When is a mistake a mistake

Genealogical research for me has been a journey in which I’ve developed different skills.

I went through what I expect is a typical process. At first, I’d leap to conclusions about ancestors without having proper proof.  Then as I gained more insight, I’d often return to retrace my steps and remove people and assumptions from my tree if I had no real proof.

At this point, I have a healthy scepticism when it comes to any historical source, whether it’s a parish record, wedding notice, newspaper article or letter (and particularly if it’s in someone else’s tree on Ancestry.com!).

I’ve come across several cast-iron mistakes recently in newspaper articles. Below, the marriage of Richard Jones is mistakenly recorded as being to ‘Anna Maria, daughter of Mr. John Highington of London.  Multiple sources prove that her name was Ann Maria Heighington and her father was not John, but Charles Francis Heighington (who did actually have a brother called John).


And here’s the record of the death of John Cooper’s wife at Alverstone farm:


There’s a problem here though – John’s wife (who did indeed die the Wednesday before) was called Ann, not Jane!

Since mistakes happen, when you find something that looks like a mistake, it’s tempting to write it off as one immediately. But sometimes it’s not a mistake at all, just slightly counter-intuitive. This one puzzled me for some time:1849 'mrs j mcwilliams' death

Here, I was using a famous relative (Sir Isaac Wilson) to try and track other relatives, since newspaper references would often boast of the connection. The confusion here is that Sir Isaac’s sister Mary (born c. 1765) married John McWilliams.  Here we had a newspaper report of the death of a Mrs John McWilliams who was born around 1814. To add to the confusion, this seemed to tie my family to the Carnteel McWilliams family, while the known connection was to the Glencull McWilliams family just down the road.

Eventually I was able to see beyond this apparent contradiction and realise that there could have been an additional intermarriage between someone of the next generation. But thanks to the hilariously patriarchal culture of the time, she was listed as Mrs J. McWilliams, so I had few clues as to her identity.

Working back, I looked to known relatives. Sir Isaac’s will lists his 7 siblings with the married names of his sisters.  At this point I got lucky – a search for marriages brought up a familiar name – Clarke.  Just sneaking into civil registration, I was able to establish that a John McWilliams had married a Margaret Clarke in 1845, and that Margaret Clarke was the daughter of Sir Isaac’s sister Elizabeth.  The presence of Adam McCarogher as a witness was additional evidence to tie the wedding to the Wilson family (Adam being a descendent of another of Isaac’s siblings).

In conclusion, you can’t assume things written down are wrong, but you also can’t be sure they’re right.

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