In genealogy/family history, we discover a lot of details about a lot of people—more for some than for others. Some lines have all the census records found, we know where they lived, we have photos, letters, stories passed down, church records, civil records; and we know where the bodies are buried. Their i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. Life is good.
Then there are the families where the facts are sketchy, at best. We have bare-bones information based on Aunt Millie’s memories of who was who, when they were born, where they lived, and so on. There’s a great deal of uncertainty associated with that data, but it provides a starting point for our research. We search for census records; birth, marriage, and death records; directories; whatever we can find to corroborate or refute our information. We are bloodhounds, hot on the scent of our prey.
So what happens when new information pops up on one of the established, documented lines? When a gap suddenly appears in the foundation of the family?
And NO, this has nothing to do with DNA. Not all genealogy surprises come from spitting in a tube!
Anyway, my foundations were shaken in mid-March. I had gone to the Find A Grave memorial for my great grandpa, Frank Haws. I must have been working on the Popular blog, focusing on his wife, Anna Bruder Haws. I have my own photos of Frank’s and Anna’s tombstones, so I don’t know if I’d ever looked for them on Find A Grave—possibly not. Imagine my surprise to find an unknown son and another spouse connected to Frank!
I nearly fell out of my chair.
My immediate reaction was, “Well, that’s just wrong!” Frank and Anna had 6 children, I knew who they all were, with two of them (John and Teresa) connected to Frank’s Find A Grave memorial. It couldn’t possibly be right. Finally, my brain kicked in and I looked more closely at my “new” grand uncle, “Joe.”
SPOILER ALERT! Bottom line, “Joe” was not a child of my Frank, and Joe’s mother, “Susie” was not Frank’s wife, partner, or anything else. It took some work to reach that conclusion. Since these people are not related to me, I’m not using their real names. The “Frank” who was Joe’s father will be “Frank2” to distinguish him from my great grandfather. Using names will make the explanation easier to follow, though. The only actual names are the two Franks.
Back to my dilemma. I was staring at my screen, mouth open, shaking my head, and sputtering under my breath. I looked at Joe’s memorial. I looked at Susie’s. She had remarried later, having more children with that husband. Who were these people, and did they belong in my tree? I was still bewildered.
Joe was born in 1882 in Minnesota, three years before Frank and Anna got married. We still have not found Frank in the 1880 census. Could he have gone to Minnesota, sown some wild oats, and fathered a child there? Then come back to Wisconsin and start up a new family? It wasn’t a particularly attractive scenario, but I couldn’t dismiss the possibility.
Birth and death years for both Franks were slightly off:
- Frank, 1858 to 1933
- Frank2, 1860 to 1929
I was confident about my great grandfather’s dates, but without sources for Frank2, I had no idea if those were accurate or not. The date discrepancy didn’t provide conclusive evidence, for me, that the two men were different.
Proving that Frank wasn’t the father of Joe might not be possible. The 15-year gap in his timeline was problematic. The surname spelling variations proved nothing—I’ve found at least five versions of Frank’s surname on different documents. But could I prove Frank2 was elsewhere while Frank was farming in Wisconsin and raising his kids? Maybe.
I contacted my cousin, Barb, to see if she had seen or knew anything about this. She is the only other person researching this family line, and is my go-to person for weird finds. She was equally puzzled.
Lacking time right then to sort out everything, I left open all the tabs of what I’d found, to come back to. It took nearly a month—April 15th—before I forced myself to deal with it. I’d gotten tired of looking at the tabs, and realized the quandry wouldn’t go away by itself.
I started with Joe, trying to nail down his details. I found an Ancestry tree with Joe, Susie, Susie’s 2nd husband, and Joe’s father, Frank Haas (Frank2). Some facts there seemed to line up with what I saw on Find A Grave; others gave me the willies. In addition to the memorial for Joe in a California cemetery (near where he died), the tree also attached a memorial using his stepfather’s surname, in Indiana. It’s difficult (though not impossible!) to be in two cemeteries at once, but with two different names? I’m pretty sure the Indiana memorial was a different man.
Nevertheless, the profile for Frank2 listed facts similar to, but not quite matched to Frank’s details:
—John and Elizabeth —but not the Nachtwey surname of my 2nd great grandmother
—Wisconsin. Frank2 was born in Sheboygan, nearby, but certainly not Manitowoc.
- 1860 census listed his age at 6 months. Census records have notoriously inaccurate ages, but no enumerator would confuse a 2-year-old and a 6-month old! This census listed also him as “Joseph”
—his middle name in the birth record (next list).
- By 1880, Frank2’s father had died, and several children had moved out of the house, but Frank2 was in the county where his marriage occurred and Joe was born
- The 1883 marriage certificate image for Frank2 and Susie, in Clay County, 17 months after Joe’s birth. That marriage was short-lived, and no divorce record found yet. Susie’s second marriage took place around 1885, but that record is still missing.
The marriage record image for Frank2 and Susie included in that tree was extremely important. It was a record not available at Ancestry, so must have been acquired from the county or state. While it proved Susie married a Frank Haas, it didn’t disprove my Frank. Parents’ names weren’t provided, neither were age or birth year. I set about looking for missing records to fill the gaps for Frank2 and found:
- Wisconsin, Births and Christenings Index, 1801-1928 documented his 15 January 1860 birth (with parents, including mother’s maiden name, listed), name: Francis Josephus Haass (providing the “Joseph” recorded in the census).
- 1870 census placed the family (surname misspelled) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, with Frank2’s 3 older brothers and 4 younger siblings
- 1875 Minnesota census seemed to have the family in Clay County (their location in 1880), despite some variations in first names. The kids’ ages lined up
—quite a feat with 9 kids! —so the couple red herrings among the names could be explained by middle and nicknames common in German families.
- 192o census placed Frank2 where he should be, in Minnesota.
- 1929, the county death register was viewable at FamilySearch. Same location as 1920 census.
While there were still some gaps in Frank2’s timeline, I felt I had amassed enough information to plead my case that Frank should not be attached as Joe’s father. I created an account at Find A Grave (one is needed to send messages), suggested the disconnect of Joe and Frank, and typed my explanation. It was a text box contained on the website, and you know how those sometimes have a character limit. I didn’t know if that was the case, so I was trying to write a Cliff Notes version of the explanation, hoping not to run out of room.
It all fit, and I sent it off. A reply came back fairly quickly from the manager of Joe’s memorial. She had forwarded my message to someone else in the family, and copied that reply. It was clear the other person misunderstood some of my explanation, though they DID confirm the 1920 census and death register were the correct ones for Frank2. Bottom line, they thought I was all wet.
I still thought I was right, but realized the first message was a bit muddled. I’d give it one more try. My reply was very polite, but this time I put more emphasis on the idea that if Frank2 was in Minnesota at the same time Frank was farming in Wisconsin, they had to be two different people. If Frank2 was Joe’s father, then Frank couldn’t be. The memorial was not under my control
—I could suggest edits, but control of it ultimately was theirs. My concern was inaccurate information that would send their (or my) family members down the wrong research path, if it was left uncorrected. But it was their call.
I received a reply conceding Frank and Frank2 were different, so she would remove Joe’s connection to Frank, and do further research into where Frank2 was buried.
My great grandfather’s memorial has been corrected; no extra grand uncle is lurking about. So why did I bother with this situation? I don’t manage any of the memorials for family members, nor do I have oodles of time to suggest edits to all of them. Frank and Anna still have only two of their six children connected to their memorial, so it’s certainly not “perfect.”
Find A Grave is secondary information, at best. Its accuracy is dependent on the research done by each manager. It can be a goldmine, with obituaries, photos, or death certificates included; or it can be bare-bones. Like online trees, it’s a source of hints, helping us find actual records to support the “facts” listed in the memorial.
Joe’s connection was simply wrong. If someone came to Frank’s memorial and saw Joe, and didn’t do any checking, they might add incorrect people to their tree, creating a mess. In my mind, wrong information on a site people use for research is far more dangerous than missing information. I felt it was worth the effort to try to clean up a mistake I was aware of. Keep in mind, when I started, I went in search of MY Frank
—to see if he could have possibly been the father. It wasn’t until I’d found enough records for Frank2, that I knew Frank was in the clear.
What about the two Ancestry trees I viewed? Both had some incorrect information, or at least wrongly attached sources. One had Frank2 buried in Dayton, Ohio! Maybe he was buried in a family plot back east? I researched the man from that Find A Grave memorial, too, and discovered his wife, children, and census records. He had never been in Minnesota; certainly didn’t die there. The tree owner had grabbed a same-name, similar death date memorial, and assumed it was correct. Oops.
But I am not the genealogy police. I can’t go around checking everyone’s tree. I occasionally make a change on the FamilySearch tree, but it’s a shared tree, not personal. Common knowledge and common sense tell us not to blindly accept everything we see on any tree. We read that in blogs and articles, and hear it in webinars. So I make use of the sources that are correct, and ignore the others. And I choose my battles carefully.
After all that research, I still have a gap for Frank between 1870 and 1885, but at least some of the uncertainty has been removed!