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Collar Those Collaterals!

Focusing too tightly on specific people can mean missing important clues.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 1047 (approx.)
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When searching for information on our ancestors, it's easy to get so focused on the particular person or family, especially in a particular place or time, one may overlook information that could be found out by examining siblings, other relatives, or neighbors. A few illustrations will show what I mean.

The Baker's Suit

Recently a student came to me for help with a project. This involved a person (we'll call him Joe) buried in the city cemetery, and little other was found than one article about him in the newspaper index, showing Joe had sued a newspaper for printing information about him back in the 1890s. The city directories showed his occupation as a baker.

Not very informative or impressive, eh? Well, checking the directories further showed that Joe was living with siblings. The census backed this up. And when the location of the house was found on a plat map, it turned out to be a well-known mansion on the north side of town. Yes, Joe was a baker all right--one with a great deal of bread! The family was very well off, yet the directory information was not immediately indicative of their eminence at that time.

But here's where the collateral lines come in. By finding the parents' death information--remember, this was a project on the person, and not strictly a family tree--the parents' obituaries showed that indeed they had been prominent. The real kicker was sister Jane's obituary. Jane never married and lived with her brother her entire life. Her 20-column-inch obituary not only had information about her life and a few lawsuits of her own, but also the fact that she and her brother actually lived in Italy a lot. And when they came back to the States one time, what had happened to spark Joe's suits was that a young lady of dubious moral integrity, apparently claimed our subject had slipped a drug in her drink, with unintended consequences. She was found to be wrong and imprisoned. Joe was found not guilty and sued the journals of the time for claiming that he had acted less than honorably towards the damsel.

So by looking for the information which was available from alternative sources and about other family members, we found a great deal of information about the subject and the high (or low) point in his life.

But some cases are more prosaic. If you are trying to break the case and jump the Atlantic to find where your ancestor came from, this next case also could prove interesting.

Love and Marriage

A man (we'll call him Heinz) married at about age 25, and had several children with his wife. No surprises there. But wife #1 died in childbirth, and he remarried a young woman from his town, wife #2. Now, Heinz is about 30 or so, when he and wife #2 appear on the scene. They have no children, but since it's the 1820s she gets a house to live in exchange for being a wife and stepmother. Regrettably, wife #2 dies young. Now our hero still has young children.

But wait. A young lady (we'll call her Anne) of the same town had borne a son a couple of months before, during what seems to have been wife #2's last illness. Unlike all the rest of the women who gave birth outside of marriage in that place, Anne gives the name "unknown" for the father, which is somewhat unlikely in a village of 500, with only a small pool of young males available. And what does Anne do? She marries our hero and becomes wife #3, surviving another 50 years and having at least 3 more children, including those born in the U.S. And what of the son in question? Might he not have been the natural child of the couple, conceived while wife #2  was failing (it's been known to happen, a terminally ill spouse giving the other free rein to find companionship that he or she can no longer provide)?

The telling of the tale grows stronger with the situation that the son was given the father's name and was known as Junior his whole life. While no DNA test has been performed on the remains, it still is a tantalizing thought--especially for the descendant of that Junior, whom I know.

Okay. That situation shows a convoluted parentage. But how did we get to the records to find all this?

The family was German, living in Alsace, or Elsass if Germany owned it at the time. The records were in German or French depending on the administration.

The family was initially located in Buffalo, NY, and was always--for 100 years--Lutheran, mostly in the same church! Parish registers, obituaries, and even remembrance books signed at funeral showed the tightness of this clan.

The Junior referred to above dies in 1869, at age 37. Papa dies in 1872, aged 77. When wife #3 dies in 1888 at age 78, her notation in the church records reads, in German: a native of Niedersheim.

Simple, eh? Not so fast. Unable to locate Niedersheim, a town called Niederschaeffolsheim is located nearby. As the grandchildren got the dates wrong on the headstone when it was installed years later (their father had pre-deceased his parents), isn't it possible that when they gave Grandma's birth town, they misunderstood the name? Sure, that's the answer.

Except, when the films for Niederschaeffolsheim were examined, most families known to be from that group are not in them. And those are the civil records. Someone actually visited the village and found only a Catholic church. Since the family was Lutheran for 100 years on this side of the water, then this can't be right.

Enter the collaterals. Slowing down and looking for other relatives of the target individuals in Buffalo records, and for those who constantly witness the births, marriages and deaths of the family, leads to a series of entries naming a place known as Mietesheim. It's not too much of a jump to see where the name may have gotten somewhat mangled, though not to the point of losing several syllables. The films for the Mietesheim were examined, and the story of Heinz's second family is told.

Moral of these tales? Check out the information on the others in the family--don't just stick to the blood parents without looking beyond them.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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