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Guide 2 Genealogy   >   3rd Party Stories

 

3rd Party Stories


How much do any of us really know about any of our families? How much of what we think we know is accurate? People's testimony about their parents and brothers and sisters is usually fairly reliable because they were eyewitnesses to much of what has happened in their lives. However, most of our recollections about more distant relatives and previous generations such as grandparents are likely to be less accurate, because in these cases we are usually simply repeating stories which we have been told.

This is summarized by an obvious but important rule in genealogy: although all statements should be documented, the greater the separation in time and place between a researcher and an ancestor, the more necessary it is to corroborate personal testimony with supporting information from other sources.

For example, let's imagine that your mother claims that her maternal great-grandfather and great-grandmother were Josiah Dearborn and Sarah Ann Wells, who were married in Wood County, Texas. You may have heard many times the colorful tale behind this marriage. Your great-great-grandfather, the son of a Yankee farmer living in Effingham, New Hampshire, ran off as a young man to the California gold fields in 1849. Later, he moved to Texas, where he practiced law. There he met a beautiful southern belle, Sarah Ann Wells, a young widow. He and Sarah Ann were eventually married in Wood County, Texas. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was forced to join the Confederate cavalry, but later he deserted to the Union forces. After the war, he returned to Texas to find that his wife had died, leaving their little daughter behind. Met with an inhospitable reception in Texas, he moved with his daughter to Shawnee County, Kansas, where he lived thereafter.

As a family historian, you could have at least two reactions to this story, which has been repeated by four generations.
  • A naive response would simply be to accept the tale as fact without doing any further checking. However, a lot of time has passed, many people have repeated the tale, and so there is a very good chance that the story contains numerous errors.

  • The alternative response is to recognize that your task as a family genealogist is to try to corroborate or disprove the story by research in primary records. There are a number of statements presented in the story which you can check: first, Josiah's involvement in the California gold rush; second, the marriage of Josiah to Sarah Ann in Wood County, Texas; third, Josiah's purported service in both the Confederate and Union armies; and finally, Josiah's later residence in Shawnee County, Kansas.
If you did this research from primary sources, what might you find? Here is an example of how the process might go:-
  • Published passenger lists, which are available at most genealogical libraries and include the names of ship passengers, do not reveal Josiah's participation in the California gold rush (although many forty-niners do appear on such lists).

  • A search of the 1850 United States Census for California does reveal the presence of a J.H. Dearborn of the correct age and birthplace.

  • A search of the 1860 federal census for Wood County, Texas, definitely shows Josiah living there as a lawyer.

  • Correspondence with the Wood County courthouse brings a reply that the marriage to Sarah Ann took place there on January 16,1861.

  • Correspondence with the National Archives in Washington, D.C., not only confirms the story of Josiah's serving on both sides in the war, but also brings to light the existence of a very informative Civil War pension application. The military records consulted at the National Archives confirm Josiah's service as a private in the Tenth Texas Cavalry and also his later service as a lieutenant in the United States Seventh Regiment of Colored Troops.
As in this example, in your own genealogical researches checking 3rd party stories against primary sources will allow you to confirm or disprove their veracity. This research will no doubt also reveal many new interesting details and open up further avenues of research.


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