Jumping to conclusions in genealogy

I found a fun video from Family History Fanatics listing seven common genealogy mistakes. I’ve made every single one of these mistakes. The second common mistake in that video is jumping to conclusions.

There are lots of ways to look at this, but to me, it’s about performing a reasonably exhaustive search, and resolving conflicting or contradictory evidence. At the end, I should have a sound, coherent and reasonable conclusion.

My biggest mistake on this front was Willard George Harding. I was tracing my wife’s family back and encountered a brick wall with this gentleman in Washington state. He was born in 1868 in Maine according to several different census records, including the 1887 and 1889 Washington Territorial census where the 20-plus-year-old appeared alone in Skagit County, with no other Hardings or obvious family in sight. I had no death certificate, so I didn’t have any leads on his parents.

With a name, a year and a place, I started looking for Will Hardings in the 1870 and 1880 census in Maine. I needed to eliminate contradictory evidence, so I tried to guarantee that I didn’t find someone who showed up in Maine when Willard was in Washington state, or who had died. There were several, but most of them were obviously different people than Willard.

The twelve-year-old Willie Harding living in Cumberland, Maine in 1880 fit well, though—I couldn’t find any record of him after 1880, and he was about the right age, twelve, rather than the thirteen I was looking for. In fact, considering the Washington Willard was born in July, and the 1880 census recorded in June, I could even argue the two were the same age. Woot!

I then kept building my family tree, going back all the way to the Mayflower, finding along the way all sorts of great stories, such as a Salem, Mass. many-greats grandmother executed for witchcraft, and a many-greats grandfather who murdered his wife because she didn’t keep the house clean enough.

But… was my story about Willard coherent and reasonable? No. While it was possible for a young man to make the journey across the plains alone, it was truly extraordinary for the time for someone to emigrate without family and friends either with them, or at their destination. I also hadn’t resolved two pieces of conflicting evidence: in the 1900 census, Willard reported that his parents were born in Canada, but in the 1880 census, Willie Harding’s parents reported that they were born in Maine.

The root of my mistake was that I had I failed to perform a reasonably exhaustive search for people with the same name and age. My census search was limited to Maine. Once I expanded my search to include Canada, Massachusetts, New Hampshire & Vermont, I found an 1881 census record for a Willard Harding of exactly the right age and place of birth living in Canada with the Flagg family.

And there were plenty of Flaggs recorded in the Washington census right next to Willard, including an Augusta Flagg. Her 1877 Grand Manan marriage record to Allen Flagg revealed her maiden name as Harding, and she turned out to be Willard’s mother, who descended from a line of New York loyalists who moved to St. John, Canada after the Revolution.

Willard hadn’t made the trip across the plains alone. He traveled from Canada to Washington, not only with his mother, but with his step-father and huge extended step family.

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