Right now American TV audiences are being treated to another season of "Who Do You Think You Are?" The program, heavily promoted by Ancestry.com, takes us through the family histories of celebrities, showing how families can be traced for generations. Wonderful discoveries! Shocking revelations! Who would have thought . . .? Now, don't get me wrong. I really like Ancestry.com and use it frequently. But if you're planning to indulge in some genealogical research of your own, take along a hefty dose of skepticism.
Census records look valuable, and they can be, but their worth depends entirely upon the competence of the person doing the recording. I examined a record for my mother’s family from the 1900 Pennsylvania Census. It listed the birth dates of two of her sisters as November 1877 and February 1878. Three months apart? Probably not!
For any kind of record before the days of typewriters and computers, handwriting causes major problems. Some examples are marvelously clear; others are scrawls or overwritten with so many corrections that it is impossible to decipher them. Then there are problems caused by mispronunciations or bad hearing or faulty transcriptions. The online version of the 1910 Census shows my mother (Margaret McCaskey) as Marguett Mccacbey.
Nicknames cause their own set of difﬁculties. Nellie Chase always used the name Nellie, but her given name could have been Nell, Helen, Eleanor, or even Ellen, as she turned out to be. My own brother had problems all his life explaining his name. My mother named him Jack. Just Jack. It was not a nickname, but people naturally assumed that his real name must have been John or Jacques or even James.
Family names change over time. A major culprit may be an immigration record, on which an ethnic name was written down as the closest English approximation. One branch of my father’s family bore the surname of Arendt in Germany. They arrived in America as Aurand. Their friends the Muellers became the Millers.
And then there’s my husband’s family. We are frequently told that our last name should be spelled “Schreiber.” Well, it originally was. The family story says that John Schreiber, who fought in the Civil War, found that his discharge papers had his name spelled wrong. He was given two choices. He could refuse the discharge and stay in the army. Or he could change his name to Schriber, take the discharge as written, and go home that day. He went home! And we’ve been Schribers ever since.
Or so they say! "Don't forget your dose of skepticism," warns the Second Mouse. For more tips, check out Chapter Five of The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese.