Wednesday, July 12, 2017
6 Lessons from an Ancestry Message
My exchange of messages with this woman, who I'll call Kate, began as frustrating but ended on a very positive note. I strongly believe in the importance of learning from each other. In this instance, Kate reminded me about being kind and patient when interacting with others, and I hope she picked up some tips that she can use again when searching for ancestors.
Since the purpose of this post is to share lessons and not to shame anyone, I'm changing the names of the family at the center of the Ancestry messages.
Kate contacted me about a Jacob & Mary Fortman in her family tree who she insisted were the same Fortman couple in my husband's tree. I had recorded Mary with a different maiden name, and Kate wanted to know how I came to that conclusion and why I hadn't included one of the couple's daughters, Helen Lucille. She was desperate to find this daughter in the 1900 census, since she didn't have any information about Helen's life prior to her marriage around 1905.
After reviewing the Fortman branch and confirming my sources, I took a look at Kate's tree and saw that she and quite a few other Ancestry members had made some mental errors when they added Fortman records to their trees. When I replied to Kate that our Jacobs were two different men and gave my reasons (which I thought were clearly presented!), her response was "I do think they are the same Jacob, dob and dod both match."
Rather than provide all of the details of my research after receiving that response, I'll just say that I spent many hours digging into Kate's family to try to get her on the right track. It was very challenging, and I never did find Helen in 1900, but this story provides several lessons:
1. Start with what you know - Helen's obituary provided parent names, place of birth, and the married names of two sisters. Absolutely none of that tied into my husband's Jacob & Mary Fortman. It said Fortman was Mary's maiden name, not her married name. It said Helen was born in a county that was different than (and rather far from) where my husband's Fortmans lived. Yes, obituaries can be wrong and it's good to question, but they are a good starting point. I think Kate fell into the trap of copying records from other Ancestry trees and then let that misinformation cloud her view of the obituary right in front of her.
2. Don't ignore location - The obituary said Helen was born in 1887 in Bedford County, Pennsylvania. Census records from 1910 to 1940 show that she lived in Bedford and Indiana counties. My husband's Fortman family lived and died in Washington County. This should have been a red flag that prompted Kate to do more digging before assuming she had the right Jacob & Mary.
3. Consider all household names, not just the parents - Kate was determined to find a Jacob & Mary Fortman in Pennsylvania and chose to ignore their children's names. The two sisters in Helen's obituary were the key in this research. They were difficult to find since one was listed with a nickname (Mrs. Sadie Ward) and the other using her husband's name (Mrs. Charles Conner), but I eventually tracked them down and learned that both their given and married names weren't even close to the daughters of my husband's Fortmans.
They were Helen's half-sisters. It appears that Mary was single when Helen was born in 1887. She was working as a servant when she married Peter Harper in 1891. Mary gave birth to the two girls in 1892 and 1895, and then unfortunately died in 1898 when she was only 30 years old. In 1900, the two young sisters were living in Bedford County with their widowed father, but Helen (who would have been 13 and not the man's biological daughter) was not living with them. The sisters were named at the end of a list of survivors in Helen's obituary, but they were at the top of my list in showing the two Fortman families didn't match.
4. You may never find a census record - I'm not sure that Kate will ever find Helen's 1900 census record. I tried wildcard searches to account for possible misspellings of her name, looked for matches with her middle name and possible nicknames, searched the entire county for girls her same age, looked at nearby counties, and even scanned numerous pages of the handwritten census for any possible match. I looked at the households of her grandparents, aunts, and uncles to see if she was taken in by one of them. I looked at every household with the same surname as the father named in her obituary. All were dead ends.
5. Don't respond right away - Take a deep breath and think before sending your response to a fellow researcher. At first, I wanted to tell her why she was so very wrong. She insisted our Jacobs were the same man because all of the vital dates matched. I wanted to point out that they matched because every single record she included in her tree was for the Jacob Fortman in Washington County. After some time to reflect, I decided to stay away from listing her mistakes and take the time to actually help her. I decided to never mention my husband's family again and just get her to focus on the facts I was able to find for her family.
6. Taking time to help others is extremely satisfying - I didn't know how Kate would respond to my research. Would she say thanks but no thanks and insist that I was still wrong? I had no idea. Well, I'm happy to report that she was very grateful! She wrote back three times to thank me and give me updates. I must say that, while I spent a lot of time on this family that had zero connections to my own, I found the whole experience to be very rewarding. Kate's positive reaction and genuine appreciation had a lot to do with that.
If you don't have time to help a less experienced family researcher, I would say be kind when responding and then move on. But if you can't pass up a challenge and have time to take a short break from your own tree, you may be surprised at how wonderful it can be for both of you.