One Piece of Evidence is Incomplete: Methodology and the Genealogical Proof Standard Helps Tell a More Robust Family Narrative

The Genealogical Proof Standard states that we should do reasonably exhaustive research, as well as analyze and correlate our evidence (among other steps).[1] A common beginner’s mistake is to find a single document and believe research is complete for that person. Searching for more documents is the task of a diligent researcher. One document rarely tells the whole story, as it is incomplete.

Two narratives will be told, the first explaining the events described in a telegram, and the second narrative will provide more details regarding the telegram and surrounding events, correlating the facts.

telegram

Figure 1 — “Virginia Vessels (Cross) Scrapbook, Telegram” (telegram from Virginia Cross to Allen Cross, June 15, 1945), Mark Cross personal collection.

Narrative A

Virginia Cross kept a scrapbook, which contained a telegram. In reading the telegram, the facts literally on the page include:

  • Telegram was sent from Vine Grove, Kentucky
  • Telegram was sent to Corporal Allen P. Cross
  • Telegram was sent to an APO (Army Post Office) in San Francisco
  • The body of message reads “Dad Vessels passed away June 15 [1945]”
  • Telegram was sent from Virginia

From these facts, one could easily determine that Corporal Allen P. Cross was in the US Army, likely in the Pacific Theatre, in June of 1945. However, we do not know how these three people are related to each other, unless we obtain other documents.

The relatives of these people already know that Virginia Vessels married Allen Cross. “Dad” Vessels was her father. She sent the telegram to her husband in 1945 during WWII, informing him that her father died.[2] This date corroborates the date on the death certificate of William Roy Vessels.[3]

While the two documents of the telegram and the death certificate corroborate the death date of William Roy, this is still an incomplete narrative as it is a singular element. Additional research reveals more.

Narrative B

Now, let us connect the dots and explain more details of the family narrative, using additional sources.

Virginia Marie Vessels was born 9 March 1928 in Hardin County, Kentucky to William Roy Vessels and Sarah Catherine Ray.[4] In 1930, the family resided in Hardin County, Kentucky.[5] By 1935, the family had moved to Los Angeles County, California.[6] The family likely moved due to hard times during the Great Depression. William Roy found work on the oil rigs in Long Beach, California.[7]

William Roy’s mother, Celestia Greenwell Vessels, died on 1 June 1945 in Hardin County, Kentucky.[8] Several of the Vessels family members in California traveled to Kentucky for her funeral. While in Kentucky, William Roy became ill, and died of complications of a heart attack and a burst appendix on 15 June 1945.[9] Virginia buried both her grandmother and her father within two weeks in Kentucky.

The siblings of Virginia are identified in the census records.[10]

Virginia’s brother John Paul served in WWII. In 1945, Virginia could not know the fate of her brother. Today we know John Paul served in WWII,[11] Korea, and Viet Nam, and died in 1977.[12] During his military career, he was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart, among other citations.[13]

Virginia’s brother William Henry also served in WWII, but met with a different fate. He was killed overseas on January 16, 1945 at the age of nineteen.[14] This was only five months prior to the death of Virginia’s grandmother and father. He served in the 272nd Infantry, [15] which fought in the Battle of the Bulge, where family lore says he was killed in action.[16]

Virginia Marie Vessels and Allen Paul Cross had a son during the war.[17] When Virginia’s father died in June 1945, her son was an infant. As was common at the time, she likely wondered if her son would ever know his soldier father. As it turns out, Allen did return from the war, and he and Virginia had a total of seven children.[18]

Comparison of the Two Narratives

Narrative A tells us that Virginia’s father died, and she sent a telegram to her husband informing him of that fact. Her husband was overseas in the Army during WWII. This information is gleaned from primarily two sources, the telegram and the death certificate of Virginia’s father. Note that Virginia’s father and husband are not identified with only these documents. The dots are not yet connected.

Narrative B provides more detail, with many more sources. Virginia is identified as daughter of William Roy, sister to her brothers, and wife to Allen Cross by these additional documents.[19] Virginia was born in Kentucky but raised in California. Some family members traveled to Kentucky for her grandmother’s funeral, and her father became ill on the trip and died about two weeks later. Virginia had two brothers serving in WWII, one had been killed in action just five months prior to the Kentucky funerals. Virginia and her husband Allen had a young son born during the war. Virginia’s husband was also serving in WWII and both were well aware of the hazards of war. With several family members now deceased, Virginia sent a telegram to her husband, telling him her father died, whom her husband in all likelihood had met. Virginia’s husband was unable to comfort or console her as he was overseas fighting the war.

Narrative B also illustrates the FAN Club [Friends, Associates & Neighbors] research methodology advocated by Elizabeth Shown Mills.[20] Many of these additional facts are not directly about Virginia, but about her family members. These family events undoubtedly had an impact on Virginia.

Conclusion

Narrative A provides some important, but scant, details regarding the event of the death of Virginia’s father. Narrative B provides many more important and relevant details, including FAN Club research.

We do not know exactly what Virginia was thinking or feeling, as there are no surviving letters or journals that describe this time of her life in her own words. However, for any human with emotions and empathy, the facts speak for themselves. Virginia had a challenging time near the end of the war, with several family deaths occurring quite near each other, both overseas and away from her California home in Kentucky.

While the telegram provides important information, by itself it is only a singular element in a larger story. The Genealogical Proof Standard suggests additional steps in research. With reasonably exhaustive research, and analyzing and correlating the information, more details are uncovered, and a more compelling story can be told. At the heart of genealogy, we gather many solid facts, with source citations, so we can tell a compelling story.

footnotes

[1] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards: 50th Anniversary Edition (Ancestry.com, 2014).
[2] “Virginia Vessels (Cross) Scrapbook, Telegram” (telegram from Virginia Cross to Allen Cross, June 15, 1945), Mark Cross personal collection.
[3] Registrar of Vital Statistics Kentucky, “Death Certificate No 12428, William Roy Vessels” (June 15, 1945).
[4] Cabinet for Health and Family Services Kentucky, “Virginia Marie Vessels Birth Certificate, Cert #4102231” (1928).
[5] “1930 US Federal Census, Population Schedule, Hardin County, Kentucky, Page 1A (Penned). Dwelling 6, Family 6,” FamilySearch, accessed August 19, 2019, https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XM6G-KYD.
[6] “1940 US Federal Census, Population Schedule, Los Angeles County, California, Downey Township, Sheet 23A (Penned), Household 560,” FamilySearch, accessed August 19, 2019, https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L9MT-8X3J?i=45&cc=2000219&personaUrl=%2Fark%3A%2F61903%2F1%3A1%3AK97X-P6Q. The 1940 Census records that the Vessels family lived in the “same house” in 1935.
 [7] “World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942, (4th Registration) for the State of California, William Roy Vessels” (April 25, 1942), Record Group Number: 147, The National Archives at St. Louis, https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&dbid=1002&h=12955879&ssrc=pt&tid=114630085&pid=130135264287&usePUB=true.
[8] Registrar of Vital Statistics Kentucky, “Death Certificate, File No. 12292, Selestie Vessels” (June 1, 1945).
[9] Death Certificate, William Roy Vessels.
[10] “1930 US Federal Census, Hardin County, Kentucky.” Also see “1940 US Federal Census, Los Angeles County, California.”
[11] “U.S., World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946 – John Paul Vessels Ancestry.Com,” accessed August 19, 2019, https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&dbid=8939&h=2053041&tid=114630085&pid=130135264171&hid=1036530007741&usePUB=true&_phsrc=ivO1235&_phstart=default&usePUBJs=true&currentPageIsStart=.
[12] “John Paul Vessels (1916-1977) – Find A Grave” accessed August 19, 2019, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/24335202/john-paul-vessels.
[13] “Virginia Vessels (Cross) Scrapbook, John Paul Vessels Disposition Form” (US Army Disposition Form, after 1953), Mark Cross personal collection.
[14] “William Henry Vessels (1926-1945) – Find A Grave,” accessed August 19, 2019, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/74352587/william-henry-vessels.
[15] Ancestry.com, “U.S., Headstone Applications for Military Veterans, 1925-1963, William H. Vessels, Serial No. 39580850” (n.d.).
[16] Rod Vessels, “Rod Vessels Family Tree Maker Genealogy Database: Unsourced Genealogy” (July 12, 2011), Mark Cross personal collection.
[17] Name withheld for privacy, living person.
[18] Names withheld for privacy, living persons.
[19] Some documents not cited here for privacy of living persons.
[20] “Elizabeth Shown Mills Genealogy – FamilySearch Wiki,” accessed August 19, 2019, https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Elizabeth_Shown_Mills.

Records of History Still Being Discovered

It is apparent that not all records of the past have been uncovered.

Just recently, medieval historians have found evidence that a nun in the 14th century faked her own death to escape the convent and to pursue “the way of carnal lust.”

This is the story of Joan of Leeds in England.

This story appears in several places online, including The Guardian, and the Yorkshire Evening Post, and Huffpost.

The ancient text, written in Latin, is part of a translation and digitization project for 16 registers of the archbishops of York, between the years 1304 and 1405.

Records are still being discovered!

As a genealogist, I find such news as this, and the original source, fascinating. She’s not in my family tree…that I know of!

Local Genealogical Societies; Bible records found!

Family History Researchers should keep in mind that local Genealogical and Historical Societies often have rare and unique holdings. If your ancestors lived in an area for at least some amount of time, and especially if they resided there for an extended time, consider contacting the local Genealogical Society for that area to inquire about their holdings. You may also consider traveling there in person if you can, and make it a research trip. If you are unable to travel there in person, contact them to see what they have and ask if they can do some on-site research for you. Results may vary, but it’s always worth it to inquire.

A distant cousin of mine wrote a Cross Family Tree back in the 1950s. He was the same generation as my grandfather and died years ago, so I never met him. He lived in Pennsylvania, died in New York, and I have yet to travel to either state, although I’d like to someday. His Cross Family Tree is about 30 pages long and lists nearly 500 individuals.

He refers to an Old Cross Family Bible as a source, but unfortunately never mentions who owned the Bible at the time of his research. He did type up a transcription of the pages that include births, marriages, and deaths for genealogy. The Cross family resided in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania in the early 1800s.

I found the Clearfield County Historical Society online. I contacted them about their holdings, and inquired about on-site research done by their staff or volunteers. They do research for a fee or an hourly rate. I engaged them for research.

They returned copies of documents they found, including newspaper obituaries, many that are difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. They also sent a copy and a transcription of the Old Cross Family Bible that my cousin referenced in his work! It matches, word for word! As it turns out, the family member that had the Bible back in 1976 donated the Bible to the Historical Society for preservation!

My research is now a little more complete with this addition. The Old Cross Family Bible is intact, stored for preservation and posterity, and I have scanned copies of the pertinent pages, with source citation of the Bible (publication date and publisher, who donated the Bible, etc.). This Bible is unique, and found nowhere else. Obtaining this information is a find.

I am grateful that this family member donated the Bible, and grateful that the Clearfield County Historical Society has a way for me to do research there using their on-site staff and volunteers.

Citing Sources: “Be Kind, Help Find”

I like Find A Grave, it’s a useful website. I say this with caution, however; not all information on Find A Grave is accurate. Online trees are notorious for being hotbeds of misinformation.

Find A Grave is accurate for the location of the cemetery, and for photos of the gravestone that provide names and dates. There can be errors, of course, but thankfully those are rare.

People, trying to be helpful, often post additional information on Find A Grave memorial pages, such as this person married that person, and their children include, and their parents were…but often without any sources. Where did they get this information, and is it accurate?

I have an ancestor with a certain name, and he has a grandson with the same name. The son/father between them has a different name than theirs. Someone has confused the grandfather and the grandson, and posted information that the grandson married a certain woman and had these named children. Just to make it more confusing, the grandson named his son after his father. (So the four generations of names appear similar to ABAB.) Without more information, one could easily confuse the families. However, the dates and the name of the wife are all wrong, because the Find A Grave memorial has the grandson (A2) matched with his own grandmother as spouse (who married A1)! I sent an email inquiry, and the person ignored me, and refuses to make any changes.

In another case, a person posted a memorial and they state the person is buried at this cemetery, but no photo of the gravestone is on the memorial page. I submitted a “photo request” and received an error report; the helpful volunteer (a different person than the one who posted the memorial) did some research with the cemetery records, and no burial for this person can be found at this cemetery.  I sent an email inquiry to the person who created the online memorial, asking where they got the information this person is buried at this cemetery, along with the findings of the helpful volunteer. The person practically yelled at me, and claimed “I don’t know where I got this information, I get info from lots of different places. I stand by my posting! Good luck finding your own research!” In other words, they wash their hands of the entire ordeal and accept no responsibility. They uploaded the data from an Excel spreadsheet, with thousands of other names. This person is clearly more interested in the numbers than in the accuracy. They want to be known as a “contributor,” but clearly a “researcher” or “genealogist” they are not.

This cautionary tale provides a few lessons. First, be kind to your fellow genealogists. Yelling at people is not nice, and just drives people away. I never want to communicate with this person again. Second, cite your sources. Keep track of where you get information, and pass this information on. Sources are important, and I am a little amazed at the number of people who do not realize this, with years in the game and still ignoring this simple advice.

And thirdly, do not post information that is inaccurate. Prove your stories and trees before you publish them. Similar stories abound regarding people putting up an online tree without sources, then people with no understanding or education copy that tree countless times and it spreads like a virus. Inaccurate information is bad information, do not share it, which means do not place it online anywhere. Verify your “facts” before you call them FACTS.

If someone points out an inaccuracy, be open to changing your story or your facts with new evidence. After all, this is one of the principles of good genealogy, as published in Genealogy Standards (more about that below). Yelling at someone because their facts dispute yours, telling them they are wrong, has no place here.

I must add that most people are not mean at all; most people are simply uninformed and need a little teaching. The fine line is how to do a little teaching without driving people away or sounding condescending. Mostly, I find people trying to help people. But some people…

So, here’s some ideas on why citing sources is so important, and how to do it right.

Manual      Evidence Explained

Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 50th anniversary edition (Nashville, Tenn. : Ancestry, 2014)
Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2d ed. (Baltimore : Genealogical Publ. Co., 2009)
Both are available on amazon.

I know I’m giving my age away by referencing the old “Be Kind, Rewind” mantra of the old VHS videotapes back when we had video stores to rent movies. But really, citing sources is a way to be kind, and help others find the wonderful info that you already found, and want to share with others.

So, how do I treat information I find on Find A Grave and online trees? If it is verifiable information with sources, I go find the source myself (easy to do if they provided source citations), and if it’s right, I then use that source with my own tree (and cite that source myself!). If there is no source, then I must do my own research. I use the info I found online as a “clue” and try to go prove it. Sometimes it is helpful to have that clue. I may find a US Federal Census (1850 and later are the only ones that list the entire family) and look up the suggested parents, and I may indeed find the family I am looking for. Great! They were accurate with their info, but now I have a source to verify it (and cite that source myself!). If I am unable to prove it, I may even email the person and ask how they know this fact is true. But experience has taught me to expect a wide range of responses, and even no response at all. Some people still seem to be offended if you ask. But ask you must, or go research it yourself to answer it yourself.

Citing Sources is a basic, fundamental thing. To be honest, we all struggle with it. And to be more honest, I didn’t do it in my early genealogy research, either. This is a lesson we all had to learn. But I quickly learned that it’s just like a footnote in the term papers I used to write in high school and college.

So, “Be Kind, Help Find” with a simple footnote. After all, it is the Genealogy Standard.