by Michael John Neill
Family historians frequently 'fuss' over the details in our ancestors' lives. Misspelled names, varying middle initials, birthplaces all over the map, and birth dates all over the calander-all result in much frustration. A great deal of time is spent trying to either integrate inconsistent details or to determine which pieces of information are incorrect and can be ignored.
Our ancestors most likely cared less about the differing details than we do.
I recently re-read the preface to a 1983 history of one of my own families. The surname was originally Janssen, which frequently was Anglicized to Johnson. The author quipped that when her husband was called to dinner he didn't much care whether it was Janssen or Johnson. The end result was still the same and dinner was still ready.
Of course Anglicization and 'age shaving' can complicate the life of the genealogist, creating inconsistencies where perhaps none really exist.
THe difficulty is that we can't travel back in time to actually see the John Johnson who married in 1883. Perhaps he really was our Jans Janssen, who for a time Anglicized his name. If I could just see the John Johnson of 1883, I might easily see that he's not the same guy that appears in the wedding portrait dated 1883 I have of my Jans Janssen. That ancestor whose age in the census appears a few years off may still be ours, despite the apparent difference.
This is not meant to say that we should leap to conclusions without any evidence or support at all. Conclusion jumping can bring about the most insurmountable brick walls. However, we must realize that in some cases concrete proof will never exist.
Few of our ancestors were concerned with leaving behind a record of their existance for the grandchildren and great grandchildren. They were more likely concerned with the immediate needs of the time, preparing food for winter consumption, saving money to buy a small farm, hoping "Pa" would shoot a deer so there would be meat on the table.
Immediate concerns of food and shelter had to be addressed, grandchildren and great grandchildren would have to fend for themselves. And if there was the time or tendency for contemplation, there likely was not the money to spend on such frivolities as a diary and a pen and ink with which to record the individual's thoughts.
So we are left with what records others created of our ancestors. Brief snapshots at specific moments in time, frequently rites of passage, birth, marriage, and death. Frequently other records are directly or indirectly associated with such an event. A will may be recorded after the death of a parent. A farm may be sold and a deed drawn up upon the death of a surviving parent. A parent may transfer land to a son upon the son's marriage. These records are not vital records, but frequently 'vital' events cause records other than 'vital records' to be created.
While we use a variety of records for genealogical purposes, it is important to remember that these records were not created for our own use today, but for a specific purpose at the time of the record.
Today when I fill out an application, form, or data sheet, at the doctors' office, insurance company, etc. I pay careful attention to the spelling of my name. I do not want to be inadvertently confused with a Michael Neal or a Michael O'Neill. Once errors get into modern databases they can be extremely difficult to remove.
We may also be concerned about someone thousands of miles away 'assuming' our identity and creating even more hassles for us. Great great grandpa likely had no such concerns.
I started my job without showing proof of citizenship, but if I wanted to be paid I had to provide a copy of my birth certificate. Chances are when my Irish immigrant ancestor Samuel Neill worked for the railroad in the late 1880s, he simply showed up. He was not concerned with making certain his deductions were done correctly, that his earnings were being tied to the correct social security number, and that as time went on his employer credited him with the appropriate number of years in service towards his pension.
If his employer wrote down Samuel's name in a ledger, neither of them probably cared if it was spelled "Neill" or "Neal". And his employer was not likely to let Samuel have a look at his records or files. Even if he had, most of his employees were likely illiterate and could not have read the information anyway.
Some of us take pride in our surname and the way it is spelled. It is important to remember that before a significant proportion of the population was literate, name spelling was not nearly as important and that the importance of name spelling has increased over the years as our name ties us to more and more records in more and more computer databases.
My great grandparents are listed as "O'Neil" in an early 1900 mortage. The courthouse copy is a transcription and it also indicates that they signed their name as "O'Neil." This causes me to think something is amiss as their 1903 marriage license, which they also signed, shows their signatures as "Neill." The marriage license contains their actual signatures, not a transcription.
Chances are the clerk transcribing mortage records thought the name should be "O'Neil" and entered it that way everytime.
We rely heavily on details our ancestors provided through record keepers, census takers, and other officials. Information supposedly provided by our ancestors, especially on the census. Is there a chance that another household member besides the father or mother gave the information? If the head of the household gave the information, is it entirely correct? Might our ancestor have 'fudged' or told a 'fib' either to get the requestor to leave or to prevent other hassles?
The world is significantly different today than it was when our ancestors lived one hundred or two hundred years ago. It is important to remember that at the start of the twenty-first century, we may focus on different details than our ancestors did.