Seize From Every Record Its Unique Genealogy Evidence

Seize from every record its unique genealogy evidence–and combine them all together to create as complete a picture as possible. This is a genealogy research axiom. This rule will enable you to trace even difficult to find ancestors. What often happens is that we stop the search when the going gets rough. [I understand when the search stops because the money runs out. So I usually file a note on the challenge and take it with me–if I see data that might break the line open, I retrieve it for another day. When I can, I share this new data with my client. I have a special little genealogy notebook where these “dead ends” are filed for ready reference. This is one reason that I maintain a 96% success rate!]

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, many historians at home and abroad, were engaged in family reconstitution. They took the sources you find your ancestors in and extracted their data, counted the categories, and came up with historical generalities or conclusions they could use to study other families, locations, or topics.

An important Virginia study was Darrett B. Rutman and Anita H. Ruttman, “Now-Wives and Sons-in-Law”:  Parental Death in a Seventeenth-Century Virginia County,”  Chesapeake in the 17th Century.  ed. Thad W. Tate and David L Ammerman. Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1979. I am going to quote from their “Note on the Sources and Methods”–

The essential method of our study of Middlesex from its settlement to circa 1750 has been to break down all records pertaining to the county (and its parent county, Lancaster, prior to the separation of the two) and reassemble them on a name basis, outlining the lives of as many of the people residing in Middlesex during the period as possible. We hesitate to use the word reconstitution to describe the method because of the limited connotation of the word; our biographies include not merely vital events but all available information relative to each person–

Kinship and quasi-kinship relationships, land patents, conveyances, debts, lawsuits, commercial and farm activities, relationships to church and government, literacy, and so forth.

We have made no assumption that any given type of record is complete. For example, we assume serious underregistration of all vital events and feel it requisite to supplement the parish register with any and every other type of record, including the examination of tombstones.

Neither do we assume that any published material is inevitably accurate–the published Parish Register of Christ Church, Middlesex County, VA, from 1653 to 1812 (Richmond VA: 1897) is rife with error, as any comparison with the original in the Virginia State Library, Richmond, will show.

As an example, consider the case of Henry Thacker, Jr.:

A variety of records establishes his residence in the county during the last two decades of the seventeenth and first decade of the eighteenth century. From both the parish register and the manuscript “Miscellaneous Records of Marriages and Deaths (and births), 1663-1763,” Va. State Lib., we pick up his parentage and date of birth, his wife’s first name (Elizabeth), and the names and birth dates of seven children. A Thacker genealogy [PW Hiden, “Webb, Thacker, Vivion,” WMQ, 2d Ser. V (1925). 171-79] supplies his wife’s maiden name and parentage.

That Thacker had an illegitimate daughter by Mrs Eleanor (Willis) Allden is established by the Middlesex County Order Book, No. 2, 1680-1694, Va. State Lib. (the court’s fine of Mrs. Allden, Mrs. Allden’s suit against Thacker resulting in a court order to him to maintain the child, and a court-directed indenture of the child).

Thacker’s death is not in the parish register but can be determined as being between Dec 15, 1709 (when he wrote his will), and Jan 2, 1710 (when the will was entered), from the manuscript Will Book A, 16980-1713, Va. State Lib.

The death of Elizabeth Thacker, widow, is recorded in the register, but there is another Mrs. Elizabeth Thacker alive at the time–the wife of Henry’s nephew Edwin. The existence in Will Book B, 1713-34, of Elizabeth Thacker’s will (dated two days before the death and citing Henry’s known children) demonstrates conclusively that it was, indeed, Henry’s widow whose death was recorded. The lives of Thacker’s children are similarly outlined. We know, for example, that all his legitimate children were alive in Dec 1709 by virtue of their being mentioned in his will, and they are tracked into their own marriages, child-bearing, and death.

Thacker’s is a fairly straight forward case. He was conscientious in registering the births of his legitimate children. Thacker’s date of birth is recorded. Thacker’s will survived, albeit his death was not registered.

For their part, women seldom left wills. Given the underregistration of deaths, their demise can frequently be ascertained only from documentation of the husband’s remarriage or from references in his will to his “now-wife” as a different person from the known wife.

Tracking women through their various marriages is obviously the most arduous task, requiring close attention in the Order, Deed, and Will Books to the administration of estates, conveyances (both by women and by husbands who had to indicate approval of their wives to particular sales), and above all the mention in men’s wills of their “sons- and daughters-in-law,” that is, their “now- wives” children by prior marriages.

Such prosopography is both painstaking and time-consuming. Shortcuts exist and are tempting–one can drop into a community at a sequence of specific dates, or use various enumerations (in Virginia–tithe and militia lists), or extract from only one type of record–the parish register. But in our experience, the results will be error-ridden. Name confusion will be inevitable. At one point in time we have five co-existing Frances Thackers.

Robert Chowning appears on a tithable list of 1668 and a militia list of 1687; he is likely to be taken for one man, but the two names are actually father and son.

Paul Philpots had three wives within ten years, the first and third named Susanna (and with children named John by each Susanna). How easy it would be to pick up his marriage to Susanna and his widow Susanna, presume one marriage and miss two!

If I were writing a detailed research report, I could not describe these research challenges and pitfalls in a more understandable way.  Virginia ancestry has all of these common considerations, documented in these very sources.

And your ancestors can also be identified if you seize from every record its unique genealogy evidence and then re-combine that evidence to prove each person.  It is usually not in copying the information that we err.  The difficult step is combining the facts to develop the family history.  Your favorite Virginia genealogist who maintains a 96% success rate, Arlene Eakle

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