Misinterpreting Data, Leaps in Logic or Jumping to Conclusions


We have all been there at one time or another. After a day or a week of staring at lists in a library, we start assuming we just KNOW we have seen everything there is to see. That funny name that's close to the one we are looking for just has to be our ancestor. So we add them to our tree and move on…and we keep following that trail wherever it leads. The result? We may have taken a leap in logic that led us to someone else's tree.

Remember that family folklore that Uncle Steve just KNEW was true? I've found at least two people who posted it on the internet as God's honest truth. They believed it, but didn't verify it. The result? Their research hit an insurmountable hurdle, because they are trying to prove something that isn't real.

Recently, I helped a client research soldiers from the American Revolution. She was provided a wealth of information gathered by her father through the years and never went back to read it all for herself. She just took his conclusions and tried working with them to finish the rest of the tree. The only problem is, dad picked the wrong soldier, from the wrong state, so the research didn't make any sense. People were dying in the wrong places and the wrong time, and the DAR couldn’t help them because they were asking for information that didn't exist.

The most common misinterpretation of data, though, is confusing christening dates with birth dates. Remember that travel was often difficult, and clergymen often didn't live in walking distance. While people tried to be diligent in baptizing their children as soon as possible, that may have been several months or even a couple of years after the child was actually born.

Just as important, the records may have remained with the minister and are found hundreds of miles from where the child was actually born…either because they had to travel that far to find a minister…or because the minister moved on and took the records with himself.

Once you have completed your research for the day, organize all of your documents in separate folders and give them to a reliable person to proofread for you. This prevents your own transcription errors or sleep-deprived leaps in logic. Having your records proofread by fresh eyes that are not familiar with the work you just did is the best way to ensure that the material is objectively scrutinized and as free of errors as you can make it.


Caveats about Catholic Church records

Catholic Church records are wonderful. They detail all sorts of valuable genealogy information. But before 1962, most were also written in Latin. Names were translated by the priest from the vernacular language into Latin, and that alone is how the priest recorded information.

Ambrose Cusson was recorded into the records of St. Joseph parish as Ambrosii Cusfon. This was not an error, nor was this the name that Ambrose’s family used at any point his entire life. It was simply his Latin name entered into books where Latin was the only recognized language. Do not confuse this, however, with it being his "legal name".

When you find Latin records, do not record these names as the primary name in your tree. You may make a footnote of it, but it only supports your other research, never replaces it.

Additionally, many ethnic groups settling in North America required two names of the person being baptized. These were not "middle names", as we understand them today. They were "saint names", the patron saint chosen to guard the soul of the child throughout life.

The vast majority of French baby girls baptized were recorded in parish registers as Marie-______. This does not mean the first name of every little French girl was Marie. Instead it shows a strong Marian devotion among the French Catholics, and Ste-Marie was the patron saint of probably 98-99% of their children for several centuries. Only when you see ______-Marie as a child’s name is her given name actually Marie.

In these ethnic groups, it is acceptable to record both names as your primary name in the tree. It was consistent with the culture and the way that our ancestors would record their names throughout their lives. Back then, there was no separation of Church and State. State records were kept by the Church until the French Revolution. 

Caveats about foreign records

In lands where governments changed more often than residents bathed, the records were kept by whomever had control. Often, the clerks recording and maintaining the records were brought in by the conquering country and did not speak the local tongue. They often recorded names, dates and places in their native tongue, not the vernacular language of the residents in the town. As a result, parallel sets of information can be confusing.

Nowhere is this more confusing that the lands passing back and forth between the Spanish, French and German. Today’s French Alsace and Lorraine, Dutch Noord-Brabant, Luxembourg, and Flemish Belgium have been under the control of the French, English, Dutch, many different German rulers, the Holy Roman Empire, Austria-Hungary, and even the Roman empire.

When you research these lands, create an historical timeline for yourself and keep it handy. Create a primmer for yourself on the common laws and traditions of the conquering country. Understand the handwriting (oh those GERMANS and their blasted block letters with curliques!) Most of all, understand which calendar the different countries used in keeping records.

Never is this more true than in the wake of the French Revolution where the new "French Republic" calendar was created, based on nothing resembling the Gregorian calendar that we understand. The day was divided into ten hours, with 100 minutes and 100 seconds. Weeks were 10 days long…and there were 3 weeks in a month. There were 12 months, each 30 days long, plus five extra days tacked on at the end of the year. Years started on what would have been the 22nd of September…if September were still a month.

There was no 1794 or 1798, instead there was the a new counting system, with each year being marked as the X th year of the Revolution. Churches were suddenly in danger and the priests no longer were keepers of information. Civil registers replaced parish registers. Time was marked only in the Calendar of the Revolution, and God help us all as we try to decipher these records. Happily, the emperor Napleon I thought it as illogical as I do and repealed this calendar on January 1, 1806.

In addition, keep in mind that the Eastern Orthodox churches, and many of the lands in which they thrived (especially Greece and Russia), continued using the old Julian calendar until the early 20th century. When tracking records from these lands into the United States, remain aware of the differences between the calendars and their impact on the information you receive. 

© 2006 Jan Nearing, LaMere Consulting, Midland, Michigan. All rights reserved.


Copyright © 2012 all rights reserved Jan Nearing
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