Telling Strangers Your Life Story, or Why Not to Go Whole Hog on Census Records

Genealogists are magicians. Don’t believe me? Watch as I make my Aunt Barbara disappear before your eyes!

In my ongoing search to learn about my grandfather, Ralph James‘s life, I came across a newspaper article that stated the date of his first marriage to Gladys Hooker. With the discovery of that date came an intriguing story problem:

If Gladys and Ralph married in 1931 and, according to the 1940 census, their first born daughter was born in 1928, then was [their first child] Barbara born out of wedlock or was she some other man’s baby girl?

First let’s all run back to that census record excerpt:

Screen shot 2014-09-15 at 3.54.32 PM

Thanks to the Interwebz, I discovered my answerBarbara Schmidt announcement quickly AND gained another source on Gladys’s family. It seems Gladys had been married before, and that my Aunt Barbara’s last name wasn’t really James. She was no relation to me. (Presto! The author takes a bow.) Why the discrepancy? Well, think of it from Ralph’s perspective:

A stranger knocks on your door. He takes off his fedora as you greet him; he carries a clipboard. You think you are in for a sales pitch on the benefits of owning encyclopedias, but you let him in and offer him a cup of coffee anyway. He explains he’s a census taker and must ask you personal questions about your family and your life. It is all for the sake of government data at a time when the world is at war, so you oblige.

One of his questions is “What are the names of each person who regularly resides here?” You begin with facts about yourself, then your wife. You say your step-daughter’s name. You see the census taker write down your last name as hers. Do you explain? Before you decide, he’s already asking you other questions. He probably has many other households to get through today, and besides, Barbara’s father isn’t in the picture. She may as well have your last name. You leave it alone.

It’s understandable, yes?

But now I don’t completely trust what’s on the census record. How do I know little Geraldine is truly RA Daughter - Jerry Jamesalph’s daughter? I continue looking in the newspaper archives until I find it, my half-aunt’s birth announcement on February 12, 1932. There’s still the ordering of the birth certificate to deal with, but chances are it’s true.

That is, until I find this record:
first divorce announcement

Story problem #2: A newspaper article and a census record support the fact that Geraldine James was born February 11, 1932. Another article claims that her parents were married 8 months before little Jerry arrived. A third article (see last week’s post) claims her parents were married 11 months before. The articles also disagree on the location of Gladys and Ralph’s nuptials. So, which date and place are right, and is Ralph Jerry’s father?

Read the next installment of this story.

 

Confused? Start at the beginning of this series.

All sources for the documents mentioned can be found here.

Looking for a more formal biography of my ancestors? Whoo hoo! I thought of that, too.

 

 

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “Telling Strangers Your Life Story, or Why Not to Go Whole Hog on Census Records

  1. Oh, yes there is intrigue and cool stories in everyone’s family. And, yes, life is messy. I am looking forward to the next installment of this story of yours.

  2. It’s interesting to see this turn of events unfolding. There’s some intrigue in my family tree, too, yet none of us has investigated it.

      1. “Life is messy. Genealogy is the proof.” Love that! It could be the tagline of your blog. My great grandmother supposedly left Ireland for America after her negligence led to a baby’s drowning. I have no idea whether some research could turn up some facts. Probably not.

      2. There would probably be tons of documentation on that. Probate, newspapers. That would be one of the easier stories to prove. Thanks for reading, Marcy!

    1. Thanks, Daniel. My dedication to research is the easy part. I like history and I like my family. Finding ways to present it in an interesting way to people who aren’t connected is what I struggle with. Hopefully I’m improving.

Tell me about it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s