|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.'.
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.