At a University of Maine commencement years ago, a good friend, Al, received his Ph.D. and was “hooded” by my husband, his adviser. When Al’s name was called he made his way painfully across the stage on crutches, losing his mortarboard on the way. The entire audience let out a spontaneous “Oh.” Al received the loudest applause of the afternoon.
It was obvious the audience’s collective heart was touched by this crippled lad who had fought to earn his Ph.D. It’s a touching story which today would go viral on the web. The only problem is that it wasn’t true. Al was on crutches because he broke his leg falling through the cover of an old well on April Fool’s Day — no kidding. But the audience assumed a much different scenario without any proof.
Genealogists also make assumptions and many times those assumptions lead us happily skipping down the primrose path, right down the rabbit hole, and far away from our ancestors. It’s easy to assume that a person with your ancestor’s name is your ancestor. We want to assume this is our man, but often the primrose path beckons. And it’s not just newbies to our hobby who get bamboozled by assumptions.
Consider, for example, the case of a book listing all known Maine men in the Revolutionary War. The author made a reasonable assumption that a man named Freeman Knowles of Hampden was the same Freeman Knowles who served during the war in the Machias area. Maine was thinly populated at the time so the author most certainly felt justified that there was only one Freeman Knowles to be found in Maine. But he was wrong.
There were actually two men with the same name, both with Cape Code roots, each married with seven children, and they were second cousins. The Freeman living in Hampden, my ancestor, isn’t credited with service during the Revolution, though he may have been in the local militia. The second Freeman who lived in Pleasant River, now Addison, was the one who answered calls of alarm at nearby Machias.
I did a great deal of research sorting out the Freemans, who most certainly never met and may not even have known of the other’s existence. I published an article in the Maine Genealogist detailing the path of my research and warning readers to be sure to prove the man with your ancestor’s name is really your ancestor.
My father had a truly unique name, Anthony Klimavicz. You would think it would be unlikely anyone else would have the same name, but Dad was named for his first cousin, another Anthony. I can’t begin to tell you how many times the post office mixed up the mail for the two families. And the census reveals there was a third Anthony living in the Chicago area at the same time. Luckily, we never got his mail.
Moral to my story: never assume, always verify, and make 100 percent sure the ancestor in question is really yours.
Nancy Battick is a Dover-Foxcroft native who has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds an MA in History from UMaine and lives in Dover-Foxcroft with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. You can contact Nancy at firstname.lastname@example.org.