Friday, May 6, 2022

Who Said So?


One of the tenets of building a family tree is to confirm assertions of fact with documentation. However, it's not just any documentation we seek, but a record as close to the event and provided by eyewitnesses to the details to approach the greatest accuracy. 

But who said so? Checking just who the eyewitness was can be an important point in clarifying whether the information is reliable. Although we've all become aware of the pitfalls of reliance on eyewitnesses—I'm thinking here of the "invisible gorilla" problem—in proving our ancestral stories, we are left with no other resource than to rely on the verification of officials.

It's when those officials must, in turn, rely on the reports of other people that we see the strength of accuracy weaken. Take death certificates: is there any time in life when loved ones are more likely, due to the stress of the moment, to forget the very details they know by heart?

And here am I, removed by one hundred years or more from the point, trying to glean from the death certificates of immigrant Michael Metzger's children where he might have been born. Is there any doubt that such "eyewitness" reports might lead a researcher astray?

While my original research goal for this month was to determine the origin of my husband's third great-grandfather, Michael Metzger senior, the man had died long before the advent of modern death certificates. However, Michael's son—also named Michael—was born before his family immigrated to Perry County, Ohio. The younger Michael's entry in the Perry County records, though also not quite as informative as the more modern death certificate records we are accustomed to seeing, did, however, report that he came from Germany (see line sixteen here).

Since the junior Michael, also an immigrant, had several children in Perry County, my thinking was to trace the death certificates of those of his children who died after the newer certificate format was adopted. Perhaps one of those newer certificates would include birth information on the deceased's father (the younger Michael).

It was a thought. But it didn't come with a helpful result.

Starting with the younger Michael's longest-living child, I could see it would be a rocky road toward finding an answer. This child, an unmarried daughter named Cecelia, died in 1943. Perhaps the length of time from Michael's own death in 1887 to that of his daughter Cecelia in 1943 may have clouded memories. Then, too, seeing that the informant on Cecelia's record was a nephew, perhaps that might have introduced mistaken reports into the record. William Welker presumed his aunt's mother had been born in Ohio—she wasn't—and then simply gave up guessing about Cecelia's father's place of birth. Verdict: unknown.

Maybe checking the death record of another Metzger child passing closer in date to Michael's own lifetime might yield better results. The one dying immediately before Cecelia was Michael's son Jacob. However, his 1928 report provided even less helpful information on Jacob's parents. Jacob's son Willard—remember, this would be a grandson of Michael, himself—was the reporting party. In his defense, Willard was born seven years after his grandfather died, so perhaps it was understandable that Willard assumed his grandfather Michael was born in Pennsylvania and his grandmother in Perry County. 

Understandable, but still incorrect.

Okay, let's try a Metzger child dying before that point—although remember, we are running out of progeny who died after that 1910 certificate format revision. The next possibility to inspect was the certificate of Michael's son John Vincent, who died in 1924. His information was provided by his wife. According to the widow, her father-in-law was born in Pennsylvania—at least agreeing with the information on her brother-in-law's death certificate four years later. And her mother-in-law was presumed to have been born in Germany.

Now, we're getting closer. But not necessarily more correct.

My last resource—as if we are voting on the most likely place for Michael to have been born—was the death report issued in 1909 for Michael's son Albert. Just because Albert's passing was the closest in time to that of Michael, don't think it will be more accurate. Again in this case, the decedent's wife served as reporting party. Albert's wife Almira—who, incidentally, happened to be a Snider, of the family line I researched last month—apparently couldn't come up with a detailed answer. The entries provided for the questions of where Albert's parents were born, simply reported: "state."

While yes, death certificates were completed almost at the point of occurrence, they include details which cannot possibly be provided by eyewitnesses attendant at the time of the event in question. Most parents die long before their children meet their own end. Even older siblings—if they were of an age to remember the event of a sibling's birth—are usually long gone by the time that sibling dies. But in this particular section of the modern death certificate, the informant is asked to report the place of birth of the decedent's parents. If recent surveys report that a majority of people don't even know all the names of their four grandparents, how are we to rely on their report of the birthplace of these same people?

Out of the four death certificates reviewed in hopes of discovering where those grandparents were born, only one indicated a foreign birthplace. And yet, there are other records indicating that not only the senior Michael Metzger was born in another country, but that his son Michael was foreign born, as well. Besides this, there are several family researchers asserting—though without showing any verification—that the native country of both Michaels was Switzerland.

While this approach did not provide any guidance in answering this question, there may be other ways to determine the answer. We'll delve into some other resources next week.


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