Tuesday, June 28, 2016
Two Curious Georges
You know how it goes: you decide to go back and comb through the trail of all your research and make "a few" adjustments. Only you've been doing that genealogical pursuit for ten—maybe twenty—years. This is not going to be a simple double-check.
Sure enough, you run across a note to yourself, dated at least ten years ago, and begin to groan. It was a mess back then, but now you've even forgotten just what it was that made that file such a mess. So now you have to go back and re-acquaint yourself with all your doubts before you can proceed to solutions.
In my case, it was a file of Gordons which I stumbled upon yesterday. Still working on my project to hand transfer—so as to check, point by point, each step of the research way—all that Gordon clan from colonial Pennsylvania onward, I ran across the file of one George Gordon.
Or maybe it was two George Gordons. Now I'm not so sure.
Whoever it was, he was a man with multiple children. Granted, back in the 1800s when large families were a necessity, those head counts of family members could easily exceed ten. But even with that reality, I was beginning to doubt the numbers. True, I had a copy of the birth registers for Perry County, Ohio—where this branch of the Gordon family had settled—to follow the documented details. But even with that, I was beginning to feel I had missed something.
It was plain from the register that there were two different wives listed for George Gordon. It didn't help that the name for each of them was Sarah. However, some of the children had, for mother, a listing as Sarah Ryan. Others were listed under Sarah Dittoe, a longstanding surname in the Perry County area.
I had been collaborating with other Perry County Gordon researchers on this project, those ten to twenty years ago, and now that I'm reviewing all my notes, I've been reminded of our doubts over what we were finding back then, when resources weren't quite so handily at our fingertips. On a note affixed to one Gordon child, I had entered, "There is much confusion among some researchers as to which children of George Gordon belonged to which mother."
Indeed, one of these fellow researchers—a retired professor of history at a respected midwestern university—had noted, concerning this George Gordon, that he "has been a BIG problem because his wife is sometimes listed as Sarah Jane Dittoe and sometimes as Sarah Jane Ryan."
It was easy to see that, if one took a look at commentary on genealogical forums or Ancestral Files or IGI records on the Gordon family, that many researchers at that time framed this as a question of which children belonged to which wife of George Gordon.
Now, looking back, I'm not so sure. There are a lot of problems with the assumption that this was a case of one man—George Gordon of Perry County, Ohio—marrying two different women. For one thing, I can locate a marriage record for a George Gordon and wife Sarah Dittoe, but not one in Perry County for a George Gordon marrying someone named Sarah Ryan.
Frustratingly, according to birth records, there was a Gordon-Ryan combo for some children, and a Gordon-Dittoe set of parents for others. Even more important, now that I look back on it, is that some census years show two entries for a household of George and Sarah Gordon. Of course, that is from our current vantage point of online access to census records for every decade of George Gordon's lifespan, rather than the sole 1880 census transcription available, back when we first attacked this research question.
Granted, census records are notorious for including information that is only as accurate as both the enumerator and the reporting party are careful to provide. Dates of birth shift upward a year, then downward—or wobble two or three or five years difference in the interval between enumerations. People forgot where their spouse was born. Parents reported children using first names for one decade, then middle names for another.
Still, reviewing all the census years in which I could locate George-and-Sarah combos in Perry County, there was too much of a variance to let me remain complacent about our research conclusions from decades past. The best thing to do is set up a document itemizing each detail for each census, so that at a glance, I can spot the differences. That way, I can articulate just why it is that our former conclusions about this George Gordon were in error.
Sometimes, we can only produce results as good as our resources enable us to do. When our research reach extends significantly beyond what we once could easily access in times past, we need to reconsider our former conclusions, document and articulate the reasons for revised conclusions, and set the record straight.
Let's see what can be done with this George Gordon, son of William and Mary Cain Gordon, on this next pass through the records.