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Read Herrings

By Daniel Hubbard | September 11, 2016

There is a story, apparently first told about 1800, that kippers could be used to throw hounds off the scent. Kippers are a sort of preserved herring. The preservation process can turn the fish reddish. An idiom was born.
In genealogy we often deal with things we think of as facts. Often the fact is not so much what was stated but that it was stated.

Nothing shows this like when we need to deal with “facts” which are contradictory. A person can’t have been born in two different places but the “facts” I’d read on the man I was hunting were just that. As seems to beĀ  standard in these circumstances, neither of those places actually exists. I had some ages that implied a few different birth years and a birth date from an obituary. The only other fact I had to deal with was that long after he immigrated as a boy, his widowed mother joined him in America and appeared in a census with him.

When he was not found in Germany where expected, and American records produced only limited clues, I thought perhaps his mother might be the key. Researching her turned up nothing more. Not one single thing. Eventually, going parish to parish in the area of Germany that most closely matched the statements about his origins turned up a birth in a parish with a name similar to the name of one of those none existent places. Everything was a match except for the mother. Her name was not quite right. As I uncovered births of her children farther and farther back in time, it became clear that she was far to old to have been the “mother” recorded in the census. A problem? No, the woman in the census was a red herring, unless, of course, I ever want to research his mother-in-law, because it looks like that is who she was.

One of the most important things to realize in genealogy is that there will be red herrings. They are a part of every genealogists diet. They need to be recognized and explained, but they don’t need to be believed. You can’t let them through you off the scent.

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