Genealogy talk gives clues to exploring the mystery of a life history

By Brenda Sullivan - ReminderNews
Enfield - posted Tue., Nov. 26, 2013
Carol R. Whitmer, consulting genealogist to the Connecticut Historical Society, answers questions from audience members after her talk about how to get started with researching a family history. The Nov. 25 talk was hosted by the Enfield Historical Society at the American Baptist Church. Photo by Brenda Sullivan.
Carol R. Whitmer, consulting genealogist to the Connecticut Historical Society, answers questions from audience members after her talk about how to get started with researching a family history. The Nov. 25 talk was hosted by the Enfield Historical Society at the American Baptist Church. Photo by Brenda Sullivan.

Genealogy is more than a list of names and dates, said Carol R. Whitmer, who is consulting genealogist to the Connecticut Historical Society. "It’s a mystery and you are the detective," she said.

Whitmer shared tips on uncovering clues to the mystery of a life history at an introduction to genealogy talk hosted by the CHS and the Enfield Historical Society on Nov. 25 at the American Baptist Church.

Whitmer outlined what she called three cardinal rules of genealogy: Start with what you know; document your sources; and keep an open mind.

Explaining "start with what you know," Whitmer said people beginning family research who come to her at CHS for advice often have a pre-set agenda of finding some historically significant ancestor.

Instead, they should begin with whatever facts they have on hand, and if they keep an open mind, and are willing to uncover some family secrets, they may discover some exciting stories, she said.

Citing an example from her own research, Whitmer said she discovered that the family story about why her great-grandfather changed his last name to his mother’s maiden name covered up a much more colorful truth.

The family myth was that her great-grandfather took his mother’s name because he loved her so much. The truth Whitmer uncovered was that he was a wanted criminal, sought by the famous Pinkerton detectives. He fled Montana and changed his name to elude capture, she said.

Whitmer used this anecdote to point out that while family members can be good sources of information, it’s important to corroborate their stories and document one’s sources. "A fact without a source is fiction," she said.

Don’t totally discard the stories of family members who are known to be a bit scatterbrained, she added, because in those tales may lie at least one useful piece of the family history puzzle that can be verified.

Even official documents contain errors, she added, especially when it comes to the spelling of names. The error can be due to writing down information from oral interviews and not verifying spelling, or maybe misreading handwriting while transcribing earlier records.

For example, the U.S. Census conducted every 10 years can be an excellent place to begin research, she said, but these records aren’t infallible. In one case, she found three spellings for the same man over a 30-year period – John Glendenning in 1850, John Glendaniel in 1860 and John Clandesson in 1880.

In the case of a more famous Connecticut figure, Sam Colt, she discovered the census indexer transcribed his name as Sam Cott.  Errors like this make it important not to rely on the index but to examine the original record, Whitmer said. And if the research is going to be published, the original record and not the index must be cited, she said.

There’s a wealth of genealogy websites today that can provide valuable information, but they actually offer only a fraction of what’s available versus original documents, she said, and so it’s worth making the trip to an archive, the state library, the local cemetery, the town clerk’s office and other repositories of official records.

Besides wills, birth and death records, other useful documents to explore include military draft, pension and land grant records; passport applications – which can date back to the 1700s (many are on file at the National Archives in Waltham, Mass.); and draft registration cards.

Whitmer recalled that a World War II draft registration card she came across included very detailed information about the individual, such as a physical description and the name of his employer.

Early city directories also included more than names and addresses, she said. In some cases, they include not only the head of household but his occupation and a list of births and deaths in that family.

Whitmer encouraged the group to explore the holdings at CHS, at 1 Elizabeth St. in Hartford, and contact her for help with their projects, by appointment from noon to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. For more information, call CHS at 1-860-236-5621 or visit http://www.chs.org.


Home
Let us know what you think!
Please be as specific as possible.
Include your name and email if you would like a response back.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
P
Y
b
b
P
X
Enter the code without spaces and pay attention to upper/lower case.