Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Problem With Possibilities

Sometimes, I wonder if there is an inverse proportion between the amount of genealogical information applied in a search and the number of results that may be gleaned by such a search. Sometimes, I also wonder if there is some sort of perverse genealogical hobgoblin, always ready to stir up the pot and cook up some trouble.

Case in point: try an search. Any search. Enter a few details in the top fields—oh, anything like name and year of birth. Then start piling on the variables: place of birth, middle name, names of family members—you name it: if it is a detail for the family you seek, be sure to add it into your search engine wish list.

Oh, and if you haven’t done so already, check one of those little boxes that require the details to produce an exact match.

Then hit “Search” and see what happens.

Likely, it will be nothing. At least, that is what happens to me.

In my current pursuit of the elusive Mary Rainey, future bride of my second great grandfather, Thomas Taliaferro Broyles, I had hopes that discovering a possible brother—also named Thomas—might help add enough of a variable to isolate this Mary from the many who were out there. After all, the fluctuating spelling of her surname was adding its own weight in confusing variables as it was.

I can tell you already: trying to find a household with a Thomas, born about 1843 in South Carolina, plus a younger sister Mary, born in Georgia by 1851, is no picnic when the surname can be spelled upwards of four different—and not necessarily phonetically compatible—ways.

But I tried. I found, for instance, one Rainey household in the 1850 census that looked promising at first glance. It included a son Thomas, a daughter Mary, and a mother Mary—another requirement for my target household. The bonus was that it was a household situated in Coweta County, Georgia—the same place where Rebecca Taliaferro Broyles’ family had lived at the time.

The drawback: the son Thomas was only five years of age—a bit young for the Thomas we found in the Charles Taliaferro household in 1870, although within the range of possibilities. However, the daughter Mary was already fifteen years of age in that 1850 census—too old for the woman who was to move to Tennessee as the young bride of Thomas Broyles in 1871.

The beauty of this Rainey household would have been that the mother was, herself, a Taliaferro—just as I had been told our Mary’s mother was. This particular Mary, wife of Thomas Rainey the senior, was a sister to Charles Boutwell Taliaferro, in whose household we had just found the Mary “Reiney” we are currently puzzling over. That means she—the elder Mary—was also daughter of Warren Taliaferro, who in turn was son of the same Zachariah and Mary Boutwell Taliaferro who were grandparents of our Thomas Broyles’ mother, Sarah. We are talking cousins, here. Distant, but cousins.

Another possibility I had found was an 1850 census entry in South Carolina—going on the hunch that the family might still have been in the state in which the young Thomas was born around 1843. While this household might have been in South Carolina—a good start—and contain a son Thomas who was then seven years of age, it did not include a mother named Mary, nor an infant daughter by the same name. Yes, there was a daughter Mary, but once again, she was born much before our Mary’s arrival around 1850. This was not adding up, either.

And so it went, adding restrictions to the search—adding more and more, and finding less and less, until I found absolutely nothing that could be of any help at all.

Then what? I started poking desperately at all the databases I could find, such as scouring marriage indices for both South Carolina and Georgia (searching by the term Taliaferro, as the multiple options for Rainey bordered on useless).

But no results. How those old genealogy books, published decades ago—and in some cases, nearly one hundred years ago—could come up with the statement that our Mary Rainey’s mother was once a Taliaferro is beyond me.

It did point out one thing, though: the importance of following my intention to review those old Taliaferro genealogies once found in the research repositories I’ve visited. Granted, some are now online. Others, though, still call for a trip to a genealogical library. I simply need to go back to the time when those old books were published—closer to the dates of these family occurrences—and review the resources and recollections of the authors who gathered that time-worn information closer to the era in which these events occurred.


  1. Don't rule out that first family you found. The older Mary could have been a "Mary Elizabeth" while the Mary you seek had a different middle name. I've found that in some of my lines.

    1. That's true. Thanks for the reminder, Patrick. I've seen that also, especially in old-time German immigrant families, where it might have been an honor to bestow the name of a revered saint as the first name of a child--or, in some cases, of each child in the family--and use the middle name as the child's working name.

  2. I usually enter as little as possible in searches - and do an eyeball scan - the human eye works better than the computer some times.

    1. If anyone knows about search techniques, it would be you, Iggy! Good point!


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