Almost every hint on how to begin researching your family history will, correctly, suggest that you begin with yourself and what you know about yourself. The next step is to examine and record everything you know about your parents and grandparents. Much of this information will derive from anecdotes passed on to you from family members. Other information can be found on official documents such as Birth, Marriage and Death certificates, Passenger Lists and so on. This sounds fairly straight forward, and it is, BUT, in this first blog, rather than telling you 'how to' find your ancestors, I would like to emphasise 'how not to' assume that all the information you have at hand is accurate. Assumptions are a good place to begin but assumptions are not proof. As a family historian, you need to be able to challenge assumptions.
Eric Temple Bell ( mathematician and science fiction writer) wrote, 'Euclid taught me that without assumptions there is no proof. Therefore, in any argument, examine the assumptions.'
You might well assume with pride (as I did), that stories such as 'we have a Welsh castle in the family', or 'grandpa was in the Royal Welsh Fencibles in New Zealand' are a plausible place to begin your research and they may well be, but before you purchase a ticket to fly to far off lands in search of an ancestral home or visit the Welsh cousins, you might like to take some advice from someone who has learned the hard way. Never assume that family stories are true! In my case, grandpa was in fact, 100 years too young to be in the Welsh Fencibles, and not only is there no Welsh castle longing to be inherited, but there is actually, no Welsh blood in me at all. Not a drop! It was easy to assume that with a very Welsh sounding double-barrelled surname and a much talked about family castle in Wales, that my mother's family had Welsh origins. I wasted a great amount of time searching in vain for a family which didn't exist. Concealed behind a fictitious Welsh ancestry, was the fact that great-grandpa had added the Welsh part of the surname, to his real surname of Hoyes. By popping a hyphen in the middle and adding a family castle and Royal Fencibles as a convincing touch to his fabricated past, he managed to elude a wife and son who he deserted in New Zealand to begin a new life and family in Australia.
This news came a somewhat of a shock to myself, who had proudly named two of four children after my Welsh ancestors, whom I had assumed, were happily dwelling in a castle in Wales awaiting my visit. Fortunately, the other two children were justly named for Scottish and Irish forebears who were real. I can be forgiven this oversight, since when I named the children, I had not begun to research my family history and assumed that every family story was true!
I did finally locate the Hoyes family, not in Wales of course, but in Nottinghamshire, England where there was no castle and no Fencibles. Just millers and weavers and Methodist church connections. I had no choice but to assume that my two times great grandfather, James Berry Hoyes was a man of strong religious convictions. After all, he was the choirmaster at the Great Gonerby Church in Houghton, Lincolnshire and emigrated in 1863 to New Zealand, as part of the Albertlander missionary group. It was easy to assume he was a man of faith, right up until I recently read in the London Gazette that on the 28th of October 1862 just prior to embarking on his religious venture, James was declared bankrupt. It appears that the reason for James' departure from England, may well have been as much, if not more, economically motivated, than a desire to take forth the Christian faith to the Maori people of New Zealand. This would explain why, on arriving in New Zealand, rather than preach to the natives, James Berry Hoyes purchased shares in silver and gold mines and became a self made gentleman in Newton, Auckland.
When I began to research my family tree, I began with my own surname. I was the proud bearer of the Scottish surname MacDade. My grandmother had told me on many occasions that the 'a' was NEVER, EVER, EVER to be omitted. 'Mac' she said, was the Scottish Protestant name and 'Mc', the Irish Catholic. For an Irish protestant brought up in Northern Ireland amidst religious unrest and bigotry, the 'a' between the 'M' and the 'c' was clearly important to her. My grandmother was a wise and genteel lady and I had no reason to assume that what she said was anything other than the truth. Another thing, I assumed, was that my father, though much loved, was a lazy man, always leaving the critical 'a' out of the 'McDade' that he used. Worse still, to my horror, I discovered that he had neglected to put the 'a' in my surname when he registered my birth. My sisters were MacDades and I was a crucial letter short of a Macdade!
Despite finding a number of excellent Scottish genealogy websites, and despite searching the high and the low road in Scotland, I could not find my MacDades. I found one couple, matching the names and ages of my great grandparents, and sent for their 1894 marriage certificate. Even the bride's maiden surname of Gibson was the same. An amazing co-incidence surely, but the marriage certificate was put into my 'unwanted certificate' box, as this couple were married in the Maryhill Catholic Church in Glasgow. As everyone in my family knew - we were Presbyterian through and through! Or were we? A journey to Scotland and a visit to the General Register Office by an aunt sent shock-waves to the very roots of the family tree. I dragged my 'wrong couple', John and Elizabeth McDade (of the the Maryhill Catholic Church marriage), back out of the box ( it pays to never throw certificates out.. just in case!) and placed John and Elizabeth McDade high on a branch of the family tree where they rightly belong as my great grandparents! I can only assume, that my grandmother inserted the 'a' between the 'M' and the 'c' to remove any trace of Catholicism from her married name. I think that this is a reasonably safe assumption, however, given my grandmother's Irish protestant background. (Elizabeth Gibson McDade is pictured right.)
When it came to my Swiss and German ancestry, I was a much wiser researcher. After a brief and fruitless search for my Swiss Heberling ancestors, I put my rusty high school German to work, suspecting that the pronunciation of the name Heberling, in English, could have been spelled as Häberling in the German language. Immediately, I found Jacob and Anna Häberling and their five daughters from Zurich, Switzerland, on a passenger list from Hamburg, Germany, to Maryborough, Australia. Many surnames were anglicised when families immigrated, or incorrectly recorded by a clerk who could not understand a foreign accent. My Nergers were recorded as Nurjur, Nurgar and Narjar before they gave up (I assume) and changed the name to Nargar.
With this in mind, I expanded my searches to include as many variations of the surnames I was searching as I could think of. I found that my Hoyes family, who I had assumed to be out of the UK at the time of the 1851 census, were in fact all at home, under the name of Hayes. I may never know whether my great Uncle Rex Morley Hoyes lived at 19 or 29 Upland Road, Remuera in New Zealand as he is recorded at one address and his wife at the other. I assume this to be a 'typo', although assuming anything about this particular uncle could lead to a search in vain. His name changes include Hoyes to Morely-Hoyes, to Morley-Morley and finally to Fessenden C.R. Morley-Morley Viscompte de Borenden! I assume that he changed his name to escape the attention of the police, MI5, Indian authorities, not to mention, a number of aggravated ex-wives.
Death certificates are another notorious source of mis-information. Never assume that all of the information on a death certificate is accurate. My great grandmother, Hannah Morrison's maiden name was Hannah Tait Gair. On three different death certificates of her children, she is named as (parent) Hannah Tait, Hannah Fail and Hannah Smith. Recently, whilst looking into the convict ancestors of friend, I discovered that a great grandmother's maiden name was written as Leek on her son's death certificate when in fact it was Collier. The age of the deceased given on a death certificate is very likely to be incorrect as well( vanity seems to make us yonger as we age!). A 'several times' great grandmother of mine was 32 in the 1861 English census and 9 years later when she immigrated from London to Australia, according to a passenger record, she had only aged two years to become, 34. In December of 1870, the same year, when she remarried, she was 37 years old and on her death certificate in 1897, her age was given as 72 years. If I had assumed the age on any of these certificates was correct, to find her birth, I would have had to search all years between 1825 and 1853. In this case, the death certificate was, in fact, the only accurate record of her year of birth. It is important to remember, however, that it is not the person themself giving the details for a death certificate and family members quite often will have to guess the year of birth or even a place of birth. A birth record or Christening record is much more an accurate proof of a birth date. It is safe to assume that death certificates are frequently unreliable documents although often the only place we have to begin.
I am not for one moment downplaying the important role of assumption for the family history detective. Census records can tell us where our ancestors lived, what their occupations were and their children's names and ages. Beginning with this information, we must research the times in which our ancestors lived to discover more about their lives. We live in a wonderfully technological time where we do not have to assume much about where our ancestors lived. Google Maps and Google Earth can literally take us to the county, the town and the street and even the actual home an ancestor lived in (assuming the enumerator's information was accurate). We can use the imagination along with some knowledge to 'fill in' the gaps, however, to piece together a fairly accurate picture of the day to day lives of ancestors. Assumption is a crucial element in creating a narrative about our forebear and in making their lives 'real' to us.
As important as it is to question and challenge our assumptions, I am not suggesting for one moment, that you ignore every family tale that is told to you, or to ignore the information on every death certificate you find. What is sensible, though, is to assume that there might be some element of exaggeration in the proud family tale and expand your search with this in mind. 'Assuming' that family lore is untrue without question can be just as misleading in the quest for your ancestry as well. My mother-in-law took no notice of her mother's frequent utterings that 'there's blue blood in the family'. No one, in fact took any notice at all of her ramblings on this topic and assumed that she was speaking nonsense. This was a lady who we now know, descended from almost every Royal family in Europe, who was probably not even aware herself, of the extent of her Royal connections but simply passing on family lore. To reiterate E.T. Bell, always 'examine the assumptions.' It is important to remember that assumptions are not proof but that by challenging and scrutinising our assumptions we can find the truth, whatever that may be. After all, it is the truth (with a little fiction to colour the narrative) that every family historian strives for. Gather your family tales and then prove them right or wrong. Information passed on to you, although not always reliable, is still an excellent place to begin. You will, perhaps, travel in a completely different direction to where you thought you were heading, but your journey will never be boring.
In researching my family tree, I have assumed much to be true which was fiction and some fiction to be truth. The path has been a little longer for my assumptions, however, I have learned to challenge those assumptions to discover as much as possible of the truth. Be prepared for the truth to be extraordinary, astonishing, curious, marvellous and as in the case of my great uncle Rex Morley Hoyes, 'strange-but true; for truth is always strange; Stranger than fiction.' Lord Byron (1788-1824)
You will also find my family stories at http://www.sharn-genealogyjottings.blogspot.com/
In coming Blogs:
New Zealand Ancestry
How to use Google to find records
Using Libraries and Archives