Monday, September 29, 2014

Following the Evidence Part 3

Following the Evidence Part 3: Millenial Telephone Game

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

"Part 2: Staking Claims and Proving Names" explored the limits of following evidence and raised some questions about...questions.

Chances are that you've seen one of those places that sells plaques and books on "your family name" or (even better) "your family crest" or Coat of Arms - something that speaks to your noble heritage, perhaps? Here's one that I found for the Callin clan years ago:

These kinds of things can be fun, and when you're just starting out with your family history research it can be very motivating to put something like this in that big empty space above where your great- or maybe great-great grandparents names peter out. But you have to be careful not to take them too seriously, because... well... these things aren't exactly what you could call "real."

As that article points out, individuals were entitled to wear such heraldry, and in certain cases a father could pass his arms to a son, but the likelihood of anyone in your family tree having ever been one of those individuals is vanishingly small. Remember each generation further back you go doubles the number of people who are your direct ancestors; 5 generations back in my tree puts us in the early 1800s and involves 31 people (including myself). To get back to the glory days of feudalism, you'd need about 15 generations...about 32,767 people out of the millions living back then.

I can't prove that you AREN'T related to someone who was entitled to such heraldry, but when you follow the evidence it should become clear to you that you can't bear the burden of proof to support any such claim. And that's sometimes a hard pill to swallow.

It can be tough for people to give up on a story that makes them feel special.

Solid Anchors

Up to this point, I've told stories that were supported by several different types of evidence, though I've only given examples of one type of evidence. So far, we've been talking about all of the documents that provide a form of testimonial evidence, but I haven't talked at all about scientific evidence - like DNA or archaeological research - or the physical evidence of still-extant houses and public buildings in the places where my ancestors are said to have lived. Because I do most of my research online, I personally tend to take a lot of that for granted. But that's okay for what I'm trying to prove.

One common goal for family historians is to document an ancestor who fought in the American Revolution. If I want to apply for membership in an organization for descendants of Revolutionary War veterans, I only need to provide documentary evidence of my connection to them. I don't need to prove that the war itself happened. That war, and a lot of the details of who fought where and when are well documented. Physical evidence has been collected for two centuries, catalogued and tested, analysed and written down; so when we "prove" that one of our ancestors fought in that War, we aren't required to prove on our own, from scratch, that it occurred - only our connection to it.

When it comes to something that everyone generally accepts as fact, we tend not to question the details. It would be absurd to question the existence of the American Revolution every time it was discussed - but it's important to make this distinction: if you did question it, there is all of that evidence I just talked about supporting the Fact. Not just one document or one artifact, but multiple lines of study and chains of evidence.

The important thing to keep in mind is this: if I'm carrying on with my research and find evidence that shows that I'm NOT related to a Revolutionary War veteran, that can be a hard thing to accept. But even if I find that not one of my ancestors were in the colonies at that time, it doesn't make me any less American, and it doesn't call into question the historical fact of the War itself.

Life Rings

You may have noticed, too, that I tend to link to Wikipedia articles - perhaps when I reference a topic like the Revolutionary War - and you might have wondered why. A lot of folks have an unreasonable distaste for Wikipedia, in my opinion. Because anyone can edit it, it can be easy to dismiss it as being error-ridden or unreliable. But I've observed over the years that history itself can be unreliable. We find new evidence all the time that changes the way we understand what happened in history, whether that is a newly discovered fossil or new discoveries about Viking burials that change our assumptions about those topics.

Keeping up with the changes - and understanding which ones do and don't have merit - can be overwhelming. Wikipedia is not an anchor - it's more of a flotation device. If you're going to figure out which Facts are "true" and which things are "legend", you have to start somewhere, and Wikipedia represents a place where, if you happen to know about a subject, you can add it. If there is a mistake and you can provide a link to evidence that it is a mistake, you can correct it! (That link tells you how to change a page - this one tells you how to make your change credible.)

Evidence is the key, there. Being able to defend what you write to the swarms of editors is what keeps it honest - depending on how many editors are in a given swarm, naturally. That's incredibly valuable to me, because I am not a scholar, and I don't have time to research everything myself. That should be valuable to you, as well, because if we're going to answer a difficult or controversial question, then ultimately, our goal is always to find a credible source that we can both count on.

And this is the important bit: we don't have to agree on the conclusions we reach. I may show you my flimsy evidence that my 3x great-grandfather's farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and it's okay if you aren't convinced. I may not be able to put it on Wikipedia, but I may still choose to believe it, and I will keep looking for other clues. But even if you reject my evidence of that fact, you won't be able to claim that he didn't exist, he didn't live in the right place at the right time, or that the Underground Railroad didn't exist - because those are established facts. There is plenty of other evidence that supports those conclusions, and roots them to the rest of our history.

A Few Words About Mormonism

The 12-year-old version of myself - from here on referred to as Believer Me - had already accepted the Bible as one of those anchors. It was established fact. There was no question. So it should follow that what he wanted more than anything in the world was to be able to prove it. But Believer Me had a problem: Mormons. Because this is already long, I'll let you watch this South Park episode, "All About Mormons" (which Believer Me would have adored) as background. 1

The problem was not simply that my Mormon friends believed different things than I did. The problem was that my Mormon friends made a lot of the same claims about their scriptures that I made about my own. They claimed archaeological evidence of their story (that a lost Israelite tribe settled ancient America), which never materialized outside of church-funded research; they claimed bias in the official criminal records of New York and other places that cast Joseph Smith as a con-man; and if I insisted on rejecting their interpretation of that evidence, they would offer various Special Pleading arguments - some of which struck too close to home, because I used them myself on non-believers.

I recognized at that age the importance of following solid evidence - and even though much of my faith was based on accepting what had been handed down to me without really questioning it, I naively believed that there really was evidence that would prove my faith to be the right one. After all, one of the things I was told all the time was that there were historical documents, physical evidence, and all kinds of archaeology backing up the Bible.

In this way, I was motivated by that uncomfortable realization - that these believers in a religion that I knew to have been fabricated in the 1830s could, after only 150 years have developed such an earnest apologia - and it drove me to question some things that I had always assumed to be Established Fact. If I was going to dismiss their claims, but honestly accept my own, I had to hold all of those claims to the same standard.

For that, I needed Evidence.

The Family Tree of Man (Biblical version)

Jump ahead 30 years to now. During that time, I looked for the evidence I needed to truly anchor the beliefs of Believer Me to the established facts of history. But there was a problem: there wasn't any.

(I apologize for that bald assertion, but that's what I learned. This took a long time for me to discover and come to terms with - if you're new to the idea, I don't expect you to just accept it. If you want to read more, there is a decent overview on Salon, or you can try Richard Carrier for a more scholarly research approach.)

Initially, I followed the advice of pastors and family, and kept looking; I literally kept the faith and for a long time, I convinced myself that I would find that evidence. Others tried to tell me it didn't matter - but it did. And this is one example of why.

Everyone who has ever tried and failed to read the entire Bible has joked about getting lost in all of the "Begats". When you hit certain books, there seem to be pages of them. "And Porcine begat Nadal, who begat Someguynamedezar, who begat Shumway by Alf who bade him lay with his porcupine..." you get the idea.

I tried several times over the course of the past couple of decades to map all of that out. I wanted to document all of it. Most recently, I started with Jesus Genealogies on Wikipedia and created a tree on Just as I had done with the George Callin Family History of 1911, I took it all at face value, and plugged it in as-is. If you've read that Wikipedia article, you already know what kinds of problems that caused me - but I wasn't done, yet! I tried to ignore all of that controversy and soldiered on - to 1 Chronicles 7:30-40.

If you want to see what I did, you should be able to visit this public tree and explore for yourself - this link should take you to Jacob (aka Israel). Look around. Wherever possible, I pasted in the passages that I got their information as sources. I put a few days' worth of effort into this, and when I started out, I planned to create citations and continue seriously as if I were doing my own family history. I can't stress that enough - I wanted to treat this project with the same rigor and skill that I bring to my own family history research.

But something dawned on me rather quickly. This was a pointless endeavor.

Remember the first post where I talked about "James 1st"? In my own tree, when the evidence I found didn't support his existence, I changed my records. They no longer said the same thing that the George Callin Family History said - and that's a good thing. That's how Wikipedia works - hell, that's how history works!

I use George's research as a starting point, and verify (or reject) what I can based on established facts. Evidence from multiple angles, disciplines, and sources told me that it is far more likely that my family descended from Patrick Callen than from James. Evidence from various places told me that Rosemary's "impression" that her grandfather William might have fought in the War of 1812 was wrong, and that it was probably Patrick - William's likely grandfather.

This is how evidence, scrutiny, and facts are supposed to work. You are supposed to change your story to fit the facts... but there is no way to do that with the contradictory Biblical accounts of the genealogy of mankind. Because as soon as you "fix" the Biblical account, you are breaking the Law - of the Bible, at least.

This isn't just a theological problem, either; it's a problem of basic scholarship. If you don't allow me to "fix" problems and correct the text as new information becomes available, then it is no longer history; it is just another legend I can't use. If you do allow changes, then it begins to unravel, as there is too much in the book that is fantastic, self-contradictory, and contradicted by things that we have learned in the last couple thousand years. In short, if you follow the evidence, there is no way to tie the Biblical accounts of anything - particularly the genealogies - to established fact.

The problem for Believer Me wasn't ultimately in the evidence, though; I would have been perfectly happy to throw all of the evidence away if I could just have my Anchor back. But after finding that there isn't any reliable evidence to support my faith, I had to admit that there wasn't any more compelling reason to adhere to my childhood faith other than that was what I was told to believe.

Where Does It All Lead?

For me, it took a long time to go down the path that the evidence pointed me to. Even though I resisted for a long time, and tried to ignore the obvious for even longer, one by one, the problems with all of those claims caught up to me. All the claims of infallibility and inerrancy gave way in the face of unavoidable realities about translation, transcription, and simple human error combined with two millennia of wishful thinking.

Having pored over the U.S. Census, I have gained a great appreciation for the number of mistakes that can crop up, and for how they can throw you wildly off base. It's possible to sift through it all and make sense of some of it - but you have to learn to recognize what to keep and what to throw away. You have to use the tools of logic and be willing to give up on a story that can't be true - no matter how cool you think it would be if it were.

The eighth or ninth time I saw that they claimed to have found Noah's Ark, it occurred to me that they were desperate to do so - enough to ignore the obvious reasons why it hadn't been found yet. The seventh or eighth time I saw the Shroud of Turin go on tour, I looked into the disturbing world of religious relics - and that story is unfolding again with a new corpse! Start peeling away the obvious layers, and they all start to disappear. And I sympathized, because I know how hard it was for me to give up on my family "coat of arms" and the idea of Irish immigrant James 1st bravely fighting in the American Revolution.

I hope no one thinks that I put the Jesus Family Tree together to mock or to stand as "disproof" of anything. (No one can ever "prove" a negative.) But it illustrates the problem of ignoring contradictory pieces of evidence and of not being allowed to follow that evidence where it leads. If you're a believer, I know how scary that can feel. But the burden of proof is on the person making bold claims.

Anchors are the worst thing to throw to someone clinging to something as an Established Fact in an ocean of misinformation. The best thing you can do is to let go of the assumptions weighing you down. Start asking questions, test the answers against each other and start building anew with the evidence at hand. If you're going to build something - maybe a raft? - you need three things:

You need a toolbox .

You need to find a stable location to work.

And you need to be willing to start over.

I did it, eventually - and I didn't have to throw away everything - because there is always a place for poetic imagery.

26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
Matthew 7:26-27New International Version (NIV)



1. I am sorry if stating my opinion about the validity of the Mormon faith so plainly causes offense. My intention is not to mock Mormonism here, but to highlight the fact that my younger self was highly motivated by that opinion to embrace a neutral, reason- and evidence-based approach to proving his faith to be the correct one. If it is any comfort, that strategy obviously backfired - as the rest of this essay should demonstrate.

To paraphrase Dennis Miller:

"I think so little of [our differences] that I refuse to treat you like a Fabergé egg. You are part of the human collective. Come, join us in our reindeer games. You too can be poked fun at."

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

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Following the Evidence Part 1

Following the Evidence: Part 1 - On Documentary Evidence

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".

Underground Railroad

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.