In my last post I wrote about different types of information that we might draw upon to build our family trees: original and derivative records, and primary and secondary sources. If you haven’t read that post, you might want to read it now. Today’s offering builds on it, by considering:
- How can we use these types of evidence together to build a conclusive case?
- When can we be sure we really have the right person and the facts straight?
- How much evidence is enough?
There is no straightforward answer. Some advise you should aim for three pieces of evidence. I don’t agree. Sometimes one piece of evidence is so conclusive it’s all we need. Quality is more important than quantity. Other times we find ourselves conducting an ongoing investigation that can take years.
What follows is two case studies that illustrate my own experience of building a hypothesis, finding possible answers, and eventually finding that one final, convincing piece of information.
Case study 1: Who are Joseph’s parents?
As an inexperienced genealogist I came to a brick wall with one of my lines. My 3x great grandfather was Joseph Lucas, and census records indicated he was born around 1787. Joseph’s baptism record provided his father’s name – also Joseph – and from there I was able to find Joseph senior’s marriage, his wife’s name (Anne) and the names of all their children. Since Joseph senior died before censuses commenced I had no way of knowing his age. Several Joseph Lucas’s were baptised in the parish, all within a few years, and any one of them could have been my Joseph. With nothing to indicate the name of his father, how could I narrow them down?
One of the potential baptisms, in 1754, interested me because of the father’s name: Nathaniel. My 4xG grandparents, Joseph and Anne, had a son with the same name. Checking all the children of this older Nathaniel and his wife Sarah, I found that alongside their son Joseph (potentially my 4xG grandfather) they too had named a son Nathaniel. In fact, six of my Joseph’s twelve children shared names with the children of Nathaniel and Sarah. Given the importance of naming traditions, I thought I was on to something. But there was a catch. That 1754 baptism was Nonconformist. What’s more, Nathaniel’s family lived at the opposite side of Leeds from where I knew my Joseph raised his family. Two far more experienced researchers insisted I was wrong, one on the grounds of the Nonconformity; the other citing geography: ‘These are the Woodhouse Lucas’s; ours are the Hunslet Lucas’s.’ Consulting online trees, I could see that this was a problem no one had solved.
This coincidence of names was too much for me to let it go, but it was only a hypothesis, requiring further proof that I didn’t have. I did add Nathaniel, Sarah and all their children as the family of my 4xG grandfather Joseph, but knowing that others thought I was wrong, I didn’t want to take the line back any further. I left it for several years.
By the time I came back to look at this line I was more experienced, knowledgeable and confident. This is what happened next:
First, I found the baptism of Joseph’s wife, my 4xG grandmother, Anne. Her father was called Leonard… the same name she and Joseph gave their first son. So if they named their first son after Anne’s father, surely their second son, who was Nathaniel, was indeed named after Joseph’s father…?
Next, I found a record for Leonard senior on the Register of Duties Paid for Apprentices’ Indentures, 1710-1811. Anne’s father Leonard, it turned out, was a master tailor… just like Joseph was. Might Anne and Joseph have met as a result of Joseph learning his trade at the side of Anne’s father? I’ve never found a record proving that Joseph was apprenticed to Leonard, but from wider reading I knew it was not uncommon for apprentices to marry the master’s daughter; and Joseph’s marriage to Anne is at exactly the right time to coincide with the end of Joseph’s apprenticeship.
Consulting a map of the period, I could see that Leonard’s home in Chapeltown was less than a mile from Woodhouse where Nathaniel and Sarah were raising their family – a reasonable distance for their son to walk daily during his apprenticeship.
Initially, the baptism records I used for Joseph and Ann’s children were transcripts, found on FamilySearch. Now I found the originals on Ancestry. Looking at each one, I now saw that the earlier children were born in Chapeltown, consistent with the couple living with Leonard while Joseph developed his skills following apprenticeship. Using these same baptism records, I was able to work out exactly when Joseph and Anne moved from Chapeltown to Hunslet, which is where Joseph set up his own business, and where their descendants would remain for the next few generations.
There was no longer any doubt: my 4xG grandfather Joseph Lucas is the son of Nathaniel and Sarah Lucas, baptised in a Nonconformist chapel in 1754; and later abandoning that practice. All of this was worked out using primary sources: the original records (baptism, marriage, apprenticeship) and the map. Initially, the derivative records (transcripts of the baptism records) gave me sufficient information to develop my hypothesis, but had not provided the detail that enabled me to see where Joseph and Anne were living when each child was born. That alone would have provided some important evidence (that Joseph was not originally from Hunslet) when I first started to formulate this hypothesis. Wider reading, including an understanding of the apprenticeship system both generally and in Leeds (where the system was slightly different) enabled me to draw conclusions from the apprenticeship record.
One final piece of evidence has come to light recently: a DNA match with a distant cousin further back along the line from Nathaniel and Sarah.
Case study 2: The Symondsons of Starbotton
My 8x great grandfather is Thomas Symondson. He married my 8x great grandmother Agnes at St Mary’s church in Kettlewell in Yorkshire’s Wharfedale on 19th February 1674/75, and their first child, my 7x great grandfather Lister Symondson, was baptised in the same church on 21st July 1678.
Thomas’s own baptism cannot be found. Based on his marriage year of 1674/75, a birth year around 1645-1655 seems likely.
Looking at other online trees connected to Thomas and Lister, one tree in particular caught my attention. It was compiled by someone with a wide interest not just in this family but in the whole of the area known as Wharfedale. Over time, this person is working through every register from all parishes within Wharfedale, and transcribing them. The result is not only an online tree at Ancestry, but also a dedicated (free to use) website including every person ever traced within Wharfedale (all 408,794 of them!) and a list of their key life events with dates. A life’s work indeed, and of the highest quality. In other words, everything on the tree and the website has been compiled from original records (primary sources), but what I was seeing was derivative.
On this tree and related website, Thomas is listed as one of five sons: Lawrence, born 1639 in Giggleswick; Christopher, born circa 1640 in Kettlewell; Lister, born 1641 in Gisburn; then Thomas himself, born circa 1649 in Kettlewell; and finally Anthony, born 1656 in Kettlewell. Baptism records for Lawrence and Lister indicate that the father is Christopher Symondson.
From wider reading (secondary sources) I knew that the period in question was a turbulent one in English history. Referred to as the Interregnum, it is the period commencing with the execution of Charles I in 1649 and ending with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. During these years responsibility for the registration of births, marriages and burials was removed from the clergy and given to a ‘Parish Register’. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the clergy resumed their role in keeping the registers. However, many of the registers of the Interregnum were not handed back to the incumbent or, regarded as invalid, they were destroyed. The result is that although some of the records of the period survive, many do not. This is almost certainly the reason for the missing records for this family, and if so they would never be found.
From the records that have survived we know that Lawrence and Lister are brothers, and their father is Christopher Symondson. It is also clear from naming patterns that there is a family connection between this Christoper, Lawrence and Lister, and my 8xG grandfather Thomas, who would go on to name his own sons Lister and Christopher. But is that relationship one of father/son/brother? Or could it be a little more distant, for example cousins? What I needed was some form of 17th century evidence that would magically link Thomas to any one of Christopher, Lawrence or Lister, as their son/brother.
Reader, I found it! 🙂
Lister left a will. On 23rd February 1693/94 Lister willed his entire estate to his wife Mary, and after Mary’s death to their only daughter Barbary. In the event of Barbary’s death without issue, the estate would pass (with some conditions attached) to ‘my brother Thomas Symondson and his heirs’. The will was signed in the presence of three men, each of whom signed or left his mark. These three men included Thomas Symondson. (As a potential beneficiary of the will, today this would render the will invalid, but it seems in 1693/4 this rule had not yet come into being.) As luck would have it, I already had a sample of my 8xG grandfather Thomas’s handwriting. In 1678, at the time of his son Lister’s baptism, Thomas was churchwarden and it was he who prepared the Bishop’s Transcript of all baptisms, marriages and burials in the parish for that year. I therefore have a whole page of his handwriting, together with two samples of him writing his own name – once to indicate the father (himself) of the baptised child Lister Symondson, and then to witness the truth and accuracy of the register. By comparing the handwriting on these two original records I can see that the Thomas Symondson who witnessed his brother’s will and the one known to be my 8xG grandfather is the same man, and by extension, my 9xG grandfather is Christopher.
One final note: I wouldn’t want to you to think all my genealogical problems are solved. In these two examples – and many others – perseverance paid off. But I do have many more examples of brick walls that have so far proven insurmountable. Some of them will eventually be solved, I’m sure, but sometimes we do have to accept, finally, that the records no longer exist.