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.