Be suspicious of semi-famous people in your family tree – common genealogy mistakes


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 of this video is simple: 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. He was a colorful character,
exactly the kind of person you want in your family tree. He gives you great stories you can tell at Thanksgiving to explain why you spend
so much time researching dead people. 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. The full story of all those Jacob Sloughs is a topic for another day—suffice it to say that I spent two years researching every branch of the Slough family
in Pennsylvania to find William’s dad. Anyway, be suspicious!

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