Through Your Great Grandfather’s Eyes

by Terry Hogan

Genealogy is full of pitfalls, waiting to create errors, misunderstandings, and to set you off on to a trail of errors. Some of the pitfalls become obvious after doing a little research: reliance on unverified, or unverifiable work of others; innocent errors of transcriptions in genealogy research or old biographies or family documents, "innocent" amendments to history to hide what someone considers to be an unpleasant or unfortunate family event; and those ever tempting leaps of faith to jump to the next generation based on perfectly good logic, but less than absolute documentation. These are, as a lump, attributable to simple human frailties of one sort or another.

However, another major source of difficulty is recognizing how fundamentally different your distant ancestor’s world was from your own. Just a matter of 175 years, makes a world of difference in the state of land, education, and information transfer. It is often easy to forget that old documents, being great sources of original or near original information, were written with knowledge "at hand" at the date written. We must be careful in transferring the contents of the document into the framework of current knowledge.

Let me give you a couple of recent examples. If you have read some of my past articles, you know that Illinois has been "blessed" with musical chairs when it comes to town names. Although the specifics can vary, often the names of towns, initially bestowed by the earliest settlers, got changed. Often the force of change was the postal system.. It would pointed out that there was another town in Illinois called "Paradise" (or whatever) so the town had to be renamed or face the problem of having the local post office name different than the name of the town. Another situation occurred when the railroad came in or near the town and exercised similar control. In some cases, when the railroad bypassed the town, the town simply picked up and moved to the railroad. "Paradise" dried up and became " New Paradise" next to the railroad. And then there was the rise and fall of small towns. Created, towns or villages served a purpose, and then died. Sometimes these villages were created by a railroad, or at least evolved by railroad workers living near the railroad they served. When the need for the workers went away, so did the village, sometimes leaving a name behind for a road, a bridge, to mark the approximate location of the village.

Perhaps a subtler problem is the naming of geographic structures. In today’s age, we more or less expect streams and rivers to have a single name by which they are recognized. We are big fans of standardization. It wasn’t always that way. Streams, rivers, swamps, among others, were given names to identify them when they were confronted. These locally established names were not necessarily the same names given to other segments of that same river, stream or swamp that were encountered elsewhere. In time, this was worked out. However, until standardization was established, old documents may make reference to "orphaned names." This can be a problem when dealing with "original documents." This can be a real trap for the unwary genealogist. The trap can be confounded by other pitfalls. And aren’t there always confounding factors in genealogical research?

I dealt with this problem for several years before "solving it". (My resolution was to merely ignore any future effort to resolve the conflict, and note both versions of history). The story goes something like this. I have a great grandfather who lived in southern Illinois after the Civil War. He married and started a family. While crossing a flooding river, the lumber wagon and horse team was washed away, carrying all downstream. He and one son survived. The wife and all other members of the family drowned. There was a brief article (actually one paragraph) that appeared in the Rushville, Illinois newspaper, "The Schuyler Citizen" on April 6, 1876. The entire article read:

"Four persons named Hogan were drowned while crossing Sandy Creek, near Winchester, Scott County, on the 25th. The family consisting of a father, mother and four children, were in a common lumber wagon, and while crossing the creek the wagon upset, and was carried away by the current. The mother and three of the children were drowned. The bodies of the drowned persons were recovered after several hours’ search, and a coroner’s inquest was immediately held, with the decision as above related."

Although we all know that newspapers are not exempt from reporting errors, this should be a pretty reliable source. It was printed about 2 weeks after the occurrence. It was from a newspaper in the general area. It mentions the location as "Sandy Creek, near Winchester, Scott County." An Atlas of Illinois, fortuitously published in 1876 shows no Sandy Creek for Scott County, but it does show a "Big Sandy Creek" just south of Winchester. So, this stands pretty well.

Now comes the family history version of events. This version has him marrying in Winchester in 1866, but moving north to Camden in Schuyler County. The family version continues to report that they lived near "Crooked Creek." According to the family history, it was this creek- "Crooked Creek" that flooded and was the site of the drownings. To add credibility to this version, he did, in fact, live in this area. The family version also reports that the drowned members of his family are buried in a rural cemetery, in an unmarked, but discernible gravesite, near Camden (and Crooked Creek). Again, the 1876 Illinois Atlas does show "Crooked Creek." It now goes by the name of "LaMoine River" however. (Never underestimate the value of an old atlas in genealogical research.)

So which report is correct? Is it a contemporary newspaper report saying that the drowning occurred on Sandy Creek near Winchester, or a family history account that claims Crooked Creek (aka LaMoine River) near Camden? Frankly, I don’t know. A printed newspaper account has certain independence to it- a snapshot in time that prevents errors in the retelling of the tale. However, arguably, it can also freeze an error forever in time. The family version has the merits of a closer geographic proximity to where the family lived and at least an assertion of the proximity of the burial site to the place of drowning.

Would my great grandfather be amazed by the information that is available to me by my historical research efforts of his life, and by the vast wealth of information available on the Internet? Or would he be amazed by the wealth of inaccuracies that are wrapped in high tech shrouds of credibility that we gleefully accept without question?

The answer won’t be found in this article. As I said, I’ve resolved to report both versions. Which, is in part, where this article seems to be taking me, but not where I started to go. The article started off to be an informative one to point out that not only towns and villages changed names over time, but also geographic reference points, even as late as the mid 1800s.

But beyond that, it seems that I am suggesting that in genealogy, one need not, and probably should not, make "judgment calls" simply to "tidy up" family histories. The reasons are obvious: (1) your call may be wrong, and (2) you deny others the opportunity to identify these areas of apparent conflict and to take them on as their own projects to faithfully resolve.

Frankly, after years of doing genealogy as time (and patience) allows, I am becoming skeptical of nice, neat and tidy family histories that don’t have these little irreconcilable problems. Perhaps the irreconcilable was reconciled, or perhaps just ignored. Does it make a difference which stream they drowned in? The answer probably depends if it was your great grandfather or not.

How would it look through your great grandfather’s eyes?

Recommended references

Bergen, John V. 1987. "Maps and Their Makers in Early Illinois: The Burr Map and the Peck-Messinger Map". Pages 5-31, in Western Illinois Regional Studies Volume 10, Number 1. Published by University Libraries and the college of Arts & Sciences, Western Illinois University (contains information on old and current names of rivers, etc.)

Warner & Beers. 1876. Atlas of the State of Illinois, to which are added various general maps and illustrations. Union Atlas Co. (Reprinted).