Most of us have probably heard the song â€œI Am My Own Grandpa.â€ (For those of you who havenâ€™t, itâ€™s online.) In the song, a man marries a widow with a grown-up daughter and his father marries the widowâ€™s daughter. As both couples have babies, through the twists and turns of their family tree, the man determines that he has become his own grandfather.
Itâ€™s a cute song that originated in the 1940s, and while most of our families donâ€™t get that complicated, we will occasionally run into some complicated family trees of our own. With siblings marrying siblings of another family, various degrees of cousins marrying, multiple marriages, families taking in nieces and nephews, families reusing the same given names of children who have died, and any other number of complications, we may find ourselves singing a similar tune and having a hard time sorting out who belongs to which family. (Plus, is it just me or does this kind of thing typically take place most often in the families that also have the most common surnames? Itâ€™s kind of a Murphyâ€™s Law of Genealogy.)
Since I often hear from readers writing in with complicated family mysteries, I thought that today weâ€™d discuss some methods for sorting out complicated families.
Gather Records on Everyone
Make sure you have gathered as many records as you can. The more information you have to work with the better. If there are discrepancies and pieces that donâ€™t seem to fit, do more searching and see if perhaps you just picked up on a similar family, with your family still hiding behind a mis-transcribed name or in a location you didnâ€™t expect.
Arrange and Rearrange Records
Sometimes with complicated families, and when youâ€™re trying to sort out several families with similar names, it helps to lay the information out in non-traditional formats. I used a spreadsheet and color-coding to sort out what seemed like a million James Kellys in New York City to try to determine which one was mine.
Another simpler method would be to use note cards that can be sorted. This is my motherâ€™s favorite method. Make a card for each record, including source information and a transcription (where possible) on the card. Using clues found in each type of record such as occupation, childrenâ€™s names, ages, etc., sort as many of the cards as possible into piles by family or individual.
Transcriptions Can Help
While youâ€™re transcribing records onto cards or worksheets, youâ€™ll probably also pick up some additional clues that you may have missed or forgotten about. I hand-type every record we get and find it very helpful because I tend to analyze each thing that I type.
As you find clues, make notes of them right away. If youâ€™re using the index card system, you can even create separate cards for your notes. If youâ€™re sorting the family in either a spreadsheet or word processing document, you can insert notes or comments with your thoughts. Be sure to date them and clearly state your train of thought, and the records you referenced.
If you find that one of the records you have collected is not related to your family, make a note of that too, detailing why you believe they donâ€™t fit in with your group. Keep these in a â€œmiscellaneous fileâ€ and that way if you run across other records for that person, you donâ€™t have to re-analyze the situation and can rule them out quickly.
I like to create a summary of family structures as I know it. For example, if Iâ€™m missing a family in the 1860 census, I put down the names of everyone I expect to find in the household, along with years of birth, and the ages I expect them to be in 1860. I also include a column to show the age I find in the census once I locate them. I have posted an example here:
(Click on theÂ grid to enlarge it.)
Once you get your records sorted by family, create timelines by chronologically arranging the records you have found. Then use the information from the records to estimate dates for other events. For example, with my Kelly family, Mary Ann was born in Ireland around 1815, and the next youngest child, Jane was born in June 1819 in New York. From this I can estimate their year of immigration between ca. 1815 and June 1819. I insert these estimates in the timeline with a description that gives my reasoning so that I wonâ€™t be scratching my head a year from now wondering where I got that range of dates.
Timelines also can help you pinpoint where a family was at a particular place in time. They will also bring discrepancies to the forefront as you begin plotting events. I like to include ages for family members, estimating where the age isnâ€™t actually given in a record. That way if you see the mother having a child at age sixty-five, since that is highly unlikely, you can reexamine the family and see if maybe you missed a generation. It also gives you a better sense of the family. How old were the children when Mom died? Were they married at an early age or later in life? At what age did the children begin working? These are the kind of things that really add interest to your family history.
Explain the Problem
Iâ€™m very fortunate that my mother works closely with me on our family history. When Iâ€™m trying to sort something out, I give her a call and we can put our heads together to solve the problem. Sometimes, the answer will come to me just through vocalizing the problem. If you donâ€™t have a partner in your family history, try an understanding spouse. (Iâ€™ve found it helpful if you bribe them with good food. They canâ€™t run as fast on a full stomach.)
If youâ€™re not looking for answers, pets are great sounding boards too, and you look slightly less silly than when youâ€™re just talking to yourself. (Although mine will sometimes cock their heads and give me a look that says, â€œLady, are you serious? How should I know why you canâ€™t find the Kellys in 1860? Iâ€™m a dog.â€)
Another good technique is to write an article about the family. I canâ€™t tell you how many times Iâ€™ve made discoveries through writing for the newsletter. Other times, the writing exposes holes in my research, and although itâ€™s a bit of a downer at the time, it will eventually help set me on the right path.
What’s Your Secret?
Do you have a trick for sorting out complicated families? Please share it with the rest of us on the blog.
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Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for more than eight years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.