Monday, October 5, 2009

Genealogy and History Thoughts Column 18 - An Important Lesson: Never Assume ...

After looking at the title of this article, you're probably thinking, "Shouldn't that be given?" Probably, but my intention for this article is not to lecture others but write about how assumptions can cause problems in genealogy research. Why? Well, I made an assumption about a record, and I've just recently learned and realized that my assumption was wrong. So, by learning how I made a mistake, I'm hoping other genealogists will learn from my mistake.

As you probably remember, I recently received a copy of the pension file for Benjamin Oswalt, and since the file came, I've taken a look at the records. I once believed that I could not find this Benjamin Oswalt in the censuses after the 1850 census, so, when I asked my grandfather to take a look at a probate record for our ancestor, Benjamin Oswalt, did not expect my grandfather to find a Benjamin Oswalt in the 1870 census (see below the paragraph). (The Benjamin Oswalt in the probate record died in 1861 in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, and is the father of Adam Oswalt, according to Adam's death certificate.) This Benjamin was living in Kansas, and had been born in Michigan, and my grandfather, mentioned that he had found this census record will doing research for our ancestor. Of course, I took a look at the census record, and told my grandfather, that that Benjamin could not be connected to us because he was living in Kansas and was born in Michigan, despite the fact that he was the exact age as the Benjamin Oswalt I believe to be Adam's brother. Well, that is what I thought until Benjamin's pension file came ...

(Image taken from FamilySearch's Record Search)

When I looked at the pension file Benjamin's widow, Elizabeth, applied for, I noticed the names of the people who gave testimony on her behalf. I recognized some of the names, but there were a few names that I did not recognize. I already knew from previous research, that Elizabeth remarried, but when I looked at the Michigan death records and marriages that are online, I discovered that the one of the witnesses was probably the sister of Elizabeth's new husband. To try to confirm, my theory, I decided to look for Elizabeth's new husband and the witness in the census records. The search for Elizabeth's husband brought me back to the census image above. Lo and behold, Elizabeth's future husband was living next door to the Benjamin Oswalt I had earlier dismissed. Knowing that the future husband was from Saint Joseph County, Michigan, I realized that the fact that there was a Benjamin Oswalt living next door to him was probably not a coincidence since the Benjamin Oswalt I was looking for was from Saint Joseph County, Michigan. So, even though Benjamin's birthplace is listed as Michigan, I believe I have found the correct Benjamin Oswalt, and I believe it is possible that the census taker put the wrong information down.

So, what is the moral of the story? Well, almost ignored a census record and other possible leads into researching my Oswalt family. The census record indicates that Benjamin had some wealth, and it might be possible that he bought some land in Kansas. Of course, I won't know until I pursue this avenue, but I almost missed this opportunity because I believed it wasn't the right person. Just because a record doesn't necessarily fit all of your known facts about a person does not mean that it isn't your person. If you do write off a source, you might miss another possible lead. So, I guess it is better to have an open mind about possible sources when doing your own research. Now, I've just got to trace this new lead, and figure out why Benjamin was in Kansas about six months after his marriage. Please stay tuned for further posts on Benjamin.

And as always, please feel free to leave comments on you what you think about this article.


Bill West said...

A cautionary tale for all researchers!

Good article, Jessica.

Claudia said...

That was a good tale. When I post in my blog I usually write MY THEORY, and if it proves correct will post that fact.

So far I heave more theories than facts.