My first encounter with indirect evidence

Professional genealogist Claudia Breland, in her blog post “In Which I First Encounter Indirect Evidence,”[1] describes the discovery of her great-grandmother’s parents using the marriage record of her great-grandmother’s brother. Claudia’s example perfectly illustrates one of the most common forms of indirect evidence.

It got me thinking. What was my first encounter with indirect evidence?

Back in 1997, when I was just 20 years old, I discovered the Rootsweb mailing lists. I promptly began to send out queries for my surnames. One of these was a Smith family in Suffolk County, New York (Long Island). I corresponded with a few fellow researchers, but the brickwall on this line was a man named Jesse Smith who lived in Coram, in the Town of Brookhaven, Suffolk County.

On one summer evening in 1998 I received an email that sounded promising, from a researcher on Long Island named Ned Smith:

Barbara [surname withheld] forwarded to me a copy of her email re Jesse Smith of Coram, since she knows that another researcher and I are working to sort out all the Smiths of early Suffolk County, Long Island[.]

We do not have evidence on his ancestry unfortunately. An earlier researcher, Dr. Frederick K. Smith (fl 1930s) who studied many of the Smith families in Suffolk, conjectured that Jesse may have been the son of James Smith of Coram (b. say 1910) but he was just making a guess and had no evidence that we know of.[2]

Throughout the next several months, Ned and I wrote back and forth. I shared what little information I had on the family–mostly consisting of information of his children and his wife. And he in turn provided me with a lot of information from local Suffolk County historical societies and genealogy collections in public libraries. Much of this was previous research conducted in the 1930s and 1950s, of course all of it undocumented.

Finally, on the day after Christmas 1998, I received another email from Mr. Smith:

I got a little present from Lady Luck a few days before Christmas-the first real clue I have ever seen re Jesse Smith’s ancestry. It is not proof, just an indication. But, as I said, it is the first I have come across. If it is reliable it looks as if Frederick K. Smith’s conjecture was right; that Jesse was another son of James Smith of Coram ….

Last Wednesday I was at the County Clerk’s Record Room, basically just killing time until the County Historical Society opened. For lack of anything better to do I started browsing through what are called Deeds in Partition- where someone has asked the courts to fairly divide up lands held in common by two or more people, if they cannot agree amongst themselves. One section was in regard to dividing up the estate of Elisha Hammond, Sr. of Coram. Among his landholdings was one described as being “part of the eastern half of Lot 45… purchased by Elisha Hammond Sr. from Jesse and James Smith, by deed bearing date of March 1787″. That deed is not among those recorded at the County Clerk’s, and I have not seen it in any collection of unrecorded deeds. The brief mention in this partition suit may be the only surviving trace of it.

Its significance lies in the implication that Jesse and James Smith were joint owners of land. The most likely reason would be that they were brothers who had jointly inherited. A son would not normally be a joint owner with his father- either he would not get the land until his father’s death, or his father would deed it to him outright. Thus I do not believe the James cited would have been Jesse’s eldest son James (furthermore that James was probably still a minor in 1787 and not executing deeds). It is most likely the co-grantor was James Smith, Jr., of Coram, and if Jesse was a brother, then his father must have been James Smith, Sr., just as Frederick K. Smith conjectured.[3]

Though this was not enough evidence on which to base a reliable conclusion, it was my first contact with what would be termed indirect evidence. No relationships are stated in this deed of partition, but its reference to an earlier deed that may no longer exist definitely serves as indirect evidence of a relationship between Jesse and James Smith.

The light bulb went off over my head when I read this email. I did not yet know that this was called “indirect evidence,” but I knew that it was evidence. I knew that it did not explicitly state the relationship that it implied. And recognizing this changed the way that I searched for evidence from then forward.

What was your first encounter with indirect evidence? I would love to read about these “light bulb” moments from other bloggers. If you write about it, please leave a link to your blog post in the comments below. Or feel free to tell your tale in the comments, if you do not have your own blog.

SOURCES:

[1] Claudia Breland, “In Which I First Encounter Indirect Evidence,” Genealogy and Life blog, posted 11 Sep 2011 (http://www.ccbreland.com/genealogy-and-life.html : accessed 11 Sep 2011).

[2] Ned Smith, St. James, New York [(E-ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE),] to Michael Hait, e-mail, 29 July 1998, “Jesse Smith of Coram,” privately held by Hait, [(E-ADDRESS), & STREET ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE], Harrington, Delaware, 2011.

[3] Ned Smith, St. James, New York [(E-ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE),] to Michael Hait, e-mail, 26 December 1998, “Jesse Smith,” privately held by Hait, [(E-ADDRESS), & STREET ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE], Harrington, Delaware, 2011.

If you would like to cite this post: Michael Hait, CG, “My first encounter with indirect evidence,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 19 Sep 2011 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

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3 responses to this post.

  1. My very first attempts at genealogy in high school dealt with indirect evidence, when I tried to prove a family myth. Thirty years later I am still putting this branch of my family tree together with indirect evidence since the original vital records do not exist. It prompted my very first blog post http://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2009/07/hawaii-boston-connection-to-royal.html and if you click on the key word HAWAII you can follow the research trail to today. I’ve worked directly with curators, archivists and family members in Hawaii and Boston, reading letters, deeds and newspapers, which all support my family tree with indirect evidence. Thirty years later I’m still waiting for that primary source proof.

    Reply

  2. Posted by L. H. "Larry" Head, Jr. on September 19, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    Michael, great post on several levels.

    You and your correspondent were v. astute (particularly at your young age) to recognize (1) the value of land records generally; and (2) to grasp the implications of joint ownership.

    I got “serious” about genealogy as a youngster, myself (age 23). But unlike you, I ignored land records for a long time–to my great detriment. And when I finally began using them, I was hindered.

    In my naivete, I wanted the record to make an explicit statement; e.g., that X, Y, and Z were the children of A. In the absence of such a statement, I did not allow myself to trust the evidence.

    I wallowed in despair until I found explicit statements about the VALUE of indirect evidence (e.g., by competent authorities such as Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D.).

    And, thanks to your first pull quote, I added to my vocabulary: flourit (abbr. fl).

    So, in a word, bravo.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Sharon Sergeant on September 20, 2011 at 6:02 am

    Cause for reflection. Indirect evidence is a path to further evidence (direct or indirect) on the “target.” Thanks for the reminder.

    Reply

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