While tools and techniques may be handy for getting a job done, sometimes tools need to be recalibrated and techniques need to be revised. Bottom line: no matter which handy device is used, we're still obligated to keep our eyes wide open for signs of error.
Behind the scenes this month, I've been slogging my way through my many DNA matches with whom I share Tilson ancestors. In particular, last month I began a review of all my ThruLines DNA matches at Ancestry.com whose most recent common ancestor shared with me is my fourth great-grandfather Peleg Tilson.
Anyone who has used ThruLines knows the tool often works like a charm. Where it fails is in those sticky wickets where multiple Ancestry subscribers have repeated another user's mistaken entry in their trees. In my particular case this week, I'm beginning to think I am seeing double, for the same supposed ancestor can be found in online documents with conflicting information.
I know, I know: people in past generations were just as prone to fudge on their age as teenagers at a liquor store might, today. Early marriages, draft dodging, financially-beneficial programs for seniors: some opportunities—or dangers—have built in incentives to appear as someone the person is not. But in this case, I wasn't sold on the notion that I was researching a man with ulterior motives for changing his personal information. I began to wonder if I was truly seeing double with this case.
Several of my Tilson DNA matches included in their line of descent a man by the name of Anderson McMahan. Based on documents I had already attached to my tree for Peleg Tilson's various descendants, I could not determine exactly how this man fit in my tree. In puzzling over this disconnect with ThruLines, I realized I couldn't exactly determine specific details about Anderson McMahan at all. Some documents gave his date of birth as 1901, some as 1902. Granted, census records provide estimates for year of birth, but birth records pinpoint specific dates, not ranges.
To complicate matters, all records—no matter whether in agreement with the others or not—showed a man who lived in Cocke County, Tennessee. It would have helped if the location which was linked to each date of birth was different, but it wasn't. It was time to compare documents, side by side, to see whether I was researching one man or two.
The draft registration form for World War II was where I began the comparison. There are several reasons for this. Not only could I glean the specific birth date, but the card included an address for current residence, current employer, physical attributes, and even a place for the man's signature. It would be easy to spot the differences between the two men, if that was the case with this hunch about seeing double.
Sure enough, I did find two men by the same name of Anderson McMahan. Though neither had a middle name to help differentiate them, I discovered one's residence was given as Newport in Cocke County, while the other provided an address in Hartford. The former indicated his contact person as the rather nondescript "Mrs. Anderson McMahan," while the latter could be contacted care of Mr. Lewis McMahan. Key to this search, the Newport resident gave his date of birth as October 15, 1902, while the Hartford man was born on January 16, 1901.
From this information, I then searched for two entries in the 1920 census, early enough to hopefully find each man still living in the home of his parents. In 1920, the younger man was indeed living at home, the oldest child in the household of Cicero and Lanie McMahan. Their residence was listed in Hartford as Bennett and Em Johnson Road. The older man turned out to be the youngest of the children in his household, with the previously-named Lewis as his father, and a mother by the name of Sarah. Their residence, also in Hartford, was on Clark and Johnson Mountain Road.
Feeling quite pleased with my research progress, I then checked for dual entries for Anderson McMahan in the 1930 census. Suddenly, I wasn't seeing double any more. Gone was any sign of the younger of the two men. The older of the two was still living in the household of Lewis and Sarah, and still showing as a single man. I noted that there was a lodger also listed in the household—an older woman by the name of Fannie Ellison, who by 1955 became this Anderson's wife. By that age, though, it is unlikely that she and her husband would be the couple producing children who eventually became my DNA matches.
That, however, was not the end of the search. There was more out there on the missing Anderson—in particular, a Find A Grave memorial for an Anderson McMahan who was born on October 15, 1902. This discovery, while welcome, made me wonder whether, instead of seeing double, I was now simply suffering from blurry vision. The reason? The handy link to the memorial for Anderson McMahan's wife showed me that perhaps the ThruLines readout had the whole family history for this line of descent plain old wrong. Instead of helping me find the nexus between Anderson and his supposed Tilson ancestor, in reading his wife's family names in her transcribed obituary, I could plainly see where the connection should be. Anderson's wife, Echo Ford—if the transcription of her obituary is reliable—was the one whose ancestry connected with my Tilson line, likely through her mother, Irene Coggins, as there were several Coggins descendants in Tennessee who could claim a relationship to that same Tilson line.
There's more research ahead for me, but at least I'm pointed in the right direction now. Whenever that sixth sense of seeing double makes itself known, it never hurts to double-check that hunch. In some cases, there really are two men by the same name in the same town, no matter how unusual that name might have seemed.