The history/family history hint in my first History Detective
newsletter is covered below. You can access the full newsletter by clicking here
.History hint: Calendar confusionIn February 2013, I was one of the speakers on the Unlock the Past genealogy cruise and in one of my talks I happened to mention the changeover from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. I was surprised to find that a lot of the attendees didn’t know about this important historical event so I thought I would discuss it here. It’s an interesting bit of trivia for non-historians, but helpful for family historians. In 45 BCE, Julius Caesar implemented what became known as the Julian calendar, the system of date-keeping used thereafter in the “Judeo-Christian” countries (and others). Without our handy computers, his astronomers managed the extraordinary achievement of devising a civil calendar that diverged from the solar calendar by only eleven minutes per year. Unfortunately, by 1582, the compounding effect of that divergence meant that the civil and solar calendars differed by eight days. In that year Pope Gregory XIII decreed that the Gregorian calendar should replace the Julian calendar, with “leap year” rules to help keep the calendars in alignment. Protestant England, however, refused to follow such a decree. As a consequence, in 1752, when England at last took action, the civil and solar calendars deviated by eleven days. The authorities decided to delete eleven days from a single year to bring the two calendars into alignment. Accordingly, 2 September 1752 was followed by 14 September 1752. This meant that the year 1752 wasn’t the normal 365 days, but only 354 days. Imagine the community’s reaction: the masses were outraged because they thought they were losing eleven days from their lives. Imagine trying to make such a change today – particularly in our current political climate where the two sides of politics refuse to agree on … pretty much everything! For family historians, think about the impact on your ancestors’ lives. After I discussed this subject in a seminar, an attendee came up to me and mentioned that this change had impacted upon her mother’s life. No, her mother was not born before 1752. She was born in the USSR prior to 1918, the year Russia changed to the Gregorian calendar. In old age, her mother ended up in a nursing home suffering from dementia. She told the staff that she had two birthdays – and they, naturally, thought this was the dementia speaking. But it wasn’t. She truly did have two days on which she could celebrate her birth. If she had been born on 11 February 1731 (like American President George Washington), under the legal provisions of the new calendar her new birth-date became 22 February 1731. Actually, it became 22 February 1732, but I’ll explain that year change in my next newsletter. So, if you had the “choice” of two birthdays, which would you choose? It’s an interesting question, isn’t it?
Writing INTERESTING Family Histories
is now available as an ebook on the ebook publisher Smashwords.com under the title How to Write INTERESTING Family Histories
. My heartfelt thanks to John Porter for his assistance in publishing the book. It's been a steep learning curve! I am now busy preparing a version for publication on Amazon.com as well (which is an even steeper learning curve as I have to work in XHTML coding!!).
My eyes have been opened to "indie publishing" - as it is called. All those "how to" books that I have been thinking about can now come to fruition as ebooks. I will keep you posted regarding my endeavours.
Yesterday, I was a member of a Writing Family History panel at a seminar, It's All Relative: Sharing Family Stories
, hosted by the Australian National Library, Canberra. As I prepared my talk, I had an epiphany. I realised that there was a simple way to remember the three ingredients necessary for writing a Family HiStory (capitalisation intended):1.
History3. Story1. Family: We all talk about our relevant family when writing a family history, but many family writers merely recount names and dates. Their "family histories" read like encyclopaedia entries ... yet how many people read a complete encyclopaedia entry for pleasure? To write a family history that others want to read, we need to explore ...2. History: Our ancestors were not suspended in space. Their feet were firmly grounded on the earth on which they walked. They were the embodiment of their times. Understanding and communicating this historical context is a critical component of any family history. It is only w
hen the family's story is set against the historical backdrop and is used to explore and illuminate that particular backdrop that the family history becomes interesting and relevant. But it is still boring if it reads like an encyclopaedia entry. Which brings us to the third point ...3. Story. Tell your family history as a story, a narrative. We all love a good story and we remember good stories. Don't merely recite the facts. They slip over our (the readers') heads and are instantly forgotten. But how do you tell your family history as a story if you don't have any family stories passed down through the family, or letters or diaries? If you are not sure, then read books about writing family histories (like my own Writing Interesting Family Histories). And deconstruct what other authors do. I recently suggested to someone who had written a fact-laden, largely story-less family history to read one of my popular histories and deconstruct what I do. The writer apparently took some offence and said that they would not write in another person's style. Deconstructing another's writing does not mean writing in another's person's style or "authorial voice". In the same way that it takes an incredibly talented painter to forge a painting, it takes an incredibly talented writer to write in another's authorial voice. In fact, some argue that it can't be done, that authorial voice is as distinctive as finger prints, and they use as evidence the fact that they caught the Unibomber by having a computer programme analyse the Unibomber's writing and compare it with the writings of known anarchists. By saying that you should deconstruct another's writing, I am suggesting that you look at how the author creates sentences and paragraphs and chapters using similar material to the type of material you hold, and how the authors weaves this evidence together and sets it against the historical backdrop. I write "non-fiction thrillers" (as some describe them) yet I use exactly the same sources as family historians use. In fact, my own writing skills were honed writing family histories and my publisher at Allen & Unwin says that I came to
professional writing at a very high level.
So for those thinking about writing their family history, whether it is only for yourself, for your family or for the broader market, remember the three critical ingredients: family, history and story. Your readers will be grateful.
Many family historians are not aware that they can access the entries from early NSW church registers for free - so long as they know how to decode the index entries. The following is an entry in the NSW Pioneers Register 1788-1888 (the foundation of the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages Indexes
) for Frederick Wordsworth Ward junior, the son of bushranger Captain Thunderbolt and his paramour Mary Ann Bugg:
The above entry provides some useful information. The references to "Wesleyan Methodist" and "Tamworth Circuit" indicates that this index entry relates to a baptism rather than a birth certificate, which is confirmed by the entry's reference number – V18681400 161. Unfortunately, the denomination and church have not been included in the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages Indexes.
To understand the significance of this entry number, researchers needs to decode it, as follows:
- V: for Volume, which means that the entry relates to a church volume (eg. baptism, marriage or burial) rather than a civil registration (eg. birth, marriage or death certificate). NB. Civil registration began in 1856 in New South Wales. Prior to that, baptism, marriage and burial entries served as pseudo "certificates" on the rare occasions they were needed. Of course, baptism and burial ceremonies were voluntary church ceremonies and were only registered if performed. Many children were not baptised and many bodies were dropped into holes in the ground without any clergyman attending.
- 1868: this relates to the birth year of the child being baptised. As mentioned above, baptism entries served as pseudo birth certificates for the period prior to civil registration. However, a baptism ceremony could be performed at any time in a person's life, even when that person was an adult so, if the index entry for a person's baptism mentioned only the baptism year, the entry might be unlocatable. That being the case, the indexing staff used the birth date rather than the baptism date to ensure that this information was readily accessible (although there were exceptions to this rule). So the index entry "V1868" indicates that it refers to a baptism
entry for a child born
- 1400: this represents the entry number in the relevant church register volume.
- 161: this represents the volume number of the church register that contains the baptism.
Users can then access the State Records Guide to the Church Register
microfilms. Microfilm numbers 1-123 are available on the Archives Kit (ARK). Unfortunately the entry for Frederick Wordsworth Ward junior, being found on Volume 161, is not available on ARK, however a microfilm of the actual church register can be viewed at State Records, Kingswood.
I was tracing a Jennings family from Atherstone in Warwickshire and it was clear from the parish registers that the family settled in the town in the 1500s. But I was stuck in the mid-late 1700s. The initial Jennings family had produced lots of descendants and William, the name of my ancestor, was a common name (I’ll discuss given name popularity in a later post). Naming patterns were of little help because he had only three children (I’ll discuss naming patterns in another post). The names of the witnesses to his own marriage were no help at all. The possibility of tracing the family back a further 200 years was tantalisingly close if I could only determine which Jennings family he came from. But how?
Again the marriage witnesses came in useful but in a different way again. In desperation, I went through the marriage register from 1754 onwards taking a photocopy of every entry in which a Jennings signed their name, either as one of the happy couple or as a witness. Having already prepared family group sheets for all the Jennings families in the parish (see my post “Parish Registers – II”), I was able to add literacy details. Then I used literacy/illiteracy and the signatures themselves to work out which Jennings witnesses belonged to which Jennings families.
I was even able to determine the literacy or illiteracy of some of the Jennings married before 1754 from their signatures (or marks) when they witnessed the marriages of siblings, in-laws and children. I discovered patterns of literacy in certain families which helped the process (in those days literate parents tended to have literate children). My William Jennings was literate so I had an actual signature to work with. Eventually, by a process of elimination, I was able to determine his ancestry. Eureka!
Many amateur family historians invoke “family story” as if it is an inviolate truth. “We know our own family history!” they say. As a simple response, I would like to remind readers of the many people who believed their grandparents to be their parents and only discovered the truth when they purchased their own birth certificate. Or the number of people who, according to descendants, arrived in Australia as “remittance men” or as “free immigrants” but proved to be convicts. Families have secrets and agendas, and the truth regularly goes by the wayside in attempts to pursue these agendas or to cover up unpalatable truths.
Let me mention some family stories passed down through my own family. There was the one included in a hand-written family history produced in the late 1800s or early 1900s. It claimed that my great-great-grandmother was the granddaughter of “Count Fabian of the celebrated Italian Fabians”. This family history helped nudge me onto the path of becoming a family historian. As a newbie, I wrote to the Italian consulate asking about this family, and received the reply that I would need to provide specific names and dates. A few years later I went to England and tracked my great-great-grandmother’s ancestry. The alleged Italian Count Fabian was in fact Thomas Fabian, a hairdresser from Portsmouth!
Then there’s the ubiquitous Rob Roy McGregor story. My grandfather was told that his grandmother, Janet McGregor, was a direct descendant of Rob Roy; he accordingly named his two sons Rob and Roy (my father). My grandfather was not an ignorant man: he was an architect and later Director of Public Works in Western Australia. Evidently these family stories had been convincing and I, naturally, grew up believing them. By the time I started researching this section of my family history, however, I had many years of research experience and had learnt to roll my eyes (metaphorically, naturally!) whenever anyone made claims of “illustrious” ancestry, so I didn’t even pursue it. Eventually I realised that I should check it out, just in case ... I marshalled all my skills and I tried and I tried, but all I could come up with was that Rob Roy’s brother might have lived in the neighbouring Argyleshire parish on the west coast of Scotland. My ancestors did not even live in Rob Roy territory!
Oh, that’s right, there is also the story about my First Fleet ancestor William Nash, a marine, who was reportedly promoted to the rank of Captain and sent back to England to fight in the Battle of Waterloo, taking his son John with him. According to the story William was killed there and John later died of his own injuries. First of all, the records of Waterloo show that William and John were neither present nor injured/killed. Secondly, William had been discharged from the army in the 1790s. Thirdly, William left the colony in 1804, seemingly on a ship that foundered in the Torres Strait with the loss of most lives. And so on. Eventually, I was able to determine that this story must have begun with William’s “widow”, as the story itself was found among descendants of her son, who ended up in Inverell, and her daughter, who ended up in the Monaro district, these branches of the family having gone their separate ways while their mother was still alive. The hidden truth was that William’s wife had deserted her husband for another man who supported her and her children, and that William himself abandoned his young children when he decided to leave the colony. Secrets; secrets.
Have I made my point?
Check out such family stories, of course. They might be true – or at least have a grain of truth. But in the words of an old Encyclopaedia Britannica: "Genealogy, like every other branch of knowledge, must … submit itself to recognized scientific methods and … frankly admit where descents hitherto accepted can no longer be satisfactorily proved."
Family stories are a form of “hearsay” evidence. Hearsay evidence is rarely accepted in the law courts because the person who made the original claim cannot be questioned to determine the veracity of their claim.
Family stories are essentially myths that can only be accepted in the historical debate if there is primary-source evidence to back them up. If the evidence refutes the story, then I am afraid researchers have to accept the evidence rather than continuing to believe the story. Otherwise, they might as well be tracing a fictional family – not their own family history.
When examining a church register, I first trawl through the baptism, marriage and burial registers noting every entry for those with my surnames of interest. I then go back through the witness section of the marriage register looking for any marriage ceremonies witnessed by those with my surnames of interest, just in case I find something useful. This proved particularly helpful in tracing one problem family.
My husband is descended from a Samuel Mann of Ullingswick parish, Herefordshire, who married a woman named Elizabeth Wilson in Worcester (some 25kms away). They later emigrated to Australia. Elizabeth’s Australian death certificate noted that she was born in London around 1814 and was the daughter of William and Jane Wilson. Common surname and given names; family on the move: there were few leads to help me trace the Wilson family. But as it turned out, I had a surprising piece of luck.
While pouring through the Ullingswick registers looking for the witnesses to marriages, I made a startling discovery. One marriage was witnessed by Samuel Mann and Elizabeth Wilson – a year before Samuel Mann married Elizabeth Wilson. It had to be his future wife. So I went back through the registers, searching a fifty year period for any Wilson entries and found only two: the baptism of a child to a William and Jane Wilson a few years previously, and the burial of a 19 year-old William Wilson around the same time. As the surname was uncommon in the parish, and as the parents of the baptised child had the same given names as Elizabeth’s parents, it was clear that the Wilson family spent a few years in the parish during their travels, enabling Samuel and Elizabeth to meet. Although Elizabeth’s baptism entry has still not been located, the burial entry of the boy William helped me trace the Wilson family back to their origins.
Remember the old adage that success is 10% luck and 90% hard work? Perfect example here. Exhaustive research ultimately pays off.
Don’t forget the witnesses: an under-utilised family history source.
It would never have occurred to me that researchers could be so frighteningly ignorant of simple research principles if I hadn’t come across practical evidence of this problem twice in a matter of weeks.
Genealogy is a science, a form of detective work. It uses scientific methodology, the same used by detectives. If our police force used the approach that these ignorant researchers use, our gaols would be full of innocent people.
The first rule of thumb in historical detective work is that researchers must assume that a primary source record is accurate unless they have incredibly strong evidence that proves that it isn’t.
So what is a primary source record? It describes source material that is “closest to the person, information, period or idea being studied”. When researching the past, it relates to a “document that was created at the time being studied by a source with a direct personal knowledge of the events being described”. An example of a primary source record is a death certificate. It was produced at the time or shortly after a person’s death and provides details of the death; that is, the name of the person, the date and place of death, cause, and so on.
By contrast, “secondary source” is a work that combines, filters and analyses, drawing together a wealth of primary source material to produce, for example, a history book or family history. Within that work it may include a photocopy of an original record (a primary source) and a discussion about that original record (secondary source).
Primary source records also include a mix of primary source and secondary source information. So what is the distinction between primary and secondary source information in any historical record? It is easy to work out. A death certificate is attesting to a death so the details of death – a body at a certain place on a certain date – are pieces of primary information. Everything else, that is, details of the deceased’s birthplace, parentage, marriage, offspring, etc, on that particular death certificates are pieces of secondary information because they did not happen at the time of the event in question (that is, the time of the death). They come from the “memory” of the informant. To obtain the relevant primary source information one must seek out the deceased’s birth certificate, marriage certificate, children’s birth certificates and so on.
Sometimes the secondary source information on a primary source record is incredibly reliable. A good rule of thumb is that, if the known secondary source information is accurate, then the unknown information is also likely to be accurate. For example if the death certificate lists the deceased’s age at marriage and ages of children and you can confirm that the age listed for the deceased at marriage and the age of one of their children tallies with the details provided in the relevant marriage and birth certificates, then it is likely that the ages of the other children are accurate as well.
However if the known information is inaccurate, then one must assume that the unknown information is also problematic. For example, if the birth certificate for one of the deceased’s children indicates that the child’s age on the parent’s death certificate is wrong, then you must assume that the ages of the other children are problematic as well.
Primary source records can be wrong. But researchers have to accept that they are accurate unless there is proof to the contrary. Anecdotal evidence is not proof. For example, the suggestion that the date on a person’s birth certificate must be wrong because the family always celebrated their birthday on a different day is not “proof” that the birth certificate is wrong. If, however, one finds a hospital record logging the mother’s arrival and the baby’s birth, and the date of birth in that source differs to the birth certificate then that might override the birth certificate. Why? Because the hospital log is an impartial source that is even closer time-wise to the event in question. In fact, it is likely that the birth certificate was prepared from those hospital logs so it is possible that the person preparing the birth certificate made a “typo”.
Anecdotal evidence referring to a past event is not primary source information even if it is found in a primary source record like a newspaper report or a letter or a diary. How do we know that? While the anecdotal information may come from a person who had a personal knowledge of the event in question, it is not documented at the time in question. As time passes, and as anecdotal information passes from one person to another, it becomes more and more unreliable. This is because it springs from memory, one of the most unreliable sources of surviving information – as anyone who has studied psychology can attest (our memories neaten information, fill in the gaps and distort it so that it fits into a comfortable framework without us even realising that it is happening). And remember the children’s game called Chinese Whispers? Exactly the same thing happens with anecdotes. “I wonder if so-and-so could have been involved in ...” becomes “So-and-so was involved in ...” The more time passes, the more hands the information passes through, the one thing we can be absolutely certain is that anecdotal evidence does NOT describe what happened.
This is where one of these two ignorant researchers has come a cropper. The researcher believes that if a primary source record does not tally with the anecdotal evidence, then the primary source record must be wrong. He apparently uses a “history” (a secondary source) prepared decades later by a policeman who had no personal knowledge of those involved in a series of incidents to make statements about the origins of the people in question and publishes refutations of the primary source records that reveal the truth.
He has failed to abide by this piece of wisdom: “In contexts such as historical writing, it is almost always advisable to use primary sources if possible, and that ‘if none are available, it is only with great caution that [the author] may proceed to make use of secondary sources’.”
What is really scary about this researcher’s claims about the individuals in question is that they are now being published in other texts, including academic works. Pointing out the primary source evidence that proves him wrong merely results in even more elaborate published refutations. Arrogance and ignorance are a deadly combination.
This researcher as well as the other I mentioned previously both have agendas – even if they claim otherwise. In the second instance the woman evidently wants a First Fleet ancestor and states that her ancestor was a First Fleet marine even though the primary source records show him to be a Second Fleet convict. She claims that these primary source records were deliberately changed to record him as a convict. She quotes my own words in the General Musters I edited, that the musters contained lots of errors and inconsistencies, and says that the errors in her ancestor’s entries were among them. I was referring to spelling errors, a clerk mixing up the lines when he copied an entry, a convict confusing their ship of arrival, saying Indefatigable instead of Indispensable, and so on. But, like the other man, she has a brick wall up against the truth.
There are times when anecdotal evidence that appears to disagree with the primary source record must be taken seriously: for example, tribal memories of an Aboriginal massacre that are not backed up by primary source records. In that situation, delving deeply and reading between the lines can expose a backdrop conducive to such an event happening at that particular time. However, research-wise, this type of situation is rare. Researchers must not consider that such rare exceptions override the simple detective principles that are fundamental to accurate historical research.
Let’s strive to document the truth when we are researching our ancestors. Surely, tracing “our” family history is what it is all about, isn’t it?
I was talking in my previous posts about genealogists’ under-utilisation of parish registers. The names of marriage witnesses is one of these areas. The Hardwicke Act of 1753 regulated the marriage itself and the manner in which marriages were documented. From 1754 onwards, English marriage entries included the names and signatures (or marks) of the parties involved, that is, the couple being married and the witnesses. The names of the marriage witnesses can be an extremely important source of information.
Remember the case of Ann Carpenter from my previous post. The names of the witnesses to her marriage might help link her to the family of John and Margaret Carpenter. Witnesses were sometimes friends and sometimes family members. Those with large families often had a sibling or in-law act as a witness. Ann Carpenter (born 1776) might have met her husband through his friendship with her sister’s husband and that friendship led the sister’s husband to act as a witness to the marriage. The fact that a man married to one of John and Margaret Carpenter’s children acted as a witness to Ann Carpenter’s marriage is strong evidence of her connection with that family.
If you’ve produced family group sheets for all the families with the surname Carpenter in the area, you might have already noted this marriage in your family group sheets. Alternatively, look at the International Genealogical Index or Ancestry.com or one of the other online genealogical sites and see if anyone with the witness’s name married a Carpenter. In any event, it is always a good idea to try to determine the witnesses’ connection with the couple being married. You never know what might turn up.
The witnesses can be helpful in other ways as well. I’ll discuss that in my next post.
I was tracing all the early Douglas families in New South Wales and came across twins born in 1814 named Mary Ann and Joseph. Later records proved that Mary Ann’s twin was in fact a girl named Elizabeth. So why was the child listed as Joseph in the baptism entry? The answer is quite simple: the parish clerk made a mistake.
Having edited many transcriptions of early records in addition to my 30 years as a genealogist, I can tell you that clerks often made mistakes. The baptism details were not usually recorded at the moment of baptism but at a later time. Although we will never know the reason for the “Joseph” error, just imagine the following scenario. The clerk is writing the day’s entries into the register while the clergyman is chatting about his next sermon – about Joseph. Bingo. The clerk writes what he is hearing, not thinking (I’m sure you’ve done the same yourself). And the beginner genealogist trying to find the birth of an Elizabeth Douglas in that area around 1814 comes to a dead end.
The opposite can happen as well. From other sources, for example, you’ve found that you’re descended from an Ann Carpenter who was born around 1775 in a certain English parish. So you start trawling through the church registers and find an Ann Carpenter born to John and Ann Carpenter in 1776. While there were a few Carpenter families having children around that time, there were no other children named “Ann Carpenter” baptised in the 20 years before or after, so this person is likely to be your ancestor. So you start checking around for siblings and the parents’ marriage – nothing. It’s as if the family suddenly appeared, then disappeared.
Now a pedantically thorough researcher doesn’t look for one particular person. In fact, pedantic thoroughness is another essential ingredient of a good genealogist, the reason why some manage to trace many ancestral lines back to the 1500s or even earlier.
So let me tell you how to become a pedantically thorough genealogist. As you go through the church register, note down every baptism, marriage and burial for the surname of interest for at least half a century. When you go home, pick up a bundle of paper and beginning preparing family group charts. At the top of each sheet, note down the details of the first set of parents you come across, then underneath list the details for their child. You do the same for every entry in the parish register, adding later baptisms to the appropriate family group sheet for their parents as well as any marriages and burials that relate to members of the family, ticking off each entry in your notes as it is processed. Then you number each family group. As you look through these sheets, you work out that the child of Family Group 1 became the parent listed in Family Group 10. Gradually you build up a series of family trees for everyone with the same surname in the parish (and in neighbouring parishes if the surname is not too common and you are a very thorough researcher). Yet one family group sheet still lists only the parents John and Ann Carpenter and the baptism of their child, Ann. Could there be an error?
So you look more closely at the other family group sheets. That’s when you notice. John and Margaret Carpenter had children born in 1770, 1772, 1774, 1778, 1780; that is, every two years except for a surprising four-year gap in the middle. You’ve allocated all the burials to the appropriate families and this family doesn’t appear to have had an unbaptised child who died in infancy around that time. In fact, the four-year gap itself suggests that they didn’t have a child who died in infancy; when a baby dies the mother is no longer breast-feeding so she becomes fertile again and often has another child a year or so later – that is, around 1777. So could Ann Carpenter, reported to be the daughter of John and Ann Carpenter, have actually been the daughter of John and Margaret Carpenter?
Yes indeed. Note that, in the baptism entry, the mother’s given name “Ann” is the same as the child’s given name. This is one of the most common errors made by parish clerks. As they fill in the register, they accidentally repeat the child’s name instead of writing the correct name for the respective parent.
So how do you prove that Ann Carpenter was in fact the daughter of John and Margaret? I’ll discuss that in my next post.