Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tuesday's Tip: Family History: The problem of researching from the outside in...

The wilderness of The Burren, County Clare.  Bob's family history is somewhere out there.
Just before last Christmas I was contacted by a gentleman, whom I'll call Bob, writing about his Irish family history research, a project of over thirty years in duration. His research has finally culminated in his uncovering the names of his great-great grandparents. I have his permission to share this story as long as the "real names" are excluded.  With a thank you to Bob, and a change of names to protect the guilty innocent, here are the details of our interaction.

The problem is that instead of researching from the 'inside out', as I like to call it, Bob conducted  research which brought him to these great-great grandparents from the 'outside in'.  Unfortunately, research from the 'outside in' often involves a famous person found via 'new' media, using sources such as unreliable, and usually unsourced, online genealogies, or as in this case, a biography. The person bears the same surname as the researcher in question, so the researcher then attempts to prove a connection by working from the famous person outside the family tree in toward the researcher's family members, instead of the other way around.

Bob found a biography written about an historical figure — whom I refer to hereafter as 'FM' — who was born in the same Irish county as Bob's ancestors, and bears the same surname as his family. Bob has not only decided he is related to FM, but related in a very specific way.

Apparently, I frustrated Bob when I asked if he can prove the line connecting from him, through his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents to FM, whom he says is his great-granduncle, the brother of his great-grandfather 'Thomas'.

Bob called me 'picky'.

Bob explained that he has a gut feeling that his great-grandfather Thomas and FM were 'probably brothers'. Probably brothers? A gut feeling? 'Do you have documentary evidence of any kind which can show the connection?', I asked.   'No', came the reply, 'but I do have lots of information about FM.'.

Big trouble or miracle of birth?

The facts as they stand:

1. Bob is very fortunate to have the 1849 immigration record which details the arrival of his great-grandfather Thomas, Thomas's wife, and their two daughters, elder sisters of Bob's grandfather. Bob's grandfather was born in the United States. Given the date of 1849 I am already wondering a little about this as it relates to his grandfather; however, I have no idea how old Bob is, so...

2. Although Bob has no birth record for his great-grandfather Thomas, he has surmised that Thomas was born in Ireland about 1800/1801, because on the immigration record Thomas's recorded age is given as 48 years. (Note: the recorded age on such a document is not always strictly accurate.)

3. The biography indicates FM was born in Ireland in 1845, and FM had one brother who survived to adulthood.

4. Again, without a record, Bob says his great-grandfather Thomas and FM were brothers, born of the same mother.

If Thomas and FM are siblings born of the same mother, and if the recorded immigration age is even close to correct, then this means that they were born about 45 years apart. Even if their mother gave birth to Thomas when she was 13 years old, FM would have been born when she was 58. FM's biography makes no mention of a forty-five year age difference between him and his brother. As much as we might be tempted to stretch credulity, I'm afraid Mother Nature might say those numbers really don't add up.

Bigger Trouble: The Name Game

In his biography FM speaks of his brother Francis who immigrated to the United States. Bob's claim, as outlined above, is that FM's brother Francis and Bob's great-grandfather Thomas are the same person.

On the manifest of the ship on which Bob's family members emigrated, his great-grandfather's forename is recorded as Thomas; however, FM's brother's name is Francis. Why does Bob assume Thomas and Francis are the same person? Bob says Thomas probably changed his forename to Francis when he arrived in the United States.

Questions from me:

'How do you know he changed his name?'
'Do you have any documents on which your great-grandfather used the forename, or middle name, Francis?'
'Did he ever use the forename, or middle name, Francis for business purposes or for purposes of any kind?'
'Did anyone ever hear your great-grandfather use the name Francis?'

Answers from Bob:

'No, I don't have any documents or any other information with his name as Francis.'
'My great-grandfather always used the forename Thomas, but Francis is the name of FM's brother.'

Tempted by Fame?

It may very well be the case that Bob's family is connected to FM, and I have encouraged Bob to continue his search to find the connection if there is one. However, ignoring the evidence he actually possesses in favour of making connections where there is no evidence doesn't make sense to me.

Sometimes the brick walls of our family history research can make us feel as though we are wandering in the wilderness of the Burren, and at such times we may find it tempting to glom onto a recognizable surname, and tack together a family tree which includes someone famous. However, to do so does a great injustice to those members of our family who struggled along the way to create a life which ultimately resulted in our own existence.

So... how do we save ourselves from going down this path?

Since this is a Tuesday's Tips post, the crux of the matter is this: We find those truly connected to us, whether rich or poor, famous or infamous, by old fashioned detective work, and the same old questions. It's not sexy, but it works. So, we need to ask:

Who are my parents?
Who were their parents, my grandparents?
Who were their parents, my great-grandparents?
Who were their parents, my great-great-grandparents?

and so on...

Collateral research of the siblings of those to whom we are directly connected is a very valuable tool, but it must be used with a caveat. We have to be able to prove the sibling relationship, not just assume it. Also, dates and names have to make sense. Whether we like it or not, they have to fit.

In my own work I used collateral research on my Magee line. This enabled me to trace the line out of County Dublin into County Antrim, where my great-grandfather Magee was born, into County Louth and then back into County Dublin; however, all of my research is documented, without any gaps, and without trying to make names fit where they don't. Gut instinct, or intuition if you prefer it, can be very helpful as well, but a feeling without a record is not proof of anything.



  1. Great post Jennifer! Very frustrating for you -and also Bob no doubt. I wonder if Irish research is particularly prone to this kind of "outside in" research given how many challenges it sets us to find the right family. I'm a big believer in the valuer of collateral lines -with the same caveats!

  2. A lot of time I get the same "gut" feeling, but I do not add them until
    I feel comfortable that I can chisel it in stone.

    Most of the time my gut feelings are accurate but I have to have the names and dates fit.

  3. Jenn,

    When I read this post I smiled because I have been 'Bob', and I wondered if you were following me around.

    I completely understand his frustration since he's been searching for so many years, but I'd like to say to him when you find the truth about where the famous person actually fits into your family tree it's going to be so much more satisfying for you than jamming together things that just don't fit.

  4. Hi Pauleen, and Hi Claudia, and Hi Charlotte,

    Thank you to each one of you for your comments. I really appreciate hearing from you.

    Pauleen, you certainly make a good point in saying that Irish research may be particularly prone to this kind of research given the challenges we face. I often thank my lucky stars that I don't have a surname such as 'Murphy' in any of my lines.

    Claudia, I too believe in gut feelings and rejoice that they often take me in the right direction, but everything has to fit, as you say.

    Charlotte, Thanks for being so honest, and bringing a smile to my face this morning. I think you make a really good point about how satisfying it is when we find the real connections for which we're searching.

    Cheers to each one of you,

  5. I confess, Jennifer, that I've been tempted to follow that same path--like when I (and a lot of other Booth descendants) hear that word-of-mouth story that we are related to John Wilkes Booth--until I realize how hopeless an attempt it would be to find the connection from the outside in, as you call it.

    On the other hand, I sometimes feel hopeless about finding our Irish ancestors. They seem so anonymous going back before a certain point in time. Despite your comment about being lucky that your surnames aren't common, I once found a family name--Johanna Falvey of County Kerry--and thought I was lucky, too. What an unusual name! Until I did some research and found that at that time, Johanna as a given name was not that unusual...and that Falvey in County Kerry could be considered something akin to Smith in America!

    Better to seek for those serendipitous finds like my two Tully parallel lines, both later producing the same priest's letter confirming the record of their ancestor's 1800s baptism. I only wish I could stumble upon more items like that!

  6. Hi Jacqi,

    Thank you for your comments; they are always appreciated. Congratulations on your great finds! You'll be making Bob jealous. :):)

    Although I am relieved that I have no Murphys in my tree I do have lots of Magees, Kellys, O'Tooles, and Fitzpatricks, not to mention a couple of Malones.

    Cheers to you,

  7. Great post, Jennifer. I have met a lot of Bobs wanting to prove a connection to a famous Scot (Rob Roy, Flora MacDonald, Robert the Bruce) because "Grandad always said we were related". My own Grandmother claimed she was the great great granddaughter of Robert Moffat, the missionary. Yes we have the name Moffat in the family, but despite extensive research, there is no proof, and it seems unlikely. Perhaps someone jokingly told her about the connection when she was young, and she continued to believe it...

  8. Hi Jo,

    Thanks for your comments; it's lovely to hear from you. I'm sure there are lots of Bobs out there. My Welsh born friend Bryan is on the opposite end of things; his father used to tell him they were related to horse thieves. Turns out he is distantly connected to the British Royal family. I think he'd rather be related to the horse thieves.

    Cheers to you,


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Cheers, Jennifer

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