Thursday, August 25, 2022

Collateral Damage


If the term "collateral" as applied to family history means the siblings of our ancestors, then genealogical collateral damage must be what happens when the paper trail for relatives disintegrates. That, at least, is what appears to be happening to the paper trail of possible connections leading from John Stevens, the Irish immigrant we've been tracing from County Mayo.

Depending on whom you consult, the term "collateral line" can take on various shades of meaning. Alas, the oft-consulted FamilySearch wiki seems to lack an entry standardizing the term's definition. If we take the approach of assembling a number of online resources discussing the term, though, we can piece together a mosaic of just what collateral lines might be.

For some, collateral research can be limited to "tracking laterally closest living relatives," while for others, the term signifies the "relatives of someone who married into the family" as well as "distant cousins along your direct line."

To be specific about the definition for a collateral relative, you might say "any blood relative who is not your direct ancestor"—or, to put it another way, any relative who is not directly related to you, but with whom you share a common ancestor. In other words, these are the relatives who share the same ancestry as you, but not always the same direct line of descent.

Some people, in planning what aspects of their ancestry to research, choose to pursue only their direct family lines—as we see in many of our DNA matches' displayed family trees. Others only later have realized the benefits of adding collateral members of their family tree—or felt a tug on their heartstrings when they've lost a much-appreciated distant cousin who served as an older family research partner.

You know me, of course: I see collateral research as my bread-and-butter of envisioning connections with those thousands of DNA matches in my family lines, so I still say a hearty "amen" to the observations on the usefulness of collateral lines made years ago by another genealogy blogger. Going both deep and wide has enabled me to figure out many genealogy puzzles.

And yet, here we are with John Stevens. It's not very deep on the Stevens family tree that we've ventured—after all, he was only my husband's second great-grandfather. As for John Stevens' only (possible) blood relative, a man named Hugh Stevens who followed his exact immigrant pathway from County Mayo to Lafayette, Indiana, the man seemed to disappear shortly after his arrival in America. Even pursuing John's in-laws' history didn't seem to unearth any clues as to his origin and extended family members.

That, of course, should only be the start of a pursuit of information on collateral lines. But that is where I get into collateral damage. 

For instance, one excellent resource for connecting the dots for on-the-move ancestors could be the records kept by the Catholic Church. I have often seen marriage records of Catholic ancestors with notations added about the bona fide baptismal status of the intended marriage partner coming from another location—a wonderful way to reach backward in time on that person's story. In John Stevens' case, though, an inquiry as to the records of the Catholic church in existence at the time of his arrival in Lafayette drew up a blank. Lost? Damaged? According to the reply to my inquiry, it seems the early records of that parish were not preserved to such an extent as to provide me such coveted clues.

In many cases, letters sent to and from family left behind can provide wonderful tidbits of information. But when you realize that many of the Catholics in Ireland during the famine years did not even know how to read or write, the probability of receiving a letter from back home shrinks to near zero. Another potential avenue to discovery of collateral lines wiped out.

One other possible route to learning more about John's family might have been through any will left at his passing in 1893. After all, his second wife Eliza Murdock was listed as owning their home free of any mortgage in the 1900 census; perhaps there might be a will showing, in addition to the disposition of the home's ownership, names of other family members. But even that would be a slim chance—most family members named in these less well-endowed cases are descendants, not siblings, and certainly not parents or even cousins.

As opportunities to examine John Stevens' past through exploration of his collateral lines seem to dwindle, I end up with yet another foray into this challenge coming up empty-handed. Yes, if baptismal records from the Catholic parishes near his possible townlands in County Mayo become available to researchers in the future, I may have another opportunity to delve into this question about his roots. Until then, though, we'll likely have to put this pursuit on hold for at least another year.     

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