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Clues In what the records don't say

by Juliana Smith


"One of the most admirable things about history is, that almost as a
rule we get as much information out of what it does not say as we get
out of what it does say. And so, one may truly and axiomatically aver
this, to-wit: that history consists of two equal parts; one of these
halves is statements of fact, the other half is inference, drawn from
the facts. To the experienced student of history there are no
difficulties about this; to him the half which is unwritten is as
clearly and surely visible, by the help of scientific inference, as
if it flashed and flamed in letters of fire before his eyes. When the
practised eye of the simple peasant sees the half of a frog
projecting above the water, he unerringly infers the half of the frog
which he does not see. To the expert student in our great science,
history is a frog; half of it is submerged, but he knows it is there,
and he knows the shape of it."
--- Mark Twain, "The Secret History of Eddypus"

One of the fun parts of this job, is going out and searching for good
quotes to run as the "Thought for Today." When I ran across this one,
I thought, "Wow, this is perfect!" But as I re-read it and thought
about it in the context of my recent research efforts, I had to
wonder about my "scientific prowess." I have really looked for those
"flashed and flamed letters" before my eyes, but the only thing I see
flashing before my eyes are stars from beating my head on brick


Well, if there's a frog anywhere in the vicinity of my desk, he's
probably hiding under a pile of papers. (Yes, they still seem to
reappear despite a valiant effort of late to keep my desk clean, but
that's an article for another day.)

So I guess my first job is to find the part of the frog that's
visible -- in other words, assemble the facts as I know them. Sound
familiar? Yes, you've heard me say it many times before in other
columns. It's an important first step when confronting a problem, and
on the bright side, it's an encouraging way to start. Once we see
that we actually have a little information on a person, that brick
wall doesn't seem quite so insurmountable.

As I assemble what I have, I go over timelines I've created, where I
use facts gleaned from documents and assemble them in a chronological
fashion. I also like to pull out the original sources of that
information and pore over them in their entirety as well. Often, a
close examination of the details found in many records can provide
clues that aren't really spelled out as such. 

For example, in the 1890 census, questions included the number of
years the person had lived in this country, and their naturalization
status. Unfortunately, most of that census was lost in a fire, so for
most of us, the 1900 census is the first census in which we can find
this information spelled out. But, using information found in other
years, we can often narrow down the date of immigration using dates
and places of birth of family members. Below is the 1850 U.S. Federal
Census entry for my third great-grandfather, William Huggins.

HIGGINS, William, age 44, Mason, born in Ireland
         Ann, age 33, born in
         Robert, age 13, born in
         Catherine, age 8, born in

From Catherine's age and birthplace, I can theorize that the family
immigrated to the
--- ca. 1841-2 (Catherine's birth in
according to the census)
31 July 1850 (the date the census was taken)

This leaves still quite a time frame to deal with particularly since
the records after 1846 are not indexed. By adding other records to
this mix, I can narrow it down even further. From "
St. Paul
's Roman
Catholic Church,
Brooklyn, NY
, Baptisms and Marriage Registers: The
Irish Parish," (1) I found the following baptisms:

Anne Huggins, bapt. 26 May 1844, born 28 Apr 1844
James Huggan, 22 Feb 1846, born 13 Feb 1846
William Huggins, 11 July 1847, born 5 July 1847
Ann Higgins, 12 Nov 1848, born 30 Oct 1846
William Huggins, 13 Nov 1853, 31 Sept 31
Margaret Huggan, 13 Oct 1850, 2 Oct 1850
Mary Huggins, 17 May 1857, 8 May 1857

All of these entries list William Huggins as the father and Ann as
the mother, although the spellings for her maiden name of Dwyer are a
bit "creative" (Wire, Ware, Dwyer, Toire, and Weir). Given the first
baptism at
St. Paul
's for Anne in May 1844, we can now narrow the
immigration date down a bit further to between around 1842 and May
1844. And since this period of passenger lists through
New York
indexed (Yeah!), it will be worth it to take a look-see next time I'm
at the National Archives.

Another clue I find that isn't exactly spelled out, is in the baptism
registry. There are two Ann(e)s listed, and two Williams listed. Now
either they have a household like George Foreman where all the kids
have the same names, or the first Anne and William died prior to the
later Ann and William. Looking for a death record is another option,
and since the time frame the Municipal Archives specifies for a
search is five years, I could get lucky.


These examples were pretty simple ones, but as we go further back and
records are more scarce and scant in details, we may find ourselves
looking at cases that get quite a bit more complicated. Not only will
we be looking at a variety of records to try to narrow down dates,
but also to determine relationships and other things that later
censuses spell out so nicely for us. In these cases, we're going to
have to be a bit more careful. In the above examples, there are
relatively simple follow-up steps we can take to confirm the theories
we draw from records. This may not always be the case, and we may
find ourselves analyzing and weighing the information found in any
number of records, in order to form a solid conclusion.


Mark Twain is right on the money when he refers to history as a
science. When drawing conclusions from records, it's very important
that you approach it in scientific way, considering all the
possibilities and variables, and cite the reasons for your
conclusion. By making sure your research is sound, you can be
reasonable sure you're tracing your family's frogs and not the toad
family next door.

Regardless of how simple or complex the inferences you draw from
records, it is also critical that you cite the reasons for your
conclusions because:

1) You may think that you'll remember it, but I have learned the hard
way too many times that what seems an obvious conclusion at 1 a.m.
(when most of my research seems to get done these days), is not
nearly as obvious in the light of day, or months down the road when
you pull that dusty binder off the shelf.

2) If you decide to share your findings with others in the future,
the course of your research will be documented, adding credibility to
your work.

3) When you commit your theories to paper, it becomes easier to see
whether or not they will hold water. I can't tell you how many times
I come upon amazing finds that will make wonderful articles. Yet,
when I begin to write them down and explain my train of thought, the
holes surface and they fall apart. There's no telling how much
research time and money have been saved by writing this column!

So that's it for this week. I'm off now in search of some frogs in my
family tree that need dissecting. (OK, maybe that's taking the
metaphor a bit too far!)

(1) ---- "
St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church, Brooklyn, NY, Baptisms
and Marriage Registers: The Irish Parish," (Salt Lake City, UT:
Redmond Press, 1996.)


Juliana Smith is the editor of the "Ancestry Daily News" and author
of "The Ancestry Family Historian's Address Book." She has written
for "Ancestry" Magazine and "Genealogical Computing." Juliana can be
reached by e-mail at:
mailto:editor@ancestry-inc.com, but regrets
that she is unable to assist with personal research.

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