Saturday, February 10, 2024

The Parallax of Previous Centuries


Can our viewpoint of history be distorted over the centuries by a form of parallax? That is what I wondered this week as I pondered the strange connection between names in the extended family trees of the Beverleys, the Carters, and the Chews of colonial Virginia.

When I first struggled with the two different middle names cited for the same young child—John Carter's granddaughter and Owen and Elizabeth Thomas' daughter—I was struck by the connection of the one possible name, Kenner, to another branch of the extended family tree. That Kenner name had made its appearance by marriage into the related Beverley family.

It was only when I sketched out the contorted branches of the merged family trees that I began to see my problem. What is it about blithely running through old genealogies of eighteenth century families and court records spanning those same years of the 1700s? It is as if time got compressed.

From my twenty-first century viewpoint, the 1700s were the 1700s, all in one lump. Never mind that one date was in 1734 and the other in 1783. They both seemed so close together, because I was the one who was far away. My perspective distorted my vision. The little girl whose middle name might have been Kenner was listed in the 1783 will of a grandfather who was born about 1715, and who in later life married a woman whose mother was older sister to another woman who married a man who was likely even older than the girl's grandfather. Put that spaghetti bowl of relationships in perspective!

The same trick blinded me when I considered another family connection: the mention of the surname Roy both in the Beverley line and in the Chew line. Yet, for Thomas Roy, Kenner's widow Judith's second husband, to be related to his brother-in-law John Chew's grandfather would put him as brother of John's mother. Hardly likely, when I think more concretely about the dates involved.

Perhaps the 1700s, seeming so far removed from our current time, can lull us into a complacent mood, as we struggle to focus our eyes on blurry handwriting of three hundred year old wills and other mind-numbing legal documents. Much like the risk of parallax can throw off measurements based on differences in one's relative point of view, looking back through time can bring with it the hazard of making far more assumptions about the time period than might be warranted. Sketching it all out, literally making the scenario we're researching into a visual diagram labeled with dates and positions, can serve not only to take a snapshot of the research question, but allow us to ponder whether our perspective from the sidelines gives the most accurate reading of our ancestors' reality.

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