starting to explore Ancestry databases. Many might think, “What, this is news?” Well, as we used to say on the copy desk, there are babies born every day who never heard of Elvis. So there.
Where to start: Do not start at the Ancestry home page. Go to the Search All Records form, and use the Advanced Search option. Checking the “exact” box is … debatable. For common given names and surnames it can help — did you know there are more than 800 variations of the name Catherine? For dates, “exact” is problematic, as we shall see.
Useful keys: To spare your fingers, know that: P = preview; J = next; K= previous; N= new form; R= current form.
Three things to do upon locating a record: (A) Read it. Really look at all the information. Scan for clues as to immigration year, time of marriage, total number of children. In census entries, look at the neighbors — some might be collateral kin. (B) Save it online to a shoebox or online tree, if you do online trees. (C) Save it offline however you prefer to do it, by saving it to your hard drive or making a printout, or whatever. I was snickering at this advice until I remembered all the records I’ve re-read and re-saved over the years.
Play with date ranges: The webinar instructors advised beginning with a plus/minus range of 10 years. For example, ancestors didn’t always care about just when they were born; there really was a time when one’s birthdate wasn’t a matter of vital importance. So start with a wide range, narrowing it as you go, depending upon the hits you get.
Use wildcards to play with spelling variations. You can replace as many characters as you want, as long as there is a minimum of three actual characters in the search term. I can pull in lots of variations on Haigney by searching H*g*y. This can be a real help with a name that goes under multiple spellings.
Look at all types of records, even if you are certain your ancestor would never be in them. Don’t search assuming that he or she: was never in the army/never left their home county/never copyrighted anything anywhere. You may well be surprised. I have.
Bon voyage and good luck!
Well, now: A copy of a 1780s population count has turned up at Kean University in Union, N.J., just down the road from me.
Note how I’m applying my terminology, however. I’m staying away from calling it a “census” because, while accurate in the strict sense, this document isn’t the sort of thing we family researchers can spend hours obsessing over on Ancestry.com. Naturally the word “census” may sneak into some headlines, getting people all hot and bothered.
Easy, tiger. Although very interesting, this doesn’t appear to contain information on specific names and their domiciles. It’s a tally of U.S. populations, state by state, drawn from state enumerations taken between 1781 and 1786. For some states, the tallies are broken down by age and race, but other states simply provided a total tally.
The information was found among papers belonging to John Kean, a member of a family still very much active in New Jersey politics today — former governor and 9/11 Commission member Thomas Kean is one example. (In New Jersey, Keans and Livingstons and Frelinghuysens are like the Appalachian Mountains of public life: they’ve just always been there.)
Descendants of the Kean and Livingston families donated a trove of papers to Kean University (no relation? What do you think?). And Kean University archivists have been slowly combing through what they describe as 200 years of American history, which is probably a good thing — researchers say all sorts of goodies keep turning up in odd places.
The population count, for example, was scribbled in a ledger that John Kean originally used for keeping accounts. Being a thrifty sort, he turned it over and used the reverse pages for taking notes when he was elected to the Continental Congress in 1785.
The count said that 2.2 million whites and Indians were living in the U.S.A., along with 567,000 blacks. Virginia had the biggest population, with 530,000 residents, more than half of them black. (New Jersey, by contrast, had about 159,000 residents.)
While it probably won’t set off any lightning bolts for individual genealogy research, the discovery does provide a nice snapshot of the United States at the dawn of its existence.
All done, and it took me about five minutes, even with a new child to list since the last time around. Despite an incredible temptation to spell my surname six different ways as a gesture of solidarity with my ancestors, I kept all spellings standard.
I also used a great tip from the Genealogical And Historical Research discussion group on LinkedIn:
Make a photocopy of your completed census form and file it with your genealogy stuff. No sense making your descendants wait 72 years to see what your answers were if they don’t have to!
I can’t believe I never thought of that! Am I the last person to start doing this?