How Do I Know I Have the Right Family?

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How Do I Know I Have the Right Family? 

by Michael John Neill 

When families migrate from one area to another, it can be hard to determine if you have really located the 
same group of individuals. The difficulty is compounded if the last name and first names are relatively 
common. It's important to be certain that the "true" family has been located and that one has not mixed 
up families with similar names. Male cousins bearing the same first and last name are particularly easy 
to confuse. 

One quick way to track families in the post-1850 era is through population census schedules. The listing 
of all household members facilitates the matching process, and every-name indexes make the use of these 
records much easier than before, especially when the residence is not known. However, the first close 
match on the list of results is not necessarily the correct family. All matches to the search terms should 
be analyzed and eliminated based upon what is known about the family. What appears to be the "right" 
entry must be compared in light of other records to determine if there really is consistency. 

On the other hand, searches of databases must not be overly strict, as this can sometimes eliminate 
potential matches. I generally perform a variety of searches for individuals I am seeking, including some 
using Soundex and wildcard functionality. Sometimes it is easy to determine if the correct person has 
been found (the person has an unusual name, the person is living in the right location, names, ages, and 
birthplaces of family members match up, etc.). Other times it is not possible to make a definitive decision 
that the desired person has been located. When families are eliminated, the researcher should keep 
notes as to why these families were stricken from consideration. 

Generally speaking, when searching online census databases it is helpful to track the type of search that is 
being performed as it is being performed. Key elements in this tracking are: 

The first and last names that were put in the search box 
Whether a Soundex option was used 
Whether a search was performed with wildcards 
What year of birth was used (and what range of years) 
What birthplace was used 
Reasons for tracking the search include: 

It is impossible to effectively modify an unsuccessful search when one is not certain how one searched 
originally or how one searched last week. 
Searching the same static database in the same way will typically produce the same results. 
It is impossible to remember each combination of search techniques that was applied. The "correct" 
combination will always be overlooked. It's Murphy's Law applied to genealogy. 
One quick and easy way to track your online searches is to make a spreadsheet with column headings 
for the various search boxes for the database being searched. This spreadsheet can be printed and written 
on while searching or those who are adept at toggling between computer windows can fill out their chart as 
they search. Personally, I prefer to fill out my chart of searches before I search, making certain no 
combination of terms was eliminated. Then I can use the chart to make certain I have conducted all the 
desired searches. 

The Brices
An earlier column mentioned the family of William and Anne Brice and how they were tracked in census 
records from Illinois to Kansas to Missouri between 1860 and 1900. As an example, let's look at how their 
entries were obtained and what leads me to believe I have the same family in four separate locations over 
four census enumerations. 

Generally speaking, census enumerations on any family should not be viewed in isolation. (Space 
considerations do not allow us to include the complete analysis in this column.) Rather, other records 
should be utilized in order to determine if the tentative family structure and migration paths are supported 
by other documents. Wherever possible, obtain maps of all relevant areas to assist in viewing the family's 
overall migration path. Search for reasonable alternate spellings before assuming the "actual" family has 
been located and consider if there are alternate situations that could explain the records that have been 
found. We should search to see what is found, not search to prove an already determined conclusion. 

1860 Census-Ursa Township, Adams County, Illinois
William Brice, age 21, born Ireland, married within census year
Anne J., age 22, born Ireland, married within census year 

The reference to the marriage within the year caused me to search the Illinois State Marriage Index. An 
index entry appears for William Brice and Ann Jane Belford indicating an April of 1860 marriage. It seems 
very reasonable that this is the same couple, especially since there were no other marriages in the index 
for a William and Anne Brice (or any reasonable spelling variant). 

1870 Census-Chili Township, Hancock County, Illinois
William Brice, age 34, born Ireland
Ann, age 33, born Ireland
William, Jr., age 6, born Illinois
Mary A., age 4, born Illinois
Robert, age 1, born Illinois 

Chili Township in Hancock County, Illinois, is close to Ursa Township in Adams County. The ages of 
William and Ann are consistent with the earlier enumeration. In both cases, William is a farmer (it is 
important to note any extreme inconsistencies with occupation as well). The ages of the Brice children are 
consistent with an 1860 marriage. The initial census search was conducted for a William Brice (and 
Soundex variants) born in 1838 in Ireland, plus or minus five years. 

1880 Census-Bruno, Butler County, Kansas
William Brice, age 45, born Ireland
Anne J., age 48, born Ireland
William, age 16, born Illinois
Mary, age 14, born Illinois
Robert, age 11, born Illinois
Sarah J., age 9, born Illinois
James, age 6, born Illinois
John, age 2, born Kansas 

The family structure is consistent with the 1870 enumeration. The ages of the parents are off slightly from 
earlier enumerations, but not so far off as to warrant any special concern. The initial census search was 
conducted for a William Brice (and Soundex variants) born in 1838 in Ireland, plus or minus five years. 

1900 Census-Grant Township, Caldwell County, Missouri 
William Brice, age 62 (born March 1838), Ireland
Ann, age 62 (born March 1838), Ireland
Jno. H. M., age 20 (born Mar 1880), Kansas 

An unexpected move of the family. However, this was the only "match" using our previous search terms 
that came even close to our desired family. Anna Brice's death certificate (obtained via the Missouri State 
Archives website) indicates that she was born in Ireland on 28 March 1836, the daughter of Daniel and 
Mary Jackson Belford. This is the same maiden name for the "known" Anne Brice, wife of William. Further 
research needs to be done, but it appears I have the same family. 

Wrapping It Up

Perform searches that are not overly narrow so that close matches (which maybe the right family) are not 
Constantly review information in light of already known information to be reasonably certain the same family 
has been located. 
Track what you do, so search terms can be modified as necessary. 

Ethnic Eccentricities 

Who Dreams Up These Rules? 
Among the most frustrating things for the genealogist working in a new area are the unwritten rules, social 
practices and cultural norms that our ancestors followed. These behaviors are not often written down and 
yet they affect almost every aspect of our ancestor's lives and the records they left behind. Every ethnic 
area and time period has its own unique problems. And every genealogist will encounter this problem 
sooner or later. I first encountered these problems when working on my Ostfriesen ancestors. 

Ostfriesland is a small ethnic area in northern Germany from where all my maternal ancestors originated. 
Regular readers of this column have heard of the Ostfriesens before. This week we will look at some things 
I learned and problems I encountered when beginning my research on these ancestors. Now that I have 
researched in other regions and time periods, I know that similar problems exist for virtually every area. 

These Names Make No Sense.
Initially the naming patterns and practices drove me nuts. I was fourteen years old when I started working 
on my Ostfriesen families and had little knowledge of the linguistics or the culture. The only advantage I 
had was that I grew up hearing the names pronounced the "right" way, instead of the Americanized 
pronunciations. As a result, the variant spellings did not confuse me as much as they could have, although 
it was difficult at first. 

This was especially true when my research crossed the Atlantic back into Europe. Jans Focken would have 
children named Hinrich Janssen, Trientje Janssen, and Focke Janssen (a "sen" was added to the father's 
first name to create the child's last name of Janssen). Habbe Lubben would have children named Johann 
Habben, Tjode Habben, and Jasper Habben (by adding an "n" to the father's first name). The practice here 
is relatively simple patronymics, where a surname is derived from the first name of the father. The problem 
was that in Ostfriesland the practice was continued until the early nineteenth century. (Wales and Sweden 
also continued the practice later than other areas.) Once one understands the basic way patronymics 
operates, there is significantly less confusion and there are definite patterns and tendencies. The problem 
is that our ancestors did not have a guidebook to use to help them with this system and there were no 
laws about how patronymics were to be applied. That was the just the way it was done. When things are 
"done the way they are done" the genealogist two hundred years later can easily be confused. Every 
ethnic region has its own idiosyncrasies; it is up to us to learn them.

Then I Learned that the Rules Were Not Consistent. 
Just about the time I thought I had a good handle on the patronymics, there would be a family that actually 
passed the same last name from father to child. This was done with the sole intent of confusing a 
descendant two hundred years later (or at least it seemed that way). There was no red flag in the church 
records warning me that this family was a little bit different. Ministers do not often leave comments in the 
parish register that "this family breaks social standards." It is up to the researcher to be constantly aware 
of the possibility for a family that did not play by the rules. This is done by thinking about the records one 
obtains and the information they contain. The researcher must do more than simply let their "eyes pass 
over the words" as records are read. The family historian must think, analyze, compare and contrast as
they read in order to avoid drawing incorrect conclusions. 

Just when a genealogist thinks she has a reasonable grip on an ethnic group or a time period, they 
encounter that one family that seems to break all the rules. (Of course, the families that break all the 
rules are sometimes the most fun to research.)

A Modern Researcher "Cleans It Up."
In areas and time periods where patronymics were practiced, a pedigree chart is greeted with confusion 
by some. No person on the chart has the same last name as their father or mother. Even strict male lines 
of descent have a different last name every generation. To those unfamiliar with the practice of constantly 
changing last names, it looks like every couple on the pedigree chart never bothered to get married. Some 
genealogists, concerned that other relatives will think the entire family was spawned from centuries of such 
behavior seek to rectify the situation. They "fix" the surnames so the father is listed with the same last 
name as the children even though this was not the case. This usually is done by taking the surname of 
the immigrant ancestor and deciding every direct male line ancestor of that immigrant had that same 
surname, whether he actually did or not. Some see this as looking more "presentable" to the modern eye.
Imagine my surprise when several of my families have last names in the published family genealogies that 
appear nowhere in the actual church records. 

We do our ancestors a disservice when we attempt to make information about them conform to modern 
standards. Give the facts, explain what you can, and leave it at that.

One Hundred Words 
I also realized that I did not need to be an expert in the language in order to read most of the records. 

Reading foreign records, particularly church records, does not require an advanced degree in the language. 
What it does require is patience and a willingness to learn. Generally speaking, there are some basic words 
that a researcher needs to know in order to use foreign records. The names of the individuals involved and 
other identifying details change from one entry to another, but the word for "born," "died," "married," 
"father," "mother," etc. do not change from one child's christening entry to another. I quickly learned that 
once I knew how to read the basic "genealogy words" in a foreign language I could make a reasonable 
translation of most church records, particularly those entries that were created using "boilerplate" text. It 
was not the words that gave me the biggest problem in reading foreign language records. Like most 
genealogist, it was the script used by the priest or minister that creates the biggest problem.

Lessons Learned 
Whenever I work in a new area I try to constantly remind myself that there might be an underlying behavior 
or practice with which I am not familiar. It is my responsibility to learn as much about these practices as 
possible. I also remind myself that not every family might have engaged in this practice all the time and 
that some later family members might have "cleaned things up" to make information about family members 
more appealing to modern sensibilities. And I learned that with some time and patience I could make a 
reasonable translation of most foreign language church entries.

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