Family genealogy – an inexact, exact science

Published 10:07pm Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A case in point is the family of Alexander Lafayette “Fate” Campbell, who was covered in the recent tale of Campbell’s Covered Bridge being named in his honor.

It was stated that he had nine children by his first wife and seven by his second (I neglected to remember several who died in infancy). I was immediately contacted by three genealogists who had different numbers of children for both wives.

After consulting two definitive family trees—including a collaborative effort of more than 20 genealogists, covering 11 generations of descendants of Thomas Campbell Sr. from 1715 in Argyllshire, Scotland — the correct number of children for “Fate” and his first wife was 13 and eight for his second wife — a total of 21.

Genealogists who research tombstones find numerous inaccuracies, particularly in birth and death dates. Whether the family supplied the incorrect date or the engraver made an honest or inadvertent error, few tombstones were ever returned.

Evidently, many families chose to accept the stone, thinking that family members would remember that the date was incorrect. Unfortunately, after two or more generations, no one remembers the error, and future genealogists are thrown off in their research.

Names on tombstones are most often correct; not so, on numerous Census Reports, since Census takers were not highly educated people, and recorded names quite often by the way they sounded, rather than the way they were commonly spelled.

Oral histories handed down through generations are often repeated, very colorful, stories that are beloved by family members. As examples of factual accuracy in family history, however, they are usually the least reliable … yet the most engaging.

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