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Sketching Sketchy Sources

By Daniel Hubbard | September 1, 2013

Ever wish you could just glance at a record and get an overview of what it means? Or for that matter, what about looking at several documents and see how they might fit together? Or clash? Or see that there is a real puzzle to solve?

The more data one accumulates the harder it can be to see the subtle patterns. On the other hand having lots of data is often the only way to have a chance to see a pattern. In cases when  different evidence carries different weight there is the additional problem that what looks like a pattern if everything is taken at face value often disappears when the weakness of some evidence is considered. Other times what looks like lots of information all goes back to the same starting point

Relationships supported by multiple documents diagrammed in Excel.

Relationships supported by multiple documents diagrammed in Excel.

In some cases the pattern is a sort of Swiss cheese. Only by reconstructing families in order to eliminate them, can the holes of the cheese be created and the pattern appear.

Sometimes patterns are easy to spot. A birth register might contain births every two years or so with parents of the same names. Perhaps there are a few births that list only the father. With the pattern of births you can be fairly sure of the name of the mother. If you find no other records with the name of the father and a different mother, you can be more sure that you are dealing with a single family. Even if you do find another couple and there is a child born to a man with the right name and a mystery mother that is sandwiched between other,  less mysterious births, the pattern may allow you to eliminate some possibilities.

Some patterns are much more subtle. Probate records often leave some relationships unspecified, others specified in ways that initially makes no sense or have multiple interpretations. Other relationships might be specified but insufficient. Terms like nephew and granddaughter only go so far without more information. You can’t instantly enter them into your database or on a family group sheet.

A probate record I’ve been looking at lists what seems to be a group of siblings without saying that is what they are, without giving a surname and without any idea of why they were being listed. All that is clear is that they don’t fit in with the people listed before or after them. There are other probate records that I’m looking at that cover people of the same name in the same town and many contain direct statements of relationships, others give hints that only become clear when other records lend a hand.

When I run into people who are likely to be related and many documents will be needed to disentangle them, I like to diagram the documents. Boxes represent people and contain any personally identifying. Different types of lines for different relationships with multiple lines for multiple possibilities. A solid line that is horizontal might represent a marriage, other solid lines are for parent-child relationships, dashed lines for grandchildren, dotted lines for witnesses and administrators of estates, dot-dash for neighbors, etc. Different colors can represent different documents if I use several documents overlapping in one diagram.

Seeing at a glance what multiple documents imply and how they might fit together can make the difference.

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