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  • How Many Records for One Event are Enough?

    Sally Dean Hamblin Hill

    Published Date : October 8, 2004

    When doing research in New England it is tempting to rest on one’s laurels after finding a copy of an ancestor’s birth, baptismal, marriage, or death record. But what happens when you find more than one record, and what if the versions contradict each other? When is it time to stop looking? Perhaps never. It is my belief that you can’t have too many versions of a particular event, and valuable clues are hidden in those contradictions. A few examples follow; some are taken from families on which I am currently working. I would always be glad to hear from other researchers working on the same families.

    Several years ago I started researching my ancestor, William Walker, of Boston and Dorchester, Massachusetts, and his wife, Elizabeth. They had five children born in Dorchester, including a daughter, Mary Walker, from whom I am descended. In Volume 68 (1914) of The New England Historical and Genealogical Register are published some of the records of baptisms at the First Parish Church of Dorchester. Included is the record of William’s son, John Harmon Walker, who was baptized on May 22, 1785[i]. I suspected that perhaps the name John Harmon was a clue to the unknown maiden name of William’s wife, Elizabeth. I searched all Harmon families but could not find an Elizabeth Harmon that fit.

    In reading Edgar Yates’s introduction to the Register article, I learned that these baptisms were actually recorded by a parishioner of the church, Samuel Withington Jr., between 1748 and 1792. The original book kept by the minister during this period was lost. The interesting story of how these baptism records were found and published is also told in the introduction.[ii] So these baptisms are not the recordings of the minister who performed them, but a fellow parishioner who happened to be there. I am certainly glad that he did, but his accuracy might have been less than that of the minister’s. This book of Withington’s is in the NEHGS manuscript collections.[iii]

    Thinking that the original records may be more helpful, I ordered the microfilm version of the Records of the First Parish Church of Dorchester, Massachusetts, from the Family History Library. I was happy to find records for four of William and Elizabeth’s five children, and all matched the printed version in the Register. The film appears to be that of a handwritten copy done about 1900.[iv]

    A birth record for a John Hannon Walker born to William and Elizabeth Walker is found in the published vital records of Dorchester, the Holbrook Collection of Massachusetts Vital Records, and the International Genealogical Index. The Holbrook Collection was closest to the original, being a photographic copy of the original town book. It read: “John Hannon Walker the son of William & Elizabeth Walker was born May 18th, 1785.[v]

    So was his name John Harmon or John Hannon Walker? I knew that this son had died at age thirteen, so I had earlier dismissed him in my research. My ancestress was his sister, Mary, whose baptism I never found at all. However, I had a feeling that this middle name Hannon was the key to the whole puzzle, so I began a search for a John Hannon to see if he perhaps had a daughter named Elizabeth.

    I was delighted when I found a record of a John Hannon marrying an Elizabeth Gore in the Boston vital records![vi] The thought that a child would be named after a deceased first husband never occurred to me. However, the timing was right, and I soon discovered that Elizabeth Gore had married William Walker about a year after her first husband, John Hannon, died in May of 1781.[vii] Norfolk and Suffolk county deeds later proved that William Walker sold property that had previously belonged to John Hannon. Once I knew which family to search, Elizabeth’s whole Gore ancestry opened up. From this experience I learned to seek out every reference to a birth, baptism, marriage, or death I could find for every member of the family in question - even if they died young. I also learned that it was fairly common in those days to name a child after a deceased earlier spouse.

    In retrospection, if I had looked at the Holbrook Collection of Vital Records first, I would have saved myself a lot of time. But hindsight is 20/20, as we know.

    In another case, the records of the Second Church of Boston, which has several versions extant, helped me prove a theory I had. The objects of my research were the children of Jane (Coller) (Walker) (Caswell) Ross. I knew from Boston vital records that Jane Coller had married Thomas Walker on January 2, 1706.[viii] Thomas Walker must have died between 1710 and 1714, as Jane (Coller) Walker married Francis Caswell on November 2, 1714.[ix] Only one of Jane’s children has a surviving birth record; Thomas Walker was born to Thomas and Jane Walker on January 7, 1710. [x] (I have noted Jane’s ancestry briefly in The American Genealogist 78.)[xi]

    Searching the NEHGS CD-ROM, Records of the Churches of Boston, I found a record of a baptism at the Second Church of Boston on August 1, 1725, for four children of Jane Caswell: John, Thomas, Coller, and Hannah.[xii] I suspected that this recorded the baptism of John and Thomas Walker, and Coller and Hannah Caswell - all on the same day. I was sure the first two children were Walkers, but I needed to find more evidence of my theory.

    I ordered the microfilm of the Second Church of Boston records from the Family History Library, and in this version, I found an annotated printed list of the baptisms, which had these children as:

    Caswell, John, Thomas, Coller and Hannah children of Jane Caswell [bapt.] 1 August 1725.[xiii]

    I later determined that this list was from a book about the history of the Second Church written by one of its ministers.[xiv] Also in this microfilm was a copy of the records of admissions and baptisms written in alphabetical order. Judging by the handwriting, this copy appeared to be made in about 1900, and obviously was not a true copy of the originals, either. From the book An Inventory of the records of the Particular (Congregational) Churches of Massachusetts Gathered 1620-1805, by Harold Worthley, I learned that the actual records were held by the Massachusetts Historical Society, and I decided to check the originals.[xv]

    This was not as simple as I thought it would be. The records consist of various copies made at different times by several people. The original book of baptisms for 1725 is lost. However, a version made in 1741 was among the records, and it confirmed what I suspected.[xvi] The earliest version of this baptism read:

    [1725]

    August 1: John, Thos, Collar, Hannah

    Of Jane Caswel

    No last name for these children is stated, so the indexer of the copied records assumed they were all Caswells. Further research in Suffolk County Court Records has proved that Thomas Walker and Coller Caswell were in business together as shipwrights in Boston, and both married and left issue.

    In another example, the marriage of William Hart and Harriet Rand on December 30, 1816, by the Rev. Daniel Sharp, is recorded in the Holbrook Collection of Boston Vital Records.[xvii] The marriages performed by Rev. Sharp were also published in the Register in 1934. The Register version notes that both bride and groom were of Boston at the time of their wedding, and that Rev. Sharp was the minister at the Charles Street Baptist Church.[xviii] Harriet being a Baptist may explain why there is no baptism record for her in Boston. From family papers her birth date is stated as June 16, 1794. No public record of her birth or parentage has yet been found. But at least now I know she was of Boston at the time of her marriage.

    Sometimes diaries give us first hand information that may supersede published vital records. Jonathan Willis, in his diary entry of May 11, 1746, mentioned that it was the tenth anniversary of his marriage to Mary Eliot, even though Boston vital records give the date of May 12.[xix] One would assume that Jonathan was correct, and the later date marked the recording of the marriage. Transcriptions of diaries can be found in periodicals and books, and the manuscripts themselves are often kept in the collections of historical societies. It’s certainly worth a search to see if your ancestor, or maybe a relative or neighbor, kept a diary and recorded everyday events.

    These are a few examples of how important it is to seek out all available versions of a birth, marriage, or death record. These may be found in published vital records, collections such as the Holbrook Collection, church records, periodicals, family Bibles, diaries, and later on in newspapers as well. Many expert genealogists believe baptism records are generally more reliable than vital records. But this was not the case for John Hannon Walker. Careful comparison between the various versions may give a researcher a new clue to follow. When at all possible, search for the original record, or, if it no longer exists, find the earliest copy available. It is well worth the time and effort involved.



    [i] " Dorchester First Church Baptisms" The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 68 (1914):316 [Page 75 of original record reads, "(1784) May 22nd (of) William Walker son John Harmon Walker"].

    [ii] Register 68(1914):215

    [iii] Samuel Withington, "Baptisms at Dorchester, Mass. 1748-1781," manuscript at the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections Department, NEHGS, Boston. (Mss A 3271).

    [iv] "First Church, (Dorchester, Mass.)" [FHL, 856696, item 1] This record had John Harmon Walker also.

    [v] Jay Holbrook, Holbrook Collection of Massachusetts Vital Records, [microfiche at the American Antiquarian Society, Dorchester], also [Twenty-first] Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston Containing Dorchester Births, Marriages, and Deaths to the End of 1825 (Boston, Rockwell & Churchill, 1890):198.

    [vi] [Thirtieth] Report of the Record Commissioners of Boston Containing Boston Marriages from 1752 to 1809 (Boston: Municipal Printing Office, 1903):402 "John Hannon and Elizabeth Gore July 1, 1773"

    [vii] Suffolk County Probate, Docket 17450, 80: 292, 509. "Elizabeth Hannons appointed executrix of the estate of her husband John Hannons, of Dorchester." The marriage of William Walker and Elizabeth (Gore) Hannon has no record extant, but proved through deeds.

    [viii] [Twenty-Eighth] Report of The Record Commissioners of the City of Boston, Containing the Marriages from 1700 to 1751 (Boston: Municipal Printing Office, 1898):17

    [ix] ibid., 50

    [x] Holbrook Collection of Massachusetts Vital Records; fiche 27

    [xi] Sally Dean Hamblen Hill, "Stephen and Hannah (Place) Talby of Boston, Massachusetts: With Notes on Hannah Sunderland, Wife of Matthew Armstrong and Abraham Gording of Boston." The American Genealogist 78 (2003):256

    [xii] Robert J. Dunkle and Ann S. Lainhart, The Records of the Churches of Boston CD-ROM (Boston: NEHGS, 2001), Second Church records indexed under "Caswell, Jane."

    [xiii] "Church Records, 1676-1816", (Second Church of Boston, Mass.) [FHL 0856699, item 2].

    [xiv] Chandler Robbins, A History of the Second Church, or Old North, in Boston (Boston, John Wilson & Son, 1852): appendix, 235 The author states that he is indebted to the skill and kindness of Mr. Thomas B. Wyman, junior for the "tabular arrangement" of the names, (i.e.: the alphabetical by family group). Which volumes of the records Wyman used is not stated.

    [xv] Harold Field Worthley, An Inventory of the Records of the Particular (Congregational) Churches of Massachusetts Gathered 1620-1805 (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1970):58-62.

    [xvi] "Boston Second Church Records," Vol. 8, Baptisms and Admissions, 1650-1741, 1741-1808. Massachusetts Historical Society Manuscript Collection

    [xvii] Holbrook Collection of Massachusetts Vital Records, "Boston Marriages 1800-1849," fiche 190

    [xviii] Register 88 (1934):277

    [xix]  D. Brenton Simons, "The Journal of Jonathan Willis: Extracts From the Diary of a Boston Housewright, 1744-1747" Register 157 (2003):331; 158 (2004): 139. The footnote on page 331 of Volume 157 says 10 May, but the diary entry on page 139 of volume 158 has 11 May.

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