I frequently refer to the need for evidence to back up claims. I also frequently dismiss claims that either aren't backed up by evidence, or for which the "evidence" presented isn't strong enough to merit acceptance. But for those trying to convince me to accept an idea or a fact, it can be frustrating to hear me dismiss their idea without understanding the standards I look for in evidence.
Here is an attempt to illustrate how I use "evidence" both as a word and as a tool.
When I started working on the Family History, all four of my grandparents were still alive. Most people who get into this hobby wait until later in life, when even their parents are no longer around to help get them started, but I was able to talk to each of them and get a head start.
Of course, as valuable as their insights could be, the problem with eyewitness accounts became apparent rather quickly. We didn't know it at the time, but one of my grandfathers was suffering from the effects of Alzheimer's, and one of my grandmothers was suffering from a circulatory disease that affected her short term memory. My other grandmother was uncomfortable talking about family, especially if I planned to write her memories down and put them on the Internet - that struck her as being too close to "gossip". The end result was that I got the names of all of their parents, and siblings, but not a lot of detail, and some of the details I did get were not very reliable.
That said, there were a lot of photographs and newspaper clippings to go through, as well as all of the documents which were, at the time, just becoming available online. My dad's parents had a book, compiled in 1911 by my 2nd-Great Grand Uncle, George William Callin, and for the Callin side of the family, this proved to be a real gold mine. While it didn't cite any sources, and it mostly consisted of bare lists of facts (with a few paragraphs on what seemed to be George's immediate family), it attempted a thorough listing of everyone descended from a man George referred to as "James 1st", who George claimed was the original Callin ancestor to immigrate from Ireland some time around the Revolutionary War. (1)
My work over the past couple of decades has mainly consisted of testing G.W. Callin's Family History against the evidence of official documents, and I mostly rely the U.S. Federal Census as the starting point for each family. Remarkably, until you get back past George's grandfather and great uncle, John and "James 2nd", respectively, the Census records agree with the details that George records: names of children & spouses, dates of birth/death/marriage/etc. But things get a little fuzzier when I try to find evidence of anything that occurred before John and James 2nd moved their families from western Pennsylvania to Ohio in the early 1810s.
The Story of Aunt Polly
Every family has its legends; things that are passed down word of mouth from generation to generation that might have happened, but aren't "provable". In the Callin Family History, there is a story about James 1st's daughter, Polly, in which she is carried off by "Indians", and rescued by a posse that her father raised to chase them down. In the fracas, Polly was shot in the knee, and spent the remainder of her life at home and unmarried.
In my quest to figure out who James 1st was, and prove his ancestry, I ran across another branch of the family with a PDF book called "The Callen Chronicles". In it, there are some promising documentary leads for various James and John Callens who might match the two I'm looking for - but there is also an interesting story about the daughters of a Patrick Callen, who lived in Armstrong county, Pennsylvania, being carried off in a raid by... "Indians"! In this version, there are two girls, and there is no posse to rescue them. Instead, they are gone for several years before one sister slips away from the tribe and is brought back to Pennsylvania by a fur trapper. The other sister stayed behind with her husband - described as a "brave" in the text - and their babies. The daughter who escaped and returned was described by her nephew, Watson, in a story passed down for generations as being "special and different" and a little bit wild.
The details vary drastically, and many theories could be posed to explain what actually happened. Digging into the history of that area, I discovered that my ancestors - regardless of whether it was James, Patrick, or someone else - were part of a larger story going on in pre-Revolutionary America. It's plausible that some version of this incident happened in the frontier world where they lived - my fractious Presbyterian relatives apparently lived in perpetual conflict with their pacifist Quaker neighbors, indigenous tribes, and immigrants. But it's not as if there were newspapers or a police report to corroborate the story!
However, whether it actually happened or not, and whomever it happened to, there is a place in our documentary evidence for these "legends". They can't be proven, but they provide color and texture to the often bland facts that we can prove. As long as you have that context - that this is a story that my ancestors told themselves, and that they believed it to be true - it's a legitimate part of their story. And in the case of this particular story, a family legend shared by two distant branches of the Callin/Callen family suggests that I'm on the right track for finding the elusive "James 1st".
As another example of a "family legend", check out this story courtesy of a brief memoir written by George's daughter, Rosemary, before she died in 1970:
William and Elizabeth [Rosemary's grandparents] had six children [one of them being George]... Father said they were warned not to say nothing at school about it, but their cabin was a station on the Underground Railway. I don't know whether it was William or Elizabeth, probably the latter, who awakened them softly in the middle of the night and led them to the window. The moon flashed out and they saw a white man, maybe William, leading a string of blacks through the clearing around their cabin and into the woods. They were on their way to Great Uncle George's barn. From there he would take them onto the next stop.The history of the Underground Railroad is fascinating in that it clearly existed, but it is almost impossible to document reliably. You really can't verify a claim that a particular farm or family was "a stop" on the Underground Railroad, unless someone else - either an escaped slave or another proven participant - documented these farms elsewhere. If they did, I haven't found that evidence, yet.
As exciting as I find this story to be, and as personally gratifying as I find it to be that my family was on what I consider to be the right side of history, I have to be careful about drawing conclusions. The evidence that my family helped the Underground Railroad is thin (though they lived not far from Oberlin) and I've learned over the years not to attribute too much enlightenment to farmers like William and George Callin for helping, as many of them were motivated as much by distaste for the black people they were helping and a desire to transport them out of the country as they were by a moral objection to slavery.
The Mystery of Bertha
As anyone who uses a lot of historical documents will tell you, there is another problem with documentary evidence: some of it is missing. A fire destroyed most of the 1890 U.S. Federal Census, leaving large gaps in many of the families I am trying to trace. The closest of these "holes" made my search for the ancestors of my grandfather's mother, Bertha May Greenlee, extremely difficult.
When I first asked grandpa about his family, he gave me his mother's name as "Bertha May Cramer." Later on, I spotted the name "Bertha Greenlee" in a family tree that grandma had done for one of my cousins, and asked him about it. He recalled that she had been adopted by George Cramer, but as that had happened so long before grandpa was born, he didn't know any details.
With so little to go on, it took me years to fill in the blanks. Bertha was born (inconveniently) in 1885, but I found her in the 1900 census, living with the Cramer family. As another example of the difficulty of trusting documentary evidence, one transcriber listed her as "Bertha Gruntle;" I had to open the image and look at the handwriting myself to see that it was "Greenlee" - be careful if you have to trust indexers and transcribers! (And don't get me started on translators...) Humans make mistakes.
From that record, though, I confirmed that Bertha was George Cramer's step-daughter, that her mother's name was "Alice" and that Alice and George had been married for 11 years. Grandpa hadn't been sure of Alice's name, but he had thought her maiden name was Hale or Hales, and that 1900 record shows a John and Carrie Hale in the household. Armed with these details, I could sketch out that Bertha's father had left or died between 1885 and 1889, so I went looking for more about Alice.
Starting with the 1880 census, where I found a 15-year-old Alice Hales living with her parents and siblings, I was able to flesh out that side of the family pretty well. But finding the elusive Mr. Greenlee was much more difficult. I do have a shaky chain of evidence showing an Allen Greenlee living in the right county at the right time. In 1870, he is listed as a 9-year-old male named "Ellen", and he is living with Sarah C. (31) and "Elesur" (57) Bollman. In 1880 19-year-old "Allen" is living with his grandmother, listed as Eleanor Bollman. From there, assuming that his mother was Sarah C. Bollman (or Bowman, or Bowlman), a marriage record indicates that his father was a Robert Greenlee who had inconveniently died between his wedding to Sarah, Allen's birth, and the 1870 census!
All of this means that, while I am happy enough to go with this story and keep looking for clues, I still don't have "proof" that this Greenlee family is MY family. I don't have a document linking Allen to Bertha. I have enough evidence for a theory, and I'll keep looking, but until a magic Bible appears, or my DNA turns up in a Greenlee family somewhere, I won't really know.
Historical research like this will never be cut and dried. There is always room for doubt, and always room for imagination. Until I find a death record, I will never know for certain what happened to Allen; did he die in 1889, leaving Alice a young widow with an infant? Or did he run off, and have a whole life somewhere else, maybe under another name? What happened to his father, Robert? He apparently died during the Civil War, but I haven't found any record of him being in the military.
The crucial lesson is to understand the difference between "legend" and "history", and to guard against ruling out possibilities while not letting your imagination run wild. Over the years, I've learned to document as thoroughly as I can, and to be flexible and aware of the possibility that documents can be wrong. People can lie (saying they are "widowed" because they found "divorce" embarrassing), and they can misremember or mis-calculate. Census takers or county clerks can misunderstand a thick accent, and were prone to misspell or write sloppily, leading transcribers and indexers to make transcription errors, like turning Allen into Ellen. So many things can go wrong.
And yet, there is much we can know. The important take away is in appreciating that there is a certain amount of skill and skepticism needed to know anything. But so far, we've only been talking about the last couple hundred years!
What happens when you go further back in time?
Up Next: Following the Evidence Part 2
1. I have a digital copy of the George Callin Family History that I am happy to share with relatives. I scanned and edited it, with an introduction, and it is available in PDF for sharing under a Creative Commons license.