Hand in Hand: Critical Thinking Skills and Ancestry Research

This seems like a pretty obvious point to make, doesn’t it?  But you’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t be?) the sorts of craziness I see while browsing records on Ancestry.com.  As I am still in the process of tracing my own family lines back to their arrival dates, I occasionally find rather bizarre items on other family trees made by casual hobbyists that make me scratch my head.  It reminds me that doing family research has to be tedious and time consuming and it must require a good deal of fact-checking and debunking–these are actions that, at the very basic level, require some ability to think critically about the source material; and a dose of skepticism doesn’t hurt.

The catalyst to writing this blog post was what I’ve recently witnessed from other hobbyists with a member of my tree who is obscured by time: Joh(a)n Peter Edelman.

Now very little documentation exists about his life.  In fact, so little exists it has me wondering if the name itself is even correct; that is to say, was there really a ‘Johan Peter Edelman’ at this time living in PA?  Could it be that the name of the father of Susanna Edelman (my 6th great grandmother)  is merely a concoction of family rumor and misinformation?

Now let me be clear, there was someone recorded with the name ‘John Peter Edelman’; shows up as a head of household in the early 1760’s in Forks Township, Northampton County–to my knowledge this is not available on Ancestry.com, I found it in a book on the township.  But that’s it.  I haven’t located any church records, nor have I found any census records which might give some level of security or trust that the said name wasn’t just an accidental clerical error on the part of the author of the book, the census taker, the German accent of this individual, etc….

And it’s not just the lack of documented history; the real dilemma here is that there are two Johan Peter Edelman’s (assuming the John Peter Edelman of Forks Township existed), but they did not live near each other.  One lived in North Carolina while the other lived in Pennsylvania.  But this distance has not stopped some ancestry enthusiasts from conflating the two.  Apparently, the fact that North Carolina is nowhere near Pennsylvania is not enough to stop many from adding these details to their tree.  This is very problematic.


Click to embiggen.

A couple important and noteworthy items to remember as we move along here; (1) The ‘born at sea’ in 1733, (2) the location of death/burial, (3) the name of the spouse (listed as Zohn here), (4) the death date of the spouse (1804), (5) the addition of Susanna Edelman (my ancestor) as a child.

The biggest issue, aside from the fact that this person lists contradictory information, is that nearly all of it is explainable with additional research.  What do I mean?

(1) Being born at sea is something that I can’t imagine happened often, if at all.  Maybe this is true for Peter Edelman of North Carolina, but this is likely not true for Peter Edelman of Pennsylvania.  In fact, I suspect that either (a) 1733 was his arrival date as a young adult (not as a newborn child) or (b) it was his birth date here in America (not at sea).  Someone probably made the assumption and then ran with it; others, thinking it was supported by evidence, likewise probably just accepted it without any research or consideration.  Since no evidence exists for this, we can dismiss it (more on this below).

(2) & (5) If Susanna Edelman was born in 1755 in Northampton County, PA (she was), then how is it that her father, born in 1733, died in 1806 in Rowan County, North Carolina?  Let’s be realistic here.  That is 530 miles away.  They did not have cars, airplanes, or trains in the eighteenth century.  That would have had to trek across that distance.  And they would have had to do it before 1775, since John Peter Edelman of North Carolina is a Revolutionary War veteran who served throughout the war–just take a look at his DAR record:


Click to embiggen.

See what I mean about fact-checking?  This listing is for someone who lived and died in the South.  His service was in North Carolina.  And he may have died in Kentucky, but he’s buried in North Carolina:


Click to embiggen.

And there are some interesting clues here as well.  Note that both the Findagrave site and DAR list Joh(a)n Peter Edelman being born at sea?  What is interesting is that the headstone is too worn to read (clicking on the image, the author of this Findagrave page admits that).  Chances are that the gravestone probably reads something closer to the dates listed on the DAR website (though DAR could also be wrong, however less likely).  Instead the page for Findagrave was probably written up by a descendent who got the dates off Ancestry.com (that is how deep this confusion and misinformation goes).  In any event, it is clear that the Joh(a)n Peter Edelman from North Carolina is not the same one in Pennsylvania.  But there is more evidence to this fact!

(3) & (4) The spouses name listed in the Ancestry.com family tree search is also problematic.  Everyone, everywhere, lists one of two names for the wife of John Peter Edelman of Pennsylvania: Maria Elizabeth Zohn or Maria Elizabeth Tommer (they can’t both be right–but both can be wrong).  No indication is given from whence this name came, but I have an idea.  And those individuals who are using this name may not like what I’m about to share (because it throws a wrench into the entire ‘John Peter Edelman’ line).  I believe that the name Maria Elizabeth and the date of death (1804) comes from a record search on Ancestry.com that is continuously being mistaken for evidence of the wife of Johan Peter Edelman:


Click to embiggen and take a close look at the red-outlined names.

Notice anything about this church record?  There is a Maria Elizabeth Edelman listed, but see her father’s name: John George.  This is important, because I think her father was one of the John George Edelman’s who lived in the county–one of whom did exist and did live in Forks Township–the other lived in Allen Township.  It may be that Maria Elizabeth was a widow at this time and was going by her maiden name.  Either way, I do not believe we can make the claim without supporting court records that this is Maria Elizabeth Edelman, wife of a John Peter Edelman.  After all, Johan Peter is not listed on this form.

But I do question whether or not there is a connection between Susanna Edelman and one of the John George Edelman’s of the region.  Is it possible that maybe a John George Edelman is the father of Susanna?  These records all indicate a conundrum.  Who is the father of my ancestor, Susanna Edelman?  I don’t know.  Was there a John Peter Edelman in Northampton at this time?    Possibly, but maybe not.  If so, when was he born?  When did he die?   Where is he buried?  Did he fight in the Revolution?  I have answers to zero of these questions.  And sometimes, without official records–which might exist at the courthouse (finding time to go is the trouble)–saying ‘I don’t know’ is the best answer that we can give.  But making bizarre assumptions, allowing our feelings to dictate how we view the evidence instead of common sense, that is a mistake.   And we must remember to be prudent in our research.  Sometimes accidents will happen and we’ll find ourselves contradicted–in those instances, we must be vigilant in the persuit of the truth and shed ourselves of our biases and accept the evidence for what it is and what it is not.  However, the evidence is out there, somewhere, and with a little digging we can find it.  But we all need a little critical thought now and then.  We owe that to ourselves and to each other.


One response to “Hand in Hand: Critical Thinking Skills and Ancestry Research

  1. There’s one hard and fast rule in serious genealogy. Never use the ancestry trees. Ever. Sometimes a primary record will turn up there, but there are better places to look. An Ancestry tree is often a crib sheet, copied many times over, with errors compounded. There are only rare exceptions here and there. Eyes on your own paper, and do your own work, and you won’t go wrong.

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