Monday, June 10, 2019

The Value of Asking Why

I'm on a mission now to dig up all those old records I obtained for the Tully family before the advent of computer usage for family history research. Let's not go into just how disgusting old documents can become when left to themselves over the decades, but simply say that progress has been impeded by unexpected guests and their signs of existence in storage areas. Fortunately, digital scanners have become the genealogist's new best friend, eliminating future repetitions of such dismaying discoveries.

In reviewing these old death records of the extended Tully family, I am being reminded of one glaring detail: the inability of close family members to recall basic details of where their parents were born, or what their own mother's maiden name might have been. In stumbling over such hiccups and other misaligned details, I have come to realize one thing: it is important for the astute researcher to include one word in her genealogical tool box. That three letter word is: "Why?"

Right now, because of my husband's new Tully DNA match, I'm assembling all the reasons why I feel that his second great grandparents settled in Paris, Ontario, after emigrating from Ireland. Of course, the first time I passed this way in my research, I was coming at it from the vantage point of the present, and working my way backwards in time. I knew his great grandfather, John Tully, came from somewhere in Ireland, but I couldn't find any conclusive evidence to explain how he arrived in Chicago.

My approach, originally, was to assemble all the information I could find on the extended family of Tully cousins in the Chicago area. Believe me, there were many of them, some of whom I still can't align with the proper set of Tully parents. Thankfully, I was blessed with the temporary loan of several 1880s-era photographs, complete with names and notes on the reverse, to help me sort through the cousins' names. But mostly, I relied on all the death certificates I could obtain.

While some of those records did point me back to "Paris, Canada," there were other entries that were, shall we say, less than helpful—like the one from the document for one Margaret Tully who died in Chicago in 1936. According to that record, fifty three year old Margaret, a former stenographer for the railroads, was the daughter of William Tully, baby brother of our John Tully, so I already knew where she figured in the Tully family constellation. What I was surprised to find, though, was the entry on her death certificate, informing me that her father was born in Winnipeg, not Paris.

If that was my first encounter with information on the previous generation of Tully men, it sure would have thrown me off the correct path, but thankfully, it wasn't. Even so, I could have chalked that up to a mistaken report in the face of the stress of just losing a loved one, and moved on, ignoring the valuable clue it gave. Though the certificate did indicate that the one providing this information was not actually a direct report from a family member, but a transcription of a hospital record—which gives us no clue as to the reliability of the reporting party—the information was not that far off.

In other words, it might have proven helpful to ask myself just why this anonymous reporter might have blurted out "Winnipeg" rather than "Paris." The answer? As it turned out, Margaret's father had an older sister who, though living in Paris in her youth, subsequently married and, with her family, moved to western Canada. For years, the Tully family in Chicago kept in touch with their Tully aunt (and her Ryan husband and children) who eventually ended up in Winnipeg. Knowing that now, I could see how it made sense that someone in the family, under pressure of a serious health problem for a loved one rushed to a hospital, might have blurted out, "Winnipeg." Paris might have been then, but Winnipeg was now.

There have been so many other instances in which I've found what turned out to be incorrect information immortalized in governmental documents. Rather than simply discard those details as faulty data, I've learned to ask questions: just why did that detail turn up being the one reported? Sometimes, that "mistake" can turn out to lead a researcher to a richer result through further discoveries.

Above: Copy of 1936 Chicago death certificate for Margaret Tully, daughter of William Tully and his wife, Sarah Swanton, including the erroneous report that her father had been born in Winnipeg, Canada. 


  1. In my database, many of the informants on death records were in-laws or nieces and nephews, so I forgive the unknown maiden names or place of birth. But I can’t help being shocked when folks didn’t know their own parents’ or grandparents’ maiden names or birthplace. What did they talk about?


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