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Mixed Motives

By Daniel Hubbard | October 28, 2012

Last week I brought up motivations. Motives can be important and I don’t mean ours, though they might be important too. I mean our ancestors’ motives. It is a question that gets asked about the accused. Did he have a motive? We ask questions about our ancestors motives all the time. Why did they emigrate? Why did they sell the farm? Why did he change religions? Why did she disappear? Why, why, why…

All those questions of motives have the potential to shed light on an ancestor’s life, if answers can be found. Sometimes we use motives for other reasons. Sometimes we might be tempted to use feelings about motives as if they were facts. I like to try to see the world through the eyes of the people that I research but that gives a view to what might have been not what necessarily was. Thoughts about someone’s motives may give a genealogist the insight to look for a record that might not have been of interest otherwise, or lead to places that might not have seemed realistic without those thoughts about long ago motives, but a possible motive for an event two hundred years past is not the same as a fact. Thoughts about motives can also lead one to believe things, both good and bad, about an ancestor’s character that may be very far from the truth. Easy assumptions are often black or white. In reality motives are often mixed, well shaken and thoroughly stirred.

On the other hand, feelings about a motives might lead to a hypothesis that can be proved or disproved. That is where they become useful. Perhaps that hypothesis won’t be either proved or disproved but just hang as a possibility worth recording, carefully couched in protective phrases like “it remains an unanswered question…” or “one hypothesis is that…”

I was recently researching an immigrant. All of the evidence that clearly involved him, placed him in the U.S. by 1883. A man with his name was found leaving Sweden in 1883. That man had the same birthdate, as the one listed on the death certificate of my immigrant. Nevertheless, the case wasn’t closed. My immigrant claimed to have arrived in the U.S. in 1881. It makes one a bit uneasy when something like that doesn’t match. Had he lied? It was a hypothesis. He claimed to have arrived two years before he seemed to have arrived and two years before that man that matched him arrived. Why would he lie? Did he have a motive? If he came to America in 1883, then he had naturalized two years too early. Did he claim 1881 to get citizenship early for some reason? I worked on other parts of the family trying to decide if I had reason enough to spend time trying to disprove a possible lie. Then the answer came. A document was found in family papers that showed that he had arrived in 1881 under a very different name. That hypothesis based on motive had been worth considering. It might have led somewhere but it had been wrong. Possible motives can be useful, but they are not evidence.

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