Saturday, June 4, 2011

Inferential Genealogy Homework #1

During my previous post about Second Life, I mentioned the current course discussions being held in-world, and how they would require some homework blog posts. Before you non-SL people read this and rush off, this seminar is available online for anyone to complete. The only difference with my posting will be the connection to Second Life discussions. If you would like to utilize this free course on Inferential Genealogy by Dr. Tom Jones, offered through the free online courses by Family Search, here is the direct link:

Also, here is the original post about the course and Second Life schedule from Dear Myrtle - the dear who has brought this to our attention and is willing to host discussions in-world!

Our first post discussion assignment required us to write a blog post about our understanding of inferential genealogy at this stage of the course. Also, we are to include any examples we could think of from our own genealogical research.

As far as my understanding goes, inferential genealogy is the method of drawing kinship/relationship conclusions based on partial or piecemeal information. As genealogists we utilize all kinds of factual records - most are accurate, but many are flawed, or even wrong. Since no one document can give us the solid, complete facts about an individual, we must turn to many outside sources to confirm any conclusion we might draw. Dr. Jones describes it as putting together a puzzle. We only have the complete picture after we have put together all of the pieces.

Honestly, after viewing the introduction and reading the handout, I suddenly realized that this is always how I have conducted my research. Perhaps this is due to my past experience as a history major back in my undergrad days, when we learned to never really take history at factual face value. We were taught to check and double check multiple sources (primary sources) and then take the facts we learned and put them together in contextual perspective. In other words, we could only draw reasonable conclusions after multiple sources had confirmed the perceived information and as long as it fit within the context of the period from which it came. After learning this type of methodology I applied it to my genealogy research methods - thereby rendering almost ALL of my genealogy research into a state of limbo or suspicion.

I don't care if my great great aunt told me what her mother's maiden name was, I need multiple records confirming her information (and spelling) before I would conclude it to be fact. Does this mean I did not value the information that was given to me via an oral interview? On the contrary. I am a huge proponent of oral history and interviews. If you want to know where to begin your research journeys, oral interviews are the absolute best place to start - not to mention that at face value they are primary sources when wanting to understand a people, their perspective and cultural experiences. Plus, most of the time, those oral interviews are pretty darned accurate - I love them dearly, and in my opinion, they are more precious than the records, because they represent voices and impressions of the lives that came before me!

So, back to true inferential genealogy and how this has helped me. Since my research is never complete, any piece of information, however small or insignificant, is a puzzle piece that helps me paint a complete picture of an ancestor's life. Even if I have already confirmed in a few records the birth date of a person, by employing the strategies of inferential genealogy, I can put more flesh back on the bones per se. Dr. Jones outlines steps to using this method, and one of his steps involves broadening your research area and scope. Thereby studying the neighbors of your ancestors, community involvement of your ancestors, and migratory patterns that include a whole new set of broadened areas of research. But seriously, when I began my genealogy journey so many years ago, it wasn't the birth and death dates that got me hooked, it was the life led by my ancestors that inspired that passion. The life truly led can really only be found through inferential methodology.

To give a few examples of how I used this method within my own family research:

1. My great great Uncle Lanson Cox died as a young man in his 20s. The story of his death came from my great Grandmother - she mentioned that he died young and that she was very close to him, but never detailed the experience. I used death records to see his death date, cause of death and parents - plus tombstone and other records to confirm his birth/parents, etc. However, the experience of losing a brother at such a young age was the more complete picture. I used local newspaper gossip sections that detailed his lingering illness over the weeks and months. These not only gave me a better understanding of how long he was sick, but also allowed me to see how the community was handling the illness of a local. They detailed when his family members and neighbors visited, and how many local friends visited, always describing how well liked he was in his small community. Later, obituary notices helped detail and confirm some of the familial relationships mentioned earlier. This inference of family connection is a breadcrumb or puzzle piece that can help me later add more members to our family tree once the relationships are confirmed through more sources.

2. On my Beyersdoerfer side of the family, my 3rd great Grandfather was quite adept at alphabet soup. He was born Johann George and immigrated to America with his brothers in the mid 19th century. However, it seems he not only changed to John George once he landed, but also preferred the name George when dealing with some records (not all) due to the other local John Beyersdoerfers in the area. He therefore used the following given names/initials: J.G., John, John George, G.J., George, and even Johann George in his earliest records on American soil. By the time he died, he had G.J. listed on his tombstone. This man's life can ONLY be documented through inferential means. Due to the other Beyersdoerfer immigrants in the same surrounding counties, I can only count a record as truly being that of my Grandfather if other pieces within that record coincide or match details from other records. In many cases, I really can only count those with the same immediate familial relationships on the record to consider it his.....and even then, I double check birth dates of those family members due to a repeat of given names within this group of German settlers. Ugghhhh!!!

3. One last example from my 3rd great Grandfather Samuel Cox. He was married three times, and no one in the family can ever seem to get the names of the wives straight. Plus, two of the wives had the same given name and died within a few years of each other. Needless to say, I must rely on inferential info to confirm when I have a record about a specific wife. And don't get me started about those in the family who confused the son Samuel with the father....we soooo need a Cox family history do-over! Especially for what is lurking out there in the interwebs!

In conclusion, I really do not believe you can adequately paint a complete portrait of your ancestors, nor understand them, without using this method. It leaves no stone unturned, greatly reduces the chance for pedigree error, and broadens your understanding of the ancestor's life within a community. After all, we are studying relationships, and without exploring the relationships, our research is incomplete and in some cases, completely wrong. As researchers, we should always take pride in having correct research, not just a long pedigree. We all know how wrong the long trees can be.....we should use this method more to prune some of those monstrosities and document the correct information for future generations!

On to Case you follow the course, feel free to stop in Second Life for some lively discussions about what we learn! Next meeting is this Sunday the 5th at 5:15PM SLT (Second Life time is Pacific Time which is 8:15PM Eastern Time) at the Just Genealogy Fire Pit!



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