Frank Gowen married Matilda Davis on 17 August 1916 in Duval County, Florida. Seems pretty straightforward, right? This is an original source, after all.
Except it isn’t accurate.
Matilda married Frank GARVIN.
And a seemingly small detail like that can throw your research off into all kinds of wrong directions.
The Beginning of Trouble
When we first start researching our family, the discoveries come fast and furious. With Ancestry, we quickly find “the low-hanging fruit.” That is the census records and vital records that Ancestry pretty much serves up to us.
However, as the search deepens, we quickly get into trouble. Vital records become scarce and then non-existent. We find wives whose maiden name has been lost to time.
We approach an era when people didn’t really need to know their birthdate. (That only become more necessary with the creation of Social Security in 1935).
We encounter a lack of documents for poorer and marginalized people and women in general. For descendants of enslaved people, we eventually hit the brick wall of slavery.
That plunges many of us into what seems like an abyss of nothingness.
In other words, we eventually get back to a time when the answers to our questions will not be written in any one document.
We have to learn how to piece together the family using new strategies and approaches. Using lesser known sources , expanding our search to a larger group of people and searching in repositories are necessary.
This takes time and a desire to learn by taking classes, listening to lectures and reading articles and books written by other genealogists.
Some original sources simply have high rates of error. Census records come to mind. I tend to use census records as a guide. Take with a grain of salt every piece of information you find in them. Maybe its true. Maybe not.
As with all sources, we need to correlate census information in other records. Where do the records agree? Where do they disagree?
Death certificates are also notorious for inaccuracies. I recently blogged about them. For example, the informant on Edward Prather’s death certificate reports his birth date as 13 March 1876:
However, other records confirm that Edward was at least ten years older. Look at his age in his father’s 1870 household:
My ancestor John Smith’s Social Security application led me astray for too many years to count.
John provided the information for the form himself, and so you assume (!) he knew the name of his parents as well as his birthplace.
He was wrong.
DNA finally provided the name of John Smith’s father: a man named Nelson Locklear from Robeson County, North Carolina.
The takeaway is this: only research that is thorough, wide in scope and deep in breadth can tell us whether individual assertions in records are accurate or not.
In one last example I’ll refer back to my ancestor Matilda. My ancestor Matilda’s research has been a minefield of inaccurate and incomplete records. Finding her parents was one of my proudest moments in this research.
Here’s a clipping from her marriage application. In it, she asserts she had been married once before:
How many times had Matilda actually been married?
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.