Monday, September 8, 2014

Following the Evidence Part 2

Following the Evidence: Part 2 - Staking Claims, and Proving Names

In "Part 1: On Documentary Evidence" I discussed several stories from my family history and the standards of evidence I use to decide whether those stories are true. 

I remember first taking interest in the family history when I was around 10 years of age and my friend Andrew told me that his mom's cousin was Neil Armstrong. Now, I knew my cousins, Jeff and Aaron, and they were only 2 years older and younger than me, respectively, so they hadn't had a chance to become astronauts. I had a vague notion that my dad's cousin Pat was a teacher. But Andrew had gotten me wondering for the first time about more distant relatives, and the tantalizing idea that they might be somehow famous!

Naturally, I asked all of my relatives if they knew if we were related to anyone "good", and they mostly shrugged and said no. Except for Grandpa Bob, who thought that his grandmother was a Hale - so we were probably related to Nathan Hale. Of course, if you read part 1, you might remember how much time it took for me to track down proof of my connection to the Hale/Hales family. While I eventually did find a lot of leads going back to the mid-1700s, I haven't found a connection to Nathan, and can't really prove much of what I have from before 1840. I am pretty sure my 4th Great grandfather Baker Hale(s) was born in Virginia in 1803; but Nathan Hale was born in 1755 in what is now Connecticut, so if there's a relationship further back, it remains to be discovered.

If you look at the evolution of the U.S. Census you see that the farther back you go, the less "information" each document contains. From 1850 forward, you could see individuals listed by household; prior to that, you saw the name of the Head of the household, and a tally of the other members by age and gender. Prior to the first Census in 1790, you must rely on local tax and land records, church records, family records - all of which recorded transactions or events as they may have happend, and all of which are vulnerable to decay, destruction, or simple loss. It becomes tough to tie fathers to sons (let alone daughters!) if those sons left home before 1850.

All of that makes tracing a line to Nathan that much harder.

I Want to Believe

So, when I set out trying to prove that I was related to someone important, or cool, or at least famous, two things became apparent:

First, I needed to prepare for disappointment. This was an easy lesson, because over the years, it has become much less important to me to find a "famous" connection. The more I dig, the more I learn about the people and places that weren't famous, and the more interesting they become. Some of the wild frontier tales and ties to major historical events, like the Underground Railroad, have been their own reward for me. Just finding out what I have already learned about all of these "ordinary" people has been so revelatory that at this point even proving distant kinship to a key historical figure, while certainly interesting, is no longer the reason I'm doing all of this.

Second, cultivating healthy skepticism is critical to keeping your research honest. When you go into a project like this hoping for a particular result, you can't help but make mistakes. Your bias changes the way you search records, causing you to ignore clues or fill in gaps with pieces that don't quite fit. You tend to favor records that fit the story you've already chosen, rather than letting the records tell you what happened.

When you want to believe a particular fact might be true, it becomes even more important to focus on what you really know - and can prove. In the case of the Hale family, there is still room for possibility - the absence of evidence is not yet evidence of absence - so if I keep looking, I could find that tie to the famous Nathan Hale.

But I have to follow the evidence... not lead it where I want it to go.

Be Careful What You Wish For

I did eventually find a connection to someone famous.

When you think about your family tree for very long, the mathematics can become daunting. The possibility of finding lost relatives increases exponentially every generation further back you go.

There is one of you, you have two (biological) parents, four grandparents, eight "Greats", and 16 "Great-greats" - that's 35 people, not counting any of your siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts, or step- and half-siblings/cousins/etc. you might have.  Every generation further back you go doubles the number of great-grandparents you are dealing with, so when I start talking about Baker Hale, my 4th Great-grandfather, I mean that he is one of 64 people in that generation alone without whom I would not exist.

Thomas Clemson (1710-1785) was my 6th-great grandfather - one of 256 people without whom I would not exist. According to a book called "Ancestors of American Presidents", Thomas had (among many other children) two daughters - my 5th-great grandmother, Elizabeth, and his daughter, Mary. Let's save 1,000 words and have a look at who their branch connects us to:

Click to ennixonate.
That's right - my grandmother was a 5th cousin of President Nixon; that makes my children 8th cousins to the Nixon-Eisenhower kids!

Of course, healthy skepticism means that I need to take the time to evaluate the evidence in Mr. Boyd's book. The question you have to ask yourself is, how do your feelings about the person you have this connection to affect your willingness to accept the evidence? A lot of people aren't big fans of Mr. Nixon - but you can't pick your family!

In Which I Finally Begin To Arrive at The Point

All of this storytelling about my own family history was intended to bring us to what I really wanted to talk to you about: the family tree of one Joshua ben Joseph, more commonly known as Jesus of Nazareth.

Remember how I said I took an interest in all of this family history stuff when I was 10? That was also right around the time when I began to get serious about my church. I went forward in the Southern Baptist tradition and was saved at age 11; at 12, I was terrorizing my classmates, first in my public school, and later in a Christian school, with my passionate zealotry. Everything I did when I was 12, I did zealously, including my family history. And one of those "famous people" I wanted to prove a family connection to was... Jesus.

Okay, I knew even then that it wouldn't be a direct family connection, but I figured that since every generation you go back doubles in number, by the time you go back to that first century the odds would increase that you might find some common ancestor. There are numerous genealogies documented in the Bible, so I assumed I would have to tie my own family to a line of descent from the sons of Noah. And after thousands of years of scholarly analysis of these stories, surely someone had done the homework of collecting evidence, documenting family connections, and filling in the gaps so that I had a chance of doing that... right?

In a word, no.

But there are so very many people out there who claim to have done so, starting with organizations like the Mormon and Catholic Churches, not to mention the vast and varied Jewish traditions. Being a staunch Southern Baptist, I was bound to approach their claims with that healthy skepticism I was talking about earlier. I wanted to believe that it all could be proven, but I wasn't willing to accept their claims at face value, for the simple reason that I didn't consider those groups to be trustworthy. There are also loads of crazy (by my standards at the time) stories about Jesus's brothers and the tales of the Apocrypha to contend with.

So, going into this, we need to set the stage properly.

Setting the Standards, Asking the Question

We've already established some of the rules and boundaries needed to tackle the Big Questions about the possibility of proving an ancestry link to Jesus (or anyone in the Bible, really). In this post and the last one we learned that:

  • Eyewitnesses are unreliable
  • Documents can have mistakes
  • Documents can be missing
  • Family "legends" have a place, with proper context
  • You have to guard against your biases

And so far, we've been dealing with relatively recent, relatively well-documented history.  Stitching together the evidence to support a family tree is hard enough with the documents we have available to us, but that kind of detailed record-keeping was not a universal given even in the New World. Ancient history is obviously much less well-documented.  We can't go into this expecting that we can prove every link in the chain.  But can we find evidence that at least shows that there are chains with a possible connection?

When I research my family, I look at each fact, and decide whether there is evidence to support that fact. I have to frame a question for each fact - "Was Person A the son of Person B or Person C?" or "Did this person who died in 1863 die in the Civil War?" - and if I don't have evidence that proves a particular birth, death, or marriage fact, I have to figure out from what I do already know where I am likely to find that evidence. If there is no proof, for example, that my 4th Great (one of 64!) Grandfather was the son of an Irish immigrant named James, then I have to treat that as a family legend.

And remember - James 1st, if he existed, was only separated from me in history by 200 years. How much more questionable would that family legend be if we were separated by 2,000? We will have to go into this expecting a much broader, and much murkier historical picture to emerge.

The trickiest part of this is framing our questions in a way that can be tested by accessible evidence. How you ask is important, because how you frame it determines what your standards will be. For example, if I frame the question as "Can we prove that James 1st did NOT exist?" the answer is "No" - because it's rare that you can prove a negative under the best of circumstances.

Which means, we still have a lot of work to do before we can even ask the right question.

Following the Evidence Part 3: Millenial Telephone Game

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