By Daniel Hubbard | September 30, 2012
One sailor says to another as they looked out on the ocean, “That’s a lot a water.” The other one replied, “Yep, and that’s just the top of it.”
Sometimes we’re awed by the top of the water. We forget that there is more to it than that. To understand the surface, we need to investigate what lies below.
Do we understand a document just from the document itself? Context changes that understanding. What is the connection of the document to the world that it attempts to record? Meaning cannot be read only at the surface.
Ocean of Documents
A document allows us to drop down into an event from long ago. That is a quite amazing thing when you stop to think about it. We genealogists get a view, sometimes a quite detailed view, of something that happened decades or even centuries ago.
On the other hand, is that view enough? We drop into those events without context. The document does not tell us what happened afterwards and may not say much of anything about what happened before. It uses words that we may think that we understand when actually we don’t. The document doesn’t come with a perpetual dictionary that informs the future reader of what the words written in the reader’s past mean in language that the reader, at the moment of reading, can understand. It does not come with information about the cultural trappings that surrounded the people who produced the document or experienced the event that it describes.
A Family in the Deep
This week I began to investigate a family that just did not make sense. There was little to go on but there was an elderly woman labeled “mother” and “widow” in the 1880 census who might be a bridge to the family’s past. Yet when looking for her son in her household in the preceding decades, there was nothing. A cemetery transcription gave me her date of death. A probate journal named a person I hadn’t encountered before as her next-of-kin. Considering that the son I knew about was not named the next-of-kin, it would seem that I had another son. That man lived long enough to leave behind a death certificate that named his parents. The first name of his mother was a match.
Now I had the name of a brother and the father and still, I could not find any trace of this family. Unindexed probate records eventually yielded up a list of the mother’s surviving children. Name after name never turned up associated with those parents. Finally, a pattern emerged. Children with the right names and roughly the right ages appeared here and there in the same area of rural Pennsylvania in the 1850 census. None of them shared their surname with the head of the household. Is it the right pattern? I can’t say for sure without more work, but it seems like I may have found the scattered remnants of a family, with children spread out like shrapnel across the countryside. I also found a woman who might be their mother.
So I have a few sheets of the 1850 census. What they say is one thing, but what do they mean? If I’m right, the children’s mother must have been a widow for a very long time when she died. The scattered children probably mean something more. Just below the surface is the word “poverty.” It seems their mother couldn’t afford to keep them. Outside those documents, below the surface where they sit, is the fact that a woman in the mid 19th century who was left with neither a husband nor an inheritance was going to be poor in all likelihood. In this case, too poor to care for her children. She had to spread them out among people who could care for them. Perhaps some were people who needed an older child who could be a servant.
One of the children I’ve found was living with a woman in her seventies. There might have been some family relationship between them but there is certainly something behind a word found on that census page. After that woman’s name is a word that implies what that child was doing. She was almost certainly some sort of servant because after the head of household’s name is the word “insane.” That magic past language to current language dictionary that didn’t come with the document would, most likely, tell me that the word I should read was “senile.” Either way, it points downward to many things that lie below the surface.
When our documents just float upon the surface, we need to try to understand all that water on which they float. Sometimes it might be shallow, other times it might be surprisingly deep. It always give something to think about.