Semi-famous ancestors: be suspicious!

I found a fun video from Family History Fanatics listing seven common genealogy mistakes. I’ve made every single one of these mistakes and have developed some guidelines for avoiding them.

The final mistake in that video was about assuming a connection to famous people based on a common surname. You definitely shouldn’t try to make a connection to a famous person, or any person for that matter, by trying to bridge a gap between them—you’ll find a way to overlook contrary evidence.

But there’s another potential pitfall here: semi-famous people in history—that is, b-list people who generally aren’t named in history books but who associated with influential people—can exert a sort of gravitational pull, drawing you into a mistake just because there are soooooo many records.

The point is, be suspicious anytime you see a flood of information about a famous or even semi-famous person who appears organically through your research. You might be related, but your true relative might also be concealed by that flood of data. Let me give you an example: Jacob Slough of Pennsylvania. His father, Matthias Slough, was a b-list figure in the Revolution. He corresponded with George Washington, hosted a lot of Pennsylvania’s leadership at his tavern in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and held a few minor public offices in the colony.

Matthias used his connections to advance the interests of his children, acquiring land in Pennsylvania’s backcountry for his sons, and helping Jacob get a commission as an Army Lieutenant. Jacob served in the Northwest Indian War and was injured in combat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, so he created quite a paper trail all on his own.

The challenge for genealogists is that we work backward. Let’s say you have an ancestor named William Slough and family oral history tells that his father was named Jacob.

When you start looking in Pennsylvania, you find a lot of records for Matthias’s son, Jacob Slough. I have twenty-two facts from Ancestry.com indices on his profile and I added five more from external sources along with thirty-five images. He and his brother George appeared in so many land records that I even stopped taking notes.

Even if I think that my William’s father is a different Jacob Slough—and there were twenty Pennsylvanians with that name living in Pennsylvania before 1800—Matthias’s son appears so frequently in indexed searches, it’s hard to see anyone else. It’s not like I and many others went looking to connect ourselves to someone famous. We just get pulled in by the subtle, inexorable gravitational force of all those records. Jacob had the added difficulty of not having any children with his wife. That made him a blank slate, especially since baptismal records for the early 1800s are not that easy to find. So as long as I don’t find evidence that Jacob had a son named William who was obviously a different William than mine, it was just too easy to say my William is Jacob’s son.

Be suspicious!

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