10 April 2023

Death Certificates

Death certificates are an important source of information. They tell us when, where, and how a person died. In theory, death certificates may also tell the person's birth date and who their parents were. Some include additional information, such as occupation and spouse's name.

It is important to remember that this information was probably not provided by the deceased person. The person providing the information, known as the informant, is often named on the certificate. Typically, the informant is someone who knew the deceased well: a spouse or child. Sometimes a friend or neighbor does the job. If the deceased is extremely old or far from home, there may not be a good informant available, and the person completing the certificate has to rely on medical records (if they exist) or guesses. Many times, spaces on death certificates are filled with "unknown".

Even semmingly reliable informants are prone to mistakes. Children are sometimes mistaken about a parent's year of birth, and in many cases the child or spouse doesn't know the names of the deceased's parents. Worse yet, they may think they know something they don't really know. I have seen certificates where the "mother's maiden name" was actually her married name from a previous husband. Often, stepparents are listed instead of birth parents.

My uncle's name was Ted Burrell, and his father's name was Paul Burrell. His parents divorced when he was very small, and he never knew his father. His mother subsequently remarried. Ted died at age 45. His mother was the informant for his death crtificate. When asked his father's name, she said, "George". George Smith was her husband, Ted's stepfather. However, the name George on the death certificate led some researchers to believe Ted's father was George Burrell (a person who didn't exist).

When looking at a death certificate, it's helpful to know who the informant was. Unfortunately, even a seemingly reliable informant, like Ted's mother, can make innocent mistakes. I try to compare the information on the certificate to other information I already have, such as military records, census information, or a birth certificate.


03 March 2023

The Saga Never Ends

In 1874, John Bearse Newcomb (JBN) published Genealogical Memoir of the Newcomb Family. His goal was to document "nearly every person of the name in America from 1635 to 1874". He found a lot of people, but, of course, there were many he missed. Without computers or telephones, he had to rely on whatever public records were accessible at the time, along with correspondence and interviews with informants whose memories, spelling, and pronunciation were not always ideal. Nevertheless, his achievement was impressive. It became the foundation for most Newcomb research.

JBN identified three major lines of Newcombs, each from an English immigrant ancestor. These were Andrew (1616-1686), Frances (1605-1692), and Baptist (1640-1693). The Andrew line was, and still is, the largest by far. There are a few smaller lines, also English, quite a few who originate in Germany or Switzerland, and many Newcombs whose origin is unidentified.

In 1923, Bethuel Merritt Newcomb (BMN) published Andrew Newcomb and His Descendants: A Revised Edition of "Genealogical Memoir" of the Newcomb Family by John Bearse Newcomb. As the title indicates, BMN restricted himself to the Andrew line. Half a century after the original work, the number of Newcombs in America had multiplied to such an extent that updating them all would likely have been impossible without resources BMN did not have, such as a large staff of researchers and the Internet, which would not be available to the general public for another 50 years.

Naturally, JBN and BMN made mistakes. They someimes conflated people with similar names, and were occasionally led astray by false assumptions, bad handwriting, or the distorted memories of informants.

Today, computerized archives of historical information have made genealogical research much easier than it once was. Unfortunately, onine genealogy has also been complicated by the proliferation of bad information, which is often perpetuated more readily than accurate information. Even so, it has been possible for today's researchers to continue correcting and adding to the work of our predecessors, and we know more than ever about the Newcombs and their connected families.

I used to think I would publish an updated history of the Andrew line, but I recently realized that all the material I have would fill a 3000-page book. I'm not going to do it. It is possible that at some point I will publish a less ambitious work, containing only my direct line. In the meantime, I have continued to make my research available to others by posting family trees in online forums.


17 January 2023

John Bearse Newcomb 1824-1897

I've noticed that many careless researchers think that any man named John Newcomb is John Bearse Newcomb. This error is often combined with other incorrect information. I wonder sometimes if these people are really so careless, or if some are just deliberately lying to create confusion.

JBN, as many of us call him, was the author of A Genealogical Memoir of the Newcomb Family, published in 1874. He was born in 1824, the son of Obadiah Newcomb (1798-1840) and Molly Bearse (1795-1840). JBN married Arethusa Gould in 1850. Their son Andrew died the day he was born, and their daughter Foneta died unmarried at age 22. JBN has no descendants!

JBN's goal was to document every Newcomb in America. He couldn't do it. His work was amazing, but without access to the resources we have today, he missed a lot of people (as we still do), and occasionally made errors in identification. Nevertheless, his book is the best starting point for Newcomb researchers.

In 1923, JBN's distant cousin, Bethuel Merritt Newcomb (BMN), published an update to the genealogy, Andrew Newcomb and His Descendants. As the title indicates, BMN wasn't looking for every possible Newcomb, just the descendants of his own ancestor, Captain Andrew Newcomb. BMN was able to bring the work into the 20th century.

02 March 2022

No More Comments

Due to a flood of bizarre spam, I have had to disable commenting for a while.

16 December 2020

Unreliable Sources

I've been a member of Ancestry .com for years. It's a great source of information, via the many collections of records that have been digitized and made available for online reasearch.

However, not all records are equally good. As discussed previously, errors often creep into official records. Particularly faulty, it seems, are unofficial records. Ancestry allows users to upload their own family trees and share them with other members. Unfortunately, these trees are often filled with misinformation, lies, and fantasies. I limit my use of these trees to the records that are sourced, and then I check the source myself. Without a source, it seems that many of the people creating these trees are just inventing things.


11 November 2020

Reliable Sources

We tend to believe that certain sources of information are final authorities. Birth certificates, tombstones, newspaper announcements, "official" records of all kinds -- these seem accurate. Yet we often find contradictions and strange inaccuracies in these records. Why?


Most of us have had the experience of ordering food in a restaurant, only to get something different from what we were expecting. We don't always hear what other people think they are saying. This happens, not just in noisy restaurants, but in busy offices and everywhere people are trying to convey information to each other.

For example, my Aunt Ruth was born at home on 11 September 1900. Her father walked into town a couple of days later to officially report the birth to the County Clerk. The day he made the report was September 15, and that was the date that was put on her birth certificate. For the rest of her life, Ruth was annoyed by inaccurate, yet "official" information, despite her efforts to get the record corrected. Eighty-six years later, the Social Security Death Index included that wrong birth date, and of course it still appears in various databases derived from official records.

Bad Memory

Most people think they have accurate memories, but study after study has demonstrated that we don't remember things as well as we think we do. Was Uncle Pete's first wife named Shirley or Shannon? (Actually, it was Sharon.) How many children did that distant cousin have? (Grandma thinks there were five, but it just seemed that way because the three of them made so much noise running around with the neighbor kids.)

Assumptions and Guesses

Often, people think they know something they don't really know, just because it seems right. One of my contacts remembered all her grandmother's stories of growing up on a farm in Iowa, so she assumed Grandma was born in Iowa, and was frustrated at not being able to find her birth records. It turned out that Grandma had been born in Ohio, and the family moved to Iowa when she was little.

Death certificates are especially problematic, since the person in question isn't available to provide information. Often the informant is someone who doesn't really know the facts, and just guesses.


The thing people lie about most often seems to be age. Out of vanity, many people pretend to be younger than they are. In times past, young men sometimes claimed to be older, in order to join the military.

In many old documents, I've found divorced people who claimed to be widowed, people who misstated their marriage date in order to hide the fact that the bride was pregnant on her wedding day, teenagers who claimed to be 21 so they could marry without parents' permission, people listed as married even though they weren't, non-citizens who claimed they were born in the U.S., probably to avoid immigration and residence problems, and a vast array of petty deceptions over things that may heve felt important to someone at the time, but seem insignificant now.

General Confusion

Death certificates are often used as a source of information about a person's parents. Often, however, the informant provides the name of a stepparent rather than the biological parent. The mother's maiden name may be incorrect because she was married more than once and kept changing her name.

Bad handwriting, faded documents, and eroded tombstones lead to mistakes that spread to other sources. All too often, a 3 is mistaken for an 8, or entire words morph into something completely new.

Names don't get much respect. For some people, the order of first name, middle name is interchangeable. William John becomes John William, Willie J., or J.W. Exactness doesn't exist. Mariah might be rendered as Marie, Mary, Mary Ann, or Marian. Sometimes when a young child dies, the parents recycle the name to the next child. I once found a family that had four sons, all with the same name, each one named after a deceased predecessor. One of my ancestors was named Simon and had a brother named Simeon. Even during their lifetimes, the similarity of their names caused confusion. Decades later, family historians couldn't keep them straight, and often thought they were the same person.


I have found family trees that show people who died prior to birth, people who married after death, people who married their own great-grandparents, and many other absurdities. Mistakes like these are typically caused by typos that weren't corrected, or confusing two people with similar names. It surprises me a bit that so many people just mindlessly copy these things and pass them on.

What to Do?

When faced with conflicting facts, I try to pick the one that seems the most likely in context. A document where the person wrote his own name seems more authoritative than one where someone else filled out a form. Doing the math helps. If the record indicates that a woman gave birth at age 84, I know there's a mistake. If someone has a 60-year-old woman who lived her whole life in Indiana suddenly married to a 20-year-old in Alaska, I'm skeptical. If two pieces of information seem equally likely, I list both as possible alternates. If I can't make sense of something that seems crazy, I write notes explaining the problem.

Check, double check, triple check.


19 December 2017

Avoiding Genealogy Mistakes

According to Legacy Family Tree some of the top genealogy mistakes are believing family myths, believing that family trees online are accurate, thinking that people with the same name are the same person, and believing that all original family records are accurate.

When I first started researching my family history, I made some of these mistakes, and had to go to a lot of work later to correct them. I have also corresponded with people researching lines that are connected to mine, and learned that many of them have run into problems as a result of mistakes like this.
  • Family Myths
For many people, the family legend that they have Native American ancestry is a source of pride. Many families think they are descended from, or closely related to, certain well-known historical figures. Others have an interesting but undocumented story about an ancestor's adventures, achievements, or crimes.

The origin of these stories is usually unknown, but they have been passed along for several generations, and are accepted as true. Until someone starts looking for proof and discovers that there is no truth behind the myth.

Now that DNA testing has become accessible, it is fairly easy to find out something about one's geographic or ethnic background. In some cases it is also possible to use DNA information to find living relatives who can provide important information. Other beliefs need to be tested through careful research.
  • Online Trees
Unfortunately, many people post family trees online without checking to see whether they are true. They may have believed an old family myth. They may have copied their information from someone else who didn't do accurate research. They may have connected people with similar names who aren't really connected. They may have accidentally inserted typing mistakes which then get copied and perpetuated by others. In some cases, they haven't even applied basic logic (such as listing someone with a death date before their birth date).

When using family trees or anecdotes posted online by other people, take a good, hard look at their sources. Did this information come from reliable sources? Can you reproduce some or all of their research. If they don't list sources, it's better not to use the information unless you can verify it yourself.
  • Same Name, Same Person?
This one can be crazy-making. It's not at all unusual to find several people with similar names, all about the same age, all living in the same area. Even a name that seems very unusual may have been used by more than one person. Sometimes cousins will have the same name because they were named after the same ancestor. A nephew may have been named after his uncle. Just checking to see if their parents, spouses, or children also had similar names doesn't always help. It's not that unusual to find several men named William or John who were the sons of men named William or John, and who all had wives named Sarah or Mary. I've seen cases where people thought a father and son were the same person because they had the same name and married women with similar names. I found one instance where a woman divorced her husband and married his father, who had the same name!

It's important to take discrepancies seriously. Different birth dates, different professions, different family structures -- any differences at all should be thoroughly investigated before assuming that this John Smith is really the same as that John Smith.
  • Original Family Records
Family Bibles are often seen as authoritative sources for information. Often they are. But in many cases they are inaccurate, because the person recording the information made mistakes. Often, events like marriages and births were not written down as they occurred, but were listed much later, from memory.

People sometimes write the wrong dates (or even the wrong names) on the back of photos because they are working from a flawed memory -- or just guessing. Marriage and birth announcements sometimes have intentionally fudged dates. Letters are prone to all the same mistakes (and sometimes deliberate deceptions) as anything else. Death certificates contain information supplied by informants who may not really know what they think they know. Even grave stones have been found to have wrong information carved on them.

Again, research is the key. Compare family records with official records, and compare several different sources with each other.