Evidence: part 2

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.

Evidence: part 1

Last time I wrote about a family history document written several decades ago by a distant cousin and passed to me very recently by her nephew.  Although full of mistakes, it was still of much value to me.  Firstly, my own research broadly agreed with the names and places mentioned, and where there were discrepancies I was confident that these were down to my late distant cousin mis-remembering family stories: my research was correct. Second, although her claims about past wealth cannot be borne out by evidence so far available to me, there were sufficient verifiable facts that some aspects are worthy of further investigation.  And finally, the more recent accounts, which related to my great grandfather, his birth mother and their families, were essentially family gossip, things I would never learn by reading official records.  These are the parts of her story I value most.  I learned a lot about my great grandfather.

Following on from that, I thought it worthwhile to look a little deeper at different types of evidence, why some carry more weight than others, and how there can nevertheless be value in all.

Historians make an important distinction between primary and secondary sources.  As genealogists we tend to focus more on the distinction between original and derivative records.  And yet there is overlap between all of these categories.

Primary sources are created at the time of an event, or not long afterwards.  For us as genealogists these include original records from official sources, such as:

  • birth certificates
  • baptism records
  • marriage records
  • death certificates
  • wills
  • property documents, e.g. deeds
  • apprenticeship records
  • court records
  • 1911 census (and subsequent censuses, as they are released)

but they will also include such things as:

  • photographs of people and places
  • letters
  • memoirs
  • diaries
  • spoken accounts by people who played a part in the event

Secondary sources tend to be published works in which the author describes, summarises, discusses or in some way draws upon information gathered from other sources (primary or other secondary).  A secondary source may be produced many years after an event, and the author may have had no physical connection whatsoever with the original event.  Examples might include:

  • historians’ texts based on research about a person, locality, event or period of interest
  • literature contemporaneous to the events, e.g. Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell
  • modern historical novels and films based on sound research

One advantage of such sources is that the author can benefit from an overview.  S/he may know and understand much more than any one particular individual could have at the time.  There is also the benefit of hindsight, not to mention objectivity.

Derivative records are records created after the event but based directly on an original record.  As such, there is scope for error, based on illegibility of the original text, carelessness, or anything in between.  Examples we regularly come across include:

  • transcriptions of original records
  • indexes of record collections
  • census records, 1841-1901
  • Note that a photocopy of an original document remains, for our purposes, an original.

So far everything seems quite straightforward, but the picture is not quite as clear-cut as it seems.  Let’s consider some anomalies and grey areas.

Why is the 1911 census an original record, yet the earlier ones are not?
Since you’re reading this blog, you almost certainly know that when we find the 1911 census return for one of our ancestors, we see a single sheet completed by the head of household and relating to the members and accommodation of that household.  Undoubtedly, this is an original record and primary source.  By contrast, for the earlier censuses what we see is a long list of all residents in a specific locality, arranged by household, and organised according to the route the enumerator took as he walked from house to house, collecting the information.  You might have explained this difference with reference to the illiteracy rates: that since a great many people were unable to read and write, the enumerator simply arrived on the doorstep and wrote down the information he was given.  But this is not true.  Individual records were created for each property, and this was then transcribed onto the lists we see today.  The original sheets were destroyed.  In other words, all we have left for these earlier censuses is the derivative record.  This might explain some inconsistencies.  Off the top of my head: my great grandfather George appears as Enoch in the 1891 census.  Was this a mistranscription, or did George object to nosy-parkers coming to ask him questions?  My great grandparents’ second child is referred to in the 1881 census as Jane (female).  He was actually John, a boy.

Birth, Marriage and Death certificates: Are they original records?
You would think so.  But no, they are not necessarily so.  Imagine yourself registering a death in 1851.  You would go to the local Registrar’s office.  They would record all the information, give you your copy, keep the original for themselves and then send a third copy to the General Register Office in London.  Of course, there were no photocopiers: the only way to do this was to write it out by hand.  In other words, when we buy BMDs online from the GRO, what we receive is a facsimile of a copy of the original record, i.e. a true copy of a derivative record, and not the original itself.  You can choose instead to buy your BMDs from the local Register Office.  However, some don’t offer this service, while others don’t have the capacity for creating facsimiles of the originals: what we receive is a modern handwritten or typed copy of the original – again, a derivative record.  Perhaps this might explain an odd discrepancy you may have come across?

Bishop’s Transcripts: are they original or derivative?
BT’s are an interesting grey area.  They are the copies of parish registers that, from 1598 until around 1800, church ministers were required to keep and send annually to the diocese office.  Even if a parish’s records from this period have not survived, there is the chance that the BTs have.  They are contemporaneous with the originals, and if not actually written in the hand of the cleric, then at least by a churchwarden who may have known the individuals involved.  As copies, strictly speaking they are derivative records and may contain transcription errors.  However, sometimes they contain more information than the originals, and are often invaluable in providing a second chance in deciphering 17th or 18th century handwriting.

Are original records necessarily correct?
No.  Even an original record can only be as good as the information given in the first place.  In past centuries many people would have had no idea how old a deceased person was.  Any inconsistencies between age at time of death and the age you know to be correct can often be put down to this, provided all other details are correct.  Equally, sometimes false information is knowingly given, such as the tweaking of an age for a marriage, the falsification of marital status for a bigamous ceremony, and the pretence of marital status on birth registrations when the parents are not in fact married.

Think also about what is ‘truth’.  A contemporary newspaper report might be considered an original record.  We can expect a court reporter to faithfully summarise what happened during a trial.  But what about a war correspondent?  Their reports would inevitably be limited by what they actually saw and knew, what they felt was suitable for public retelling, and all this within the context of government censorship.  Is it true if it is not the full truth?  Is it of value nevertheless?  Yes, because all of these limitations are part of the context.

Indexes
The wonderful thing about online genealogy sources (Ancestry, FindMyPast, FreeBMD, etc) is that the records are indexed.  As a result they are very easy to find.  We just type in a few key facts and we’ll be rewarded with a selection of possible records.  So much easier than going to the local County Records Office and sifting through decades of data stored on microfiche.  However, the indexes themselves are a derivative record: a list of each individual record to be found within the source.  As such they can and do include errors.  My great grandfather, born in Leeds, is indexed on the FMP 1911 census index with a birthplace of Scotland.  Consequently, it took me from 2011 until 2018 to find him.  I have also found a very clearly written ‘Alfred’ listed on the index as ‘George’, and indeed an entire collection indexed under Northamptonshire rather than Norfolk.  (When straightforward searches fail to return results, try searching instead for another family member – the one with the least common name.)

Contemporary values, ideas and gossip
One of the fascinating things about my late distant cousin’s story was the clarity with which she expressed the prejudices of her time.  While on the one hand expressing pride that a member of the family had been involved with offering assistance to late 19th century Jewish refugees, there was an undercurrent of anti Irish / Roman Catholicism.  This distinction does seem to be in keeping with other vibes I’ve picked up from this period in my home town.  In this respect the issue of truth and accuracy can sometimes take a back seat, in the sense that while we need to know the facts, in order to understand the society of the time, we also need to know what people thought, what they valued, what was scandalous.  Our own 21st century values may be completely irrelevant if we’re trying to understand why an ancestor pursued a particular course of action.  A word of caution, too, about family stories: they are not always true, although from my experience it seems there is often an element of truth in them.

Some conclusions
For us as genealogists it’s the detail that’s all-important.  If we don’t get the names, places, dates and relationships correct, nothing else will be correct.  So for us, seeing the original records with our own eyes is always the goal.

Derivative records are valuable in pointing us to the existence of the original, in providing us with information about the contents, and indeed where the originals no longer exist.  But it’s worth noting when only a transcript has been seen.

Other primary sources enable us to draw our own conclusions about the life and times of our ancestors, while secondary sources add valuable context and aid understanding

Where there are discrepancies: look at the records, step back, and decide for yourself if there is sufficient compatibility with your existing evidence for the discrepancies to be down to human error, misunderstanding, illiteracy or even censorship.  Rather than trying to prove yourself right, try to prove yourself wrong.

Next time we’ll think about how much is ‘enough’ evidence.  I’ll provide some case studies showing how all these types of evidence can be used together to build hypotheses and ultimately to overcome doubts and reach sound conclusions.