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Did You Calculate the Dates?
Who Do You Think You Are? Episode 1

Posted by Jeanie Croasmun on March 6, 2010 in Who Do You Think You Are?

My first thought when I saw that obituary handed to Sarah Jessica Parker was that there was no way John S. Hodge could be John Eber Hodge’s dad. John Eber was born in late September 1850; by my calculations, that’s just a bit too late for him to be the son of a miner who died en route to California the year before.

When it comes to genealogy, it’s the juicy stories that really hook me, which is probably why I immediately jumped to speculation and scandal. Never once did it cross my mind that the obituary might be wrong (c’mon, it was in a newspaper – those are always reliable sources, right?).

I should know better. Seriously, how many times have I looked at two census records for the same person, different decades, and found a discrepancy in birth years? I know to chalk it up to bad reporting, get a second opinion, another record that helps me figure out exactly which date is right. But for some reason I never thought that could happen in an obituary.

Natalie Cottrill of ProGenealogists, who provides Sarah Jessica with the obituary and the documents that prove the obituary wrong in Friday night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, summed it up nicely for me. “John’s date of death from his son’s obituary is a good example of why it is important to put more weight on primary source information than on secondary information,” she told me. Primary sources, said Natalie, are recorded close to the time of the event. Ideally the information in a primary source is reported by someone who witnessed the event, who has firsthand knowledge of what occurred. Birth records, draft registration cards, even a passenger list (at least in regard to arrival information) – those are primary sources. Obituaries, on the other hand, summarize a life and are written after the fact by someone other than the deceased. What’s stated in one can provide important clues but may not be perfectly accurate, particularly in regard to an event that occurred six decades earlier.

Lesson learned. From now on I’ll consider the origin of the information I’m looking at before I deem it absolute fact. And I’ll let those wonderfully scandalous stories that I conjure up merely encourage me to dig for better proof so I know that they’re right (or wrong).

About Jeanie Croasmun
Jeanie Croasmun has been working at Ancestry.com while futilely attempting to prove the horse thief story in her family history for over seven years. During that time, she learned enough about her family to determine that the story is likely a great work of fiction. But the search continues ...

27 comments

Comments
1 Pat BlanchardMarch 6, 2010 at 10:04 am

Your observations are exactly on point. I have an obscure relative named Benjamin Franklin Cage who came to my attention via a piece of an email I found on the Internet that indicated one of his descendants had discovered that a plaque had been erected to his memory some 49 years before he had actually died, and she had tried to get the local historical society to correct the error, without success. I couldn’t pass that up and started digging. B.F. Cage was reported in a newspaper of the day as having died in a battle against local Indians in 1838 at Leon Creek, some four miles outside of San Antonio, Texas. His body, along with a number of other fallen men, was brought back to San Antonio a few days later and buried outside the old Catholic cemetery in what is now Milam Plaza. Since I live in the area, I had the opportunity to start chasing the story. There were written accounts of the battle and the burial of the men, as well as the newspaper article; however, the the truth was that he was severely wounded, and was found by others who took him to Wharton County for recovery. Months later he applied for his Texas Revolution land and was arrested as an imposter. Fellow Texas Revolution veterans testified as to his identification, and B.F. Cage evenually got his land. He went on to settle in Blanco County, Texas, had a large family and finally died (for real) in 1887. He is buried in the Blanco Cemetery. Even with all the documentation I collected for both sides of the story, I found, like you, that one has to piece together what is truly plausable, and understand the circumstances of the times. Newspaper reporting was nothing like what we have today, and more often than not stories were brought by word of mouth from third parties. In the aftermath of battle with several days passing in Texas heat and rain before burial, body idenfication could be pretty iffy. Witnesses see what they expect to see, and the weather on the day of the burial was apparently a miserable one. In short, my journey in research was quite an adventure and I learned so much about the local history that had never occurred to me. Investigating the historical circumstances surrounding the people you are researching will enable a person to make truly surprising discoveries.

2 Mary Ward SnyderMarch 6, 2010 at 10:55 am

I enjoyed the new program, Who Do You Think You Are, because it inspired me to continue developing a film about my heritage. Their format of combining photos with video plus adding historical background media was great. I couldn’t believe they were handling the witchcraft documents without white gloves. My experience has always demanded white gloves for archives like that. Great show.

3 Betty-Jane LeeMarch 6, 2010 at 5:15 pm

I was very interested in the first edition of Who Do You Think You Are, as I have an ancestor who was hung after being accused as a witch. I have found much information on her, Elizabeth Jackson Howe, in the files at the Univ of Virginia. The show gave me some ideas of where to search for more information. I enjoyed the program very much
and look forward to the rest of them.

4 Mary CichonMarch 6, 2010 at 5:33 pm

I enjoyed the first show of ” Who do you think you are “. Sarah Jessica Parker was a little too enthusiastic for my tastes. Granted, finding your ancestors is huge, but she was a little over the top. And only the rich and famous could fly from one side of the country to the other. But it did make me want to take another road trip. And I learned a little more about the hunt and where to go to find the good info. I will definitely be watching the next segment for more ideas.

5 Michael HamiltonMarch 6, 2010 at 6:12 pm

I enjoyed the program very much. I would have enjoyed it more if they had used Ancestry.com more and shown some obscure uses within Ancestry.com to break thru some brick walls.
Thanks for a great show. I’d like to hear if it boosted you users on your web site.

6 leanne skurupeyMarch 6, 2010 at 7:42 pm

i did see the new show and was woundering how i can contact somone on there who can do what they did on the show by researching my family history? if you could get back to me that would be great thank you

7 Andy HatchettMarch 7, 2010 at 1:54 am

Leanna,

Are you sure you can afford it?

Paid genealogical research doesn’t come cheap.
Remember- they had at least four researchers working on it.

8 RobertMarch 7, 2010 at 9:35 am

What I like about the first episode was that Sarah plainly revealed that she didn’t know much about her ancestors. That’s exactly how I felt in starting my own genealogy research 8 years ago. The disappointment of the first episode was that Sarah had “the work” all done for her. The only real research she did was interviewing her mom. Too bad she didn’t find some of the documentation on her own. She didn’t experience that rare “found it” moment followed by the “genealogy dance” some of us have to partake. Oh, well, it did make for good television for the paid genealogist.

9 SusanMarch 7, 2010 at 9:52 am

I enjoyed your show very much. What particularly surprised me was seeing an area that I live near and a man I have worked with interviewed on the show. I hadn’t expected the visual experience of being able to go to the places and relive the moment. Great job.

10 KarenMarch 7, 2010 at 9:53 am

I agree with Mary’s earlier comment, Sarah Jessica Parker was a little too enthusiatic for me as well, I chalked it up to a “good acting” attempt. Show as really good, but I would have liked to see more of how the research was performed instead of it just being handed over to the “experts”. All in all I look forward to the next week to see if the program takes it more in dept as to what are original records, secondary records, etc.

Leanne, I would suggest you try researching on your own first. It is a lot more fun to get started on your own instead of hiring someone to do the work for you. Ancestry.com makes it pretty painless to get started…I would go there first.

11 KathrynMarch 7, 2010 at 9:54 am

In regards to the obituary information being incorrect. I worked at a newspaper, and it was brought home to me regularly that the obit information is only as good as the original information submitted, the person typesetting the information’s accuracy, and the proofreader. Because of working there I now look in following issues for corrections. In the last 8 years, I have found 5 corrections for my searches. It is a small percentage, but it is of major importance for those individuals and their families. I figure it only takes another 5 – 10 minutes to look at the next few issues, and it is time well spent.

12 LisaMarch 7, 2010 at 7:52 pm

I enjoyed the first episode and was also surprised that they didn’t wear gloves when handling the witchcraft papers. With regard to using primary records, they are not always correct either. I sent for my great aunt Jennie’s death certificate and it wasn’t found. Later, when I found out her exact death date, I sent for it again. Her death certificate gives her name as James and told me that she (he?) was a white female schoolboy. All the other information matched, so I assumed the clerk miswrote the name. I’m not sure what happened with the occupation of schoolboy.

13 ColleenMarch 8, 2010 at 9:54 am

I really enjoyed the show as I have been searching my ancestors for about 10 years now. I think someone should create a reality show about ancestry and if you are lucky enough to get picked, the show would help those of us who have come to a dead end because they don’t have the knowledge or the finances to contiue their search.

14 DarlaMarch 8, 2010 at 11:01 am

Leanna, A good place to start is by going to the “Hire an Expert” link on the Ancestry site. The link is at the far right of the tool bar. Here you can identify the type of help you need, provide a dollar amount and then experts will bid on the work. You choose which expert you want to go with and then work with them directly. It gives you an opportunity to start working with experts and can help you determine if you want to continue to pay for the extensive research you saw on the Who Do You Think You Are show.

Here is the direct link: http://expertconnect.ancestry.com/Home.aspx

Good luck on your research.

15 Andy HatchettMarch 8, 2010 at 3:33 pm

I’d be wary of that term “expert”.

I ran across one offering to help others with their genealogy and found she had an online tree that was just a re-hash of OneWorldTree!

That kind of help isn’t needed by anybody.

16 robert j hendry srMarch 8, 2010 at 3:51 pm

I thought the show was an infromercial. I have been working steadily four four months on my family tree, sometimes 12 hours a day, contacting last elder relatives, cousins I have never met. The only people helping me are relatives and other families interested in the same line. I am as far back as 1767 as of now looking for mary shawan/ married to john nowland 1816. closets have opened and secrets have come out. I’ll stick to tabloids while waiting in line at walmart to read about celebs.

17 MichelleMarch 8, 2010 at 7:56 pm

I agree about the SJP enthusiasm level. However, I really liked that it wasn’t type in a name and voila! all is discovered and you are related to someone famous. I felt it showed the basic process of start with what you know, select something you want to know more about and then think through a process of how and where you might find that information. Rinse and repeat. Except for those wonderful surprises that pop up, isn’t that the basic route we all are following? I especially liked how we are all discovering our sense of who we are and where we come from.

18 Once a beginner myselfMarch 8, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Leanna #6:

You might start with your nearest local Family History Center. They have some good help (but not always) and they do not charge any money to help you. Ask for a librarian who is very experienced in helping beginners. If you are not happy with that person, try another day, another person.

Go to:

http://www.familysearch.org/eng/default.asp

Then go to “Find a Family History Center” and enter the town or city or state. I don’t know where you live. The centers have Ancestry for use by the patrons and also know lots of other resources for your area, such as other local genealogical societies and libraries.

Don’t hesitate to keep going back. They are patient and helpful. Most will at least get you an experienced person in your field of research. All free.

19 Bonnie JansenMarch 9, 2010 at 5:04 am

My husband’s father always claimed they were related to Napoleon. A cousin did all sorts of research and could not make the connection. Finally hubby said, Well it was on the wrong side of the sheets, so it is not going to show up on the church records in Germany or Leichtenbergs or anywhere. Opa (German Grandpa) told me, it was about Oma(Grandma’s) side of the family, someone was Napoleon’s girlfriend somewhere. Everything got all messed up due to WWII anyway, so info is lost.

20 Jim AcebedoMarch 10, 2010 at 11:05 am

I watched the first episode online. I thought it was interesting and I will watch to see what happens in following episodes. The thing that I found interesting was that most of the documents they showed were legible and easy to read. I think they need to show that it can be easy to link a relative to a specific census or record, however, sometimes you really have to work at reading the writings on that document to make sure it is what you think it is. This hobby is definitely a puzzle that needs to be pieced together carefully and accurately. A labor of love.

21 TammyMarch 11, 2010 at 1:53 am

I have not seen the show, yet. But I would like to say Thank You for it anyway. I have been working on our tree for about 3 years. It has been like pulling teeth to get information and/or photos etc. until this show aired. Now it is interesting to someone besides just me :) So, thank you for showing what it is really all about- finding out who we are and where we come from. I have been trying to get across the concept that ANY information is a clue to the next piece in the puzzle and your show finally made the point.

22 Claire MillerMarch 11, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Anyone who thinks Sarah Jessica Parker was a little over enthusiastic hasn’t seen me whenever I find the least tidbit on line – for new info is cause to jump around, pump my fists in the air and hoot a bit. I mean, this is your genetic history folks! That’s worth a little over-the-top behavior in my book.

23 Andy HatchettMarch 11, 2010 at 3:54 pm

Claire,

While it may be your Family History, there is no way on earth, short of DNA tests, to tell if it is your genetic history or not… *grin*

24 Carol A. H.March 11, 2010 at 10:58 pm

Why do I get the feeling the show was the ghost of “This Is Your Life?”

25 BeckyMarch 14, 2010 at 7:56 am

The performance of the actors aside, the show’s doing what it was intended . . garnering interest in our favorite addiction, showing folks how to get started, highlighting the excitement of the chase, and pumping up those of us who are already on the trail. I’m enjoying one added benefit. My husband (formerly not interested in genealogy, mine or his) is now seeing why I spend so much time at my computer, why he’s paying for my annual subscription for Ancestry.com, and why I need those road trips to cemeteries and remote courthouses while we’re traveling. Yeah Ancestry for going prime time!!!! Any chance the pro’s in the show could answer questions about their findings on-line? I’d really like to know where they found the gold mining partnership contract which was so “common”.

26 Andy HatchettMarch 15, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Becky,

They found them in one of the Yale Library collections that are online- one of the Bloggers mentioned it just the other day. Same collection also had the letter about his death.

27 Barbara RiblingMarch 16, 2010 at 11:31 am

I enjoyed the Episode very much. one of my ancestors was a Sheriff in Hartford, CT, during the witch trials there so it was especially interesting to learn even more about these sad events.

I question everything! Even the census and other records. I dig and dig to try and verify “facts”. The date of 1849 would not have been considered especially accurate to me. It would have been a clue to further research. It was not given as a “fact” with an exact date and information regarding the death. I like to think that I might have eventually found the information regarding the death. I would not have been surprised. i have found errors and conflicts regarding several dates, even those in the Family Bible!

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