Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Terrible Temptation to Fill in ALL the Blanks

I dislike ambiguity, ignorance, and blank spots on forms.  I dislike it so much that when I first began working on my family tree, I would fill in a blank spot with what I supposed might have been.

That is fine for writing fiction, but it doesn't work well when putting together a genealogy.  Which hasn't kept it from happening - often!

Take the case of Nicholas Johnson, born at ? on the date of ?; married Mary Coley on 15 Mar 1694 at Fairfield, CT; removed to Cohansey, NJ in 1697; wrote his will 1 Sep 1732; and died sometime between then and the inventory of his estate on 25 Jan 1733.

Nicholas Johnson might have been born in Fairfield, CT, where he was married; Fairfield CT was settled in 1639, so it is technically a possibility. In actuality, published lists cover the names of the settlers through 1681, with no Johnson in residence. It is doubtful he was born in Fairfield, CT.

Until 1697, Cohansey was inhabited by Indians, with a sprinkling of Dutch settlers beginning about 1680.  In 1697 a group of men arrived in Cohansey "from Connecticut and Long Island" to purchase land from the Indians, and Nicholas is listed among them. We can probably eliminate Cohansey as a birthplace for Nicholas.

There is a record of one Nicholas Johnson arriving in Maryland in 1676. It is on page 261 of The Early Settlers of Maryland: an Index to Names of Immigrants, Compiled from Records of Land Patents, 1633-1680, in the Hall of Records, Annapolis, Maryland. Did 'our' Nicholas own land in Maryland before arriving in Fairfield, CT? Or is it possibly a record of his father, if his father was also named Nicholas?

Or did Nicholas arrive in Fairfield from across the ocean?  He did not arrive with the early settlers, who came from Maryland.  I have searched those lists of names and there is no Johnson at all.

So my page for Nicholas Johnson is blank under birth date and birth place.  I learned that it is better to endure ambiguity, and blank spots, than to suppose a 'might have been' and fill in a blank with embarrassing  errors. I have also learned it is very tedious to have to go back and correct all those old records where I cheerfully filled in every blank, whether it was documented or not.

Perhaps in the future a family Bible with the missing information will be discovered, or a departure record from a port in Europe, or some other fact that will show me how to fill in the blank places.  I began working on genealogy as a way of 'nailing down the facts'.  After twenty-five years at this addictive hobby, I have begun to actually like a little ambiguity, and I'm even learning to love the blanks.

The alternative - a profusion of conflicting suppositions, is so unsettling that blanks look good by comparison.

1 comment:

GoldiBear said...

I agree. I think you would have made a great detective! To me, the most interesting "facts" gathered about anything in order to diagnose a problem, are the ones that conflict with one another. The greatest temptation when a novice is to choose one. The greatest satisfaction to a more experienced analyst is to determine which (if any) are correct. If that's not possible, to know what you don't know is the sign of an expert.