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Probate Records Often Tell a Different Story

A Lost Generation and Family Line

Early on in my research I simply accepted census records as accurate. I made the assumption that all "families" listed consisted of spouses and their children, unless the census designated a different relationship to the head of the household. Many years later, I discovered that those assumptions can cause you to misinterpret a census record and in consequence a whole family. In this instance a generation was lost and the search for a family line.

This is the Story of Abel Lewis

In the early days of my research I did what I think most of us do when we are "newbies." We assume that the census is correct and that the family listed is a father, mother and children. And generally that is correct. But I have learned that we should always check other sources to be sure we know what we are talking about.

You know the excitement of finding a new generation in the census. How you rush to add this new set of ancestors to your charts and your family tree. I did that.

I knew my 2gr-grandmother was Martha Jane Lewis, wife of Jeremiah Castleberry. My grandmother and her cousins knew their grandparents. My grandmother grew up in the house with them and she related those stories. She was almost 15 when Martha died. But she never talked about Martha's family. She had Lewis cousins. She showed us pictures.

One of my early research efforts was to look for Martha's parents. I knew that she was from Coosa Co, Alabama. She and Jeremiah married there, so it was the logical place to look for her parents, as most young women married in the county they lived in.

Sure enough, I found her in the 1850 census with her parents Abel and Elizabeth Lewis. The family looked like this:

Abel Lewis, 35
Daniel Lewis, 14
John Lewis, 12
Martha Lewis, 10
William Lewis, 7
Columbus Lewis, 5
Andrew Lewis, 2

So I jumped right over to the 1860 census and there was the family again. By this time, Daniel, John and Martha had all married and had families of their own. Daniel had 2 children, John had no children and Martha had 2 children. Daniel, John Martha and Abel were on two consecutive pages of the census, so I was sure this was the family I was looking for.

Abel and Elizabeth's family looked like this in 1860:

Abel Lewis, 45
Elizabeth, 45
William, 16
Columbus W., 14
Andrew C., 11
Mary, 9
Amanda, 7
Lovedy, 5
William Knight, 21

1860 US Federal Census, Coosa Co, AL, pg. 75.

I dutifully recorded the additional children: Mary, Amanda & Lovedy. That was in the 1980s. I was happy with my results and moved on to other ancestors.

When I began my internet searches, I found that all researchers of Abel Lewis had the same information I had, so I felt that I was correct in my records and continued on with ancestors who were more challenging.

And Then the Probate Records Came Into Play

In 2005, I decided that I should verify all my Castleberry & related lines information. I ordered microfilm from my local family history center. In 2006, my sister & I took a trip to Coosa Co, Alabama and looked at court records. Since I knew I had access to the microfilm through the family history center, we only looked at criminal court records since they hadn't been microfilmed [That's another story.]. When I returned, I continued to order and review film. There was a lot to look at since my ancestors lived in Coosa Co from the 1830s to 1901.

As I looked at probate records I found Abel Lewis's probate. There were 47 pages of records covering the period from 1863 to 1872. As I was reading the pages, I was shocked to discover that for over 25 years, I had been wrong about the members of Abel and Elizabeth's family. And so was everyone else. I felt as though I might be the only descendant who had actually read Abel's probate.

Twice in the probate records, it stated that Lovedy Lewis was the granddaughter of Abel Lewis and the daughter of his son Daniel.

Following are excerpts from my transcriptions.

Coosa Co Probate, Vol 9, pg. 721:

...according to Law; and the said J.F. Hurst, Esqr heretofore appointed Guardian ad Liten ...[for] Loveda Lewis ... GrandDaughter of said decedant [sic] & daughter ... of Daniel Lewis deceased____ minor heirs...

Coosa Co Probate, Vol 10, pg 165:

...and the following minors Laveda Lewis daughter of Daniel Lewis decd...

Abel Lewis Probate, Coosa Co, Probate, Vol. 9, pg. 721 & Vol 10, pg. 165
Rockford, Coosa Co, Alabama

So I checked the 1860 census records again and Daniel's family was listed as this:

Daniel Lewis, 22
Martha E, 27
Mary J, 3
Minerva, 1

So the questions became:

1.    How did I make this error?

2.    Why did Lovedy not live with her father?

3.    What happened to Daniel?

I'll start with question # 3. It's the easiest. Daniel was one of the 600,000 casualties of the Civil War. He died of pneumonia.

Question # 2 continues to be a mystery. What is most likely true is that Martha E. was not Lovedy's mother or Lovedy would have been living in Daniel's home. Not the only scenario, but the most likely. For a quick synopsis on this issue:

®  There is no record of another marriage for Daniel.

®  I haven't determined if there was a paternity suit against Daniel, if it is assumed that Lovedy was born out of wedlock.

®  I have no clues, as yet, who Lovedy's mother was.

Question # 1 is the most distressing for me. I can plead "I was a newbie," but that is a pitiful excuse, since I never questioned the relationship even after I knew that census records can be misinterpreted.

I followed the logic of "what is normal." I never questioned that a 40 year old woman was still having children. After all, if you look at the age pattern of the children in Abel's household they are all 2-3 years apart in age, following the "norm" of one child every 2-3 years. Add to that the "norm" that a woman could have children after 40, especially if she has been consistently bearing children up to that age. And all of these children lived in Abel's household. So therefore, they should all be his children, right? And there was the flaw in my thinking. Not taking into account that while everything looked normal and right, it might not be and therefore, I should verify the relationships through other documents.

What I Learned

1. I learned that I should only read the data that is recorded in the census. The data in the census only states the answers to the questions that were asked at the time and in 1850 and 1860 censuses relationship to the head of the household was not one of the questions.

2. I learned that if I only have census information, I should not assume the relationships of the individuals in the household.

3. I learned that I should always look for corroborating evidence for any document I find.

4. I learned to always view census information with some skepticism knowing that I need to verify the information.

5. I learned that with only census data, I should state in my records that the relationships are unverified. The only true fact is that they live in that household.

6. I learned that just because other researchers all have the same information doesn't make it the correct information. I should always proceed as if there was information yet to be discovered.

Genealogy Tutorial
Author of Genealogy Cheat Sheets

Share your stories of census records that might have led you astray in your research.

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