If you’re like me, you have encountered situations in your genealogical research where the pieces of a puzzle almost, but don’t quite fit. In those situations, we may enter the information on a family group sheet or a pedigree chart in pencil, or with a question mark. We might write about them in a blog or a journal article, using words like “probably” or “perhaps” or “may have” or “likely,” and if we’re diligent, we will include notes as to why we are hesitant to state outright that these facts are, well, facts.
Twice in one day, patrons in The Genealogy Center
approached the Ask Desk with family information that indicated that a 14-year-old boy was the father of a child. This is not physically impossible – at least not today when children are maturing earlier than they did a century and more ago – but it is at the very least quite unlikely to have occurred back in the mid-1800s, and not just because of physical reasons. In one case, the boy was said to have been married, fathered the child at age 14, then widowed and married again twice in succession at an older age, fathering several more children. Allowing for the 9-month gestation period of the baby, even if the boy and the baby’s mother married after she was pregnant, he almost certainly would have had to have been married at age 13. It is difficult to imagine that either family would have approved of this marriage, with the young father a child himself and not old enough to support his wife and child.
The first hypothesis I would test in this situation is whether there were two people with the same name in the same geographic area. Maybe the 14-year-old boy he had a slightly older cousin or uncle who actually was the baby’s father, and the boy grew up to marry twice once he was of age. Sometimes researchers “latch onto” individuals with the same name, assuming that they are the same person. But the records often give clues that allow us to distinguish between these same-name folks if we keep our eyes open. For example, when land is sold, a wife’s name usually is given. Deeds also give land descriptions and sometimes the names of the owners of adjacent properties. The names of witnesses to deeds and wills can help us build a group of associates for our individuals of interest. Tax records may give us clues as to how wealthy people were, or whether they were very young or more well-established, based on how much land they owned. When there were two (or more) individuals in the same area at the same time in the deeds, tax lists and other records, sometimes designations like Junior, Senior, Younger, and others can help us sort them out. One of my ancestors was called William Morgan “Cozen” – what I later was able to interpret as “Cousin” – in deeds to distinguish him from an older William Morgan in the same area.
[Read more about asking yourself whether your family information is plausible in the next installment]