Tuesday, September 6, 2011

“If Your Mother Says She Loves You…”: On the Importance of Questioning Sources

Over the Labor Day weekend, I took some time to bring a few of my genealogical research databases up to date.  I settled on several Virginia/West Virginia families and zeroed in on the Ryans, late of Boone County, West – (By God) - Virginia.  

For genealogists working in this part of the country, sorting out people who share the same last name can be a real challenge on a number of levels.  First off, there’s the spelling.  “Ryan” competes with “Ryon” and “Ryen” on lots of public records.  Then, because the pronunciation of “Ryan” can be – like the weather – highly variable, the name sometimes appears as “Rine” or even the much more fancy “Ryne” or “Rhine.”  After all, these are not the bog Irish, Famine –era immigrants of the Northeast (my folks), but rather the folks who came to Virginia long before there was a United States. Spelling is a sometime thing.

Then, there’s the regional predilection for identifying people – both males and females – simply by the first two letters of their first and middle names, followed by their last name. In one document, the man appears as “Charles Ryan”.  A few years later, he’s listed as “C. N. Rine” in another document. 

Same guy?  Probably, but further verification wouldn’t hurt.

Also, there are the folks who have the very same name as several of their close kin, all of whom live reasonably close to one another, just to make life interesting for genealogists a century later.

So, in taking up the challenge of sorting out and updating the Ryans, I finally came to Charles Lewis Ryan (1856 - 1934).  This “Charles Ryan” was a first cousin of the grandkids’ 3rd great-grandmother Emma Virginia Ryan (1861 – 1922).  He is certainly not to be confused with that OTHER nearly contemporary “Charles Ryan”; that would be Emma’s own brother Charles Ryan (1858 – 1932). Fortunately, these two guys lived in different counties.  Nor should he be conflated with her first cousin Joe Ryan’s son Charles Ryan. Or with her OTHER first cousin Charles Ryan. Or even with the “Charles In Question’s” own son Charles Ryan.

Each of these five Charles Ryans lived within the boundaries of an imaginary corridor snaking through the mountains, switchbacks and hollers of Virginia and West Virginia, a narrow stretch of land about 175 miles long and 40 miles wide, straddling a number of small, largely rural Virginia and West Virginia counties.

Of course, also living in this imaginary tract of Almost Heaven were any number of probably-unrelated Charles Ryans.  See? When it comes to sorting out Ryans, nothing is simple.

Fortunately, the state of West Virginia has gifted those of us who do West Virginia research with a wonderful website: The West Virginia Division of Culture and History’s Vital Records Search site

Unlike other state governments who’ve hidden away their vital records inside the forbidding Dark Castle of Secrecy, allowing entrance only to those with a Right To Know and a sufficient amount of CASH (I’m talking about you, New York State…), West Virginia provides researchers with a functioning vital records search engine and with digitized images of the actual records.  All For Free.

So, off I went to download Ryan births and Ryan marriages and Ryan deaths.  And thereby hangs a tale.

Newbie genealogists (especially if they’ve heard the talks about the primacy of “primary” sources) believe in the sacrosanctity of government records.  Frankly, they’re not alone; lots of government officials feel the same way.  Give ‘em a government-issued certificate printed on fancy paper with a raised seal and all the truth in the world cannot prevail against it.

And so we come to Charles Ryan’s death certificate, issued in Summers County, West Virginia in 1934.

It’s straightforward enough and looks like all the other certificates issued there in 1934.

For your amusement, here it is, courtesy of the website cited above:

(Hint: if you click on the image, it gets bigger)



If you were just starting out in this genealogy thing, you might seize upon all the information found on the certificate as Gospel Truth.  You would, of course, be wrong.  At best, some of it is apocryphal.

What can you be sure of?  Well, the date and place of death are probably correct.  Chances are, Dr. Percy P. Pharr, the attending physician, may have been competent enough to document the primary and contributing causes of death correctly. The funeral home’s name and address are likely correct, as is the deceased name.  After that, it’s largely hearsay information, some of it correct and some of it…not.

For example, unless Charles Ryan fell into a particularly garrulous autobiographical mood shortly before his death, it’s likely that the attending physician who filled out his death certificate asked his surviving spouse for the rest of his personal information. The “Mrs. C. L. Ryan” identified as the informant was either his second or third wife and hardly an expert on her husband’s early life. 

While she identified his place of birth (Montgomery County, Virginia) and his father (W. G. Ryan) correctly, either her memory or her knowledge failed when she mistakenly identified Charles Ryan’s first wife’s mother (Alice Lilly) as his mother.  His actual mother, Mary Jane Barnett, died shortly after little Charles was born, probably from the complications of childbirth.

How do I know all this?

Simple.  I’ve been tracking various branches of this particular family across these two states for more than 35 years, collecting documents and verifying information. For better or worse, I’m kind of an expert on these Ryans.

The point?

Beginning genealogists often assume that all the information on an official document is correct.  They need to adopt a whole new attitude: CIAO.  Or “Check It ALL Out.”   

Always ask what is “likely true”, what is “probably true” and what is “maybe true.”  Take nothing on faith, even if the document looks terribly official and reliable. Human error and/or fallibility can crop up in places you least expect it.

My high school journalism teacher – an aging nun who was a member of the order known as the Sisters of Mercy – showed no mercy to journalism students who failed to question their sources.  Guided by her, and as the editor of my high school newspaper, I quickly learned to doubt pretty much everything.  My “reporters” got used to me asking, “How do you know this is true?” before their writing could appear in print. 

That skepticism – taught to me by a woman who took an amazing amount of other things in her personal life on faith - has served me well as a family historian.

One of the first things beginning journalists learn is to verify the information that they get from “sources.”  Simply citing a source isn’t enough:  you need to check it out for veracity.

Or, as they used to teach brand-new reporters in the City Rooms all of the country:  “if your mother says she loves you, check it out!

CIAO, baby!

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