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Less Is More, More Is Less

By Daniel Hubbard | May 22, 2011

I’ve been analyzing some letters between a husband and wife. The wife’s brother is someone I’m researching and the siblings ancestry isn’t clear. Researching her should help me with him. She is also important in her own right to the story I want to tell.

In these letters, they mention relatives and that should be very helpful. If my ideas about her background are right, she should have an Aunt Debbie and Aunt Debbie features in several of these letters. That seems like success. There are many other relatives mentioned and all of them could improve my understanding of her background by adding information for or against my hypothesis.

Just because I suspect her father had a sister named Deborah isn’t enough. I’ve reconstructed many brothers of her father. Thankfully, just one of them did me the discourtesy of marrying a Deborah. She seems to have passed away a decade before the letters were written and her date off birth makes it very unlikely that she was still alive and even less likely that she was the woman discussed in the letters. Bordering on impossible really.

Unfortunately the letters don’t give any hints as to whose relatives these relations were. Whose father was “father?” Whose Aunt Debbie was “Aunt Debbie?” This couple never use those useful words “my” or “your” when talking about relatives. I have no direct reason to be interested in his family but it seems that I now have an indirect reason to be interested in his relatives. I need to add more people to the mix in order to have less to think about. The fewer the possibilities the better.

The Wheat from the Chaff

If I knew something about his family, I could start trying to subtract out all the people mentioned in the letters that are his relatives. Thinking back to my physicist days, when you look at large quantities of data, there is a signal—the good stuff (you hope) and background—things that get into the data that you aren’t interested in; artifacts of the equipment and other phenomena that look something like what you are hoping to find. One way or another you have to account for and, if possible, remove that background. Most people are familiar with this idea from searching the internet. You put in your search terms and you get back your results—some of them signal, that is, useful pages, some of them background, falling into the range from not so useful to truly bizarre.

My problem was that it isn’t just me who knows nothing about his background. I couldn’t find him in any primary or secondary sources either. Then one more letter turned up. This one from “Grandma Bass” to her grandchildren. Once again, the writer and the original readers knew a great deal about each other that I don’t know about them. They could communicate with each other perfectly well in a way that managed to leave me in the dark. I was so totally in the dark that I had a hunch that the letter wasn’t from her grandmother but possibly from his. Grandma gave the name of the town from which she sent the letter but even with that I couldn’t find her in the census. Her readers would know the state. I didn’t. She did mention Charlie going to Boston to see a doctor about his eyes. That gave some clue that Massachusetts would be the right state, but that did not help me find her.

Finally, I managed to decypher a full name at the end of the letter, the only one Grandma used in the letter. She  informed her grandchildren that she could be reached in care of another woman. That woman I found in the census and there, in her household, was an elderly woman surnamed “Boss.” Bingo. They did not live in Massachusetts but the name of the town matched. Charlie’s trip to the doctor to have his eyes examined turned out to have been a more serious journey than I had imagined. To make the identification even more sure, there was a Charles living with them. In his row there was a mark in the column that reads “Blind.” Sad for Charlie but a perfect fit for me.

From there, I knew just enough to find the family in a compiled source. It doesn’t list the man I’m looking for because he comes one generation too late but it does mention a man who married into the family with the right surname to be the husband’s father. When I checked that man in the census, I found his younger children as well and their names appear in the letters. The genealogy gave me more names that appear in one way or another in the correspondence. In some cases nicknames of people in the letters turned out to be surnames that appear in the family. Those few paragraphs of genealogy and the one census listing that shows the presumed father and the younger siblings explain so much about the letters that the chance of this not being the right family are vanishingly small. One might wonder if the letters could have influenced the genealogy but the letters were in a trunk a thousand miles away when the genealogy was compiled, the letters and the genealogy are independent of each other.

So, did the husband have an Aunt Debbie? Murphy’s Law requires it and he did have one. A little extra work showed that she was half a continent away when the letters were written. She couldn’t have been the nearby aunt who stopped by to lend a hand.

Now, if only I knew something about the wife’s mother…

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