By Eric Duran
One of my favorite core concepts of the field of genealogy is that of identity. When we think of the term identity we usually think of the ‘base’ facts that the governing officials use to distinguish you from every other person alive, such as the facts on your driver’s license; your name, general appearance, license number, etc. The only aspects of your identity that seem to matter are those that distinguish you from everyone else. After all, isn’t that the definition of identity? The identifiable nature of one person that makes them stand out from other people?
The answer to that question is both yes and no. Those details are very much a part of your identity, but they don’t tell the whole story. While there are many details of your identity that are not necessarily unique to only you, as your social security number is for example, there are many details, like your occupation or your hobbies that place you into a subset of humanity which makes you easier to locate from a researcher’s standpoint. This is where the concept ties very well into the field of genealogy. When searching for a given relative, your great-great grandfather for example, it’s easy to let the narrow and mistaken definition of ‘identity’ be the sole guidance to your search. We search for these ancestors by name, location, and age, using little else as evidence to locate them, and then become frustrated when his name doesn’t appear on a certain census, or when we can’t find a birth record in the correct time and place of his birth. These cases can be helped by broadening our definition of ‘identity’ and by forgetting the ‘concrete’ details of one’s identity in favor of searching for them by the ‘peripheral’ details of that person.
A convenient and common example is that of the misspelled name, a problem that anyone who even dabbles in genealogy will encounter frequently. If we hang on to the notion that a person’s name is the most or the only useful aspect of who they are, we can easily miss them due to a simple typo, misspelling, or to a recorder’s assumption.
I have recently been working on a case that involved a woman from South Carolina by the name of Rebecca. [More specific details are omitted for the sake of relatives still living] Rebecca was born in 1914, and I located her in the 1930 United States Federal Census at the age of 16. Here I noted her parents, whose names I had already gleaned from Rebecca’s death certificate, and some of the names of her siblings. The problem however was that in searching for Rebecca in the 1920 census I did not find her. She should have been 6 years old at that time, so why wasn’t she recorded at her parent’s home?
In studying the 1920 census, the family which I knew to be hers as they were at the same address, and bore the same names and ages as her siblings in the 1930 document, I came across a son, presumably a brother to Rebecca, whose name was ‘Baker.’ This young boy gave me a similar problem to Rebecca in that while he was here in 1920, I could not find him in the 1930 census. Another interesting detail is that this boy was six years old, the same age as Rebecca would have been at that time.
After some additional research I concluded that ‘Baker’ was actually ‘Becca,’ and that while the name was quite clearly recorded by the census enumerator as ‘Baker,’ and it was noted that Baker was male, this was beyond a reasonable doubt a mistake on the enumerator’s part. He had been told the name ‘Becca,’ but misheard the name as ‘Baker,’ and thus assumed it to be the name of a son. Rebecca was recorded in that document as a young boy named Baker and if we hadn’t known aspects of her identity beyond just her name, such as her family member’s names, address, and age, we could have made any number of assumptions as to her lack of appearance in the 1920 census, and would have never found her.
This case demonstrates the use of peripheral aspects of a person’s identity in researching them. Anything from a relative’s occupation, to their friend’s or neighbor’s names, to their hobbies can be used to locate them when the traditional and fundamental details about them are otherwise obscured. So I encourage you to learn as much as possible about your research subjects; you never know what seemingly insignificant detail could be the evidence you need to navigate the ‘roadblocks’ in your research.