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Temptations of an Amateur Genealogist

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

"In these cases, you comb through every possible source with the eye of a detective, organize all the data, corroborate and cross-reference it, look for patterns and trends, and see if a logical hypothesis can be developed. If one can, then you must test the hypothesis."

Things have been busy here at the Dougherty farm! I've also been busy retooling some of the unseen parts of the O'Doherty Heritage site and doing a complete makeover of the homepage–actually, now, homepages–plural! Our Clann is a worldwide diaspora. With that said, the only real way to make a full reach to every clanmember is through the internet. Aside from social media, the internet is primarily accessed through search engines, such as Google. Let's face it, some of our family will never be interested in their heritage for one reason or another, but the ones who are interested in it are most likely out there searching for it based on their variant of our surname. After consulting with an expert on search engine optimization and doing a lot of research, I've tuned some of our content specifically toward the four primary variants of our name, which account for around 94% of our family's worldwide population. In addition to our main O'Doherty/O'Dochartaigh homepage, there are now landing pages for people searching "Doherty", "Dougherty", "Daugherty", and "Docherty" keywords. The primary goal here is to share our heritage with as much of our fellow clanfolk as possible and I believe this is a step in the right direction. Anyway, now on to the core of this blog post… promoting excellence in genealogy.

Part 1: My Rant

I do use algebra—in genealogy!

Recently, I spent a few evenings helping my sister brush up for her ACT exam. It took me a bit to get back into Algebra–a subject which I both utterly despise and, yet, at the same time, love (which of the two it is depends on whether I can understand the problem or not). Good genealogy is like an algebra problem, though. You know all the other parts of the problem, you're just looking for that elusive ancestor, designated by an 'x'. Maybe that's why we see so much bad genealogy on the internet because people like to take shortcuts. The reason I say that genealogy is like an algebra problem is because you can't just "know the answer". Sure, that may be the point, but that's not the only purpose of algebra. One of the important reasons behind it is to develop and reinforce logic and sound reasoning. You must be able to demonstrate, yes this is the answer, but more importantly this is WHY this is the answer. This is key in researching your family's history.

Going to court:

When I started researching family history, I thought it was all black and white. If one record said something it was the gospel truth, regardless of whether it was interpreted within context to any other sources or not. Speaking of the Gospel, the Bible's wisdom, "In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established", has good application in ancestry as well–you want to gather as many records to witness in your case as possible to have a fair trial and uncover the facts about your family. Over a period of time I learned that genealogy is, indeed, very much like a court case. You gather all your evidence before you make a case. However, sometimes there just isn't hard, black-and-white documentation for every event or relationship. In these cases, you comb through every possible source with the eye of a detective, organize all the data, corroborate and cross-reference it, look for patterns and trends, and see if a logical hypothesis can be developed. If one can, then you must test the hypothesis. At this point, it's good to put yourself in the other seat of the plaintiff attorney in attempt to poke holes in your hypothesis. You're logically going back and forth weighing, examining, analyzing your evidence, until you can come out with a sound argument and conclusion. Speaking of court, DNA evidence works wonders not only in various court cases, but also in genealogy. If you've done an exhaustive search and no hard evidence turns up, just like in a legal proceeding, if you have enough circumstantial evidence you can actually come to a sound conclusion–but you have to be very careful and unbiased. It just takes a keen eye for detail and logic and an exhaustive search to be successful in finding truthful answers.

Don't worry, I was insulted too:

In the real world of genealogy, if you can't give documented evidence for your assertions, your ancestry is just as good as any other lie. Ouch! That hurts–unless you've matured genealogically. When you compile your family history, make sure to cite your sources and explain your logic within the writing–whether as footnotes, a full-blown "References Cited" page, or otherwise. Again, if you don't communicate your evidence to the reader in the form of good source citations, it's no better than any other lie. This's not harsh, it's simply good practice. It's inevitable, as time passes and more documents are digitized and transcribed, that additional evidence will surface. If you've made a conclusion based on the best evidence you had at the time and later on more evidence is turned up that seems to conflict with your writing and you've given no sources...guess what? Your writing will likely be thrown out as inaccurate. If one thing is wrong in it, and there's no evidence to say the rest isn't wrong either, that casts doubt on the veracity of the rest of the document–unless, of course, you have sources to show its basis and how the assumptions you made were based on the best evidence you had at the time.

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend…inside of a dog it's too dark to read.

Another thing, is even if you have really done your homework, it's no good if you've not published it–it won't help anyone and can't be passed on. After you're gone, one in a hundred will try to make use of your piles of paper and you'd be surprised how many genealogists' computers crash and all the data is lost. Truth is, if you don't write something that your non-genealogist grandchild, nephew, or cousin would want to read, it will likely be relegated to a dusty old shelf or a box in the attic which is thrown out or lost after the passing of a generation. This is where I encourage you to check out the Family History Writing Studio by Lynn Palermo, her blog, and sign up for the helpful emails she sends out. In our digital world, another way you can get started writing about your family as well as share it for others to read is to start a blog–you can often set up a simple blog with almost no effort and without costing you a penny.

Context and the search for meaning:

During a leadership development academy I was part of a few years ago, we each were given the Clifton Strengths Finder assessment. I was not surprised to find that one of my strengths was "Context". It basically described me by saying that I see the present as unstable and that I'm only able to bring solidity to it after I go back into history when the "blueprints" were being drawn up to understand the intentions that lie underneath all the stuff of today. For people like myself, and I would assume for many who are "into" genealogy, we understand the world, ourselves, and the future through the context of where we came from and how far we've come. Researching one's roots can be almost a driving force inside us. For others who have strong emotional bonds with their family, fond memories of those departed, or strong ties to their cultural or ethnic heritage, researching one's family history can be a very powerful journey. When searching to find these answers or trying to close the gap to our past, the desire to ascribe meaning to things can easily short circuit the veracity of facts as we attempt to understand ourselves or the present. Good genealogy should be a search to find the truth about where we come from, not trying to make things fit because we want so badly to have found our elusive ancestor.

Part 2: Things I did wrong.

Jumping online first thing:

Think about it, how ironic is it that when we go to study our family history, we often don't talk to our family first? The first thing I did nine years ago was to join and then started building out my family tree like a madman. In one example, the census and other historic records said that one of my ancestors, Ziticus "Zeek" Vickery, born in the 1890s was the son of one Joe Holt, who married his mother a couple years after Zeek's birth. I saved this to my tree and copied from all those public member trees which also agreed and kept on heading full-steam back to the never-never-land of questionably-interpreted 1500s records. However, if I'd have asked my great grandma and all my great-great aunts, they could've easily told me that Joe Holt was not great great Grandpa Zeke's biological dad, but actually his step-father. You didn't ask much about it back in those days, but great grandma admitted to asking her grandma who her grandpa was and her grandma confessed that it was a man by the name of John Bunch. There were no records to prove this, but after talking to my family, and then carefully analyzing the records that did exist, dates of childbirths and marriages, family names, their proximity during the questioned time period, nuances hidden in family stories, and details hidden in court cases involving other unrelated incidents, it all began to make sense to me. This is something I have on my list to verify with DNA when I get time and some spare change. Yours may not be a story like mine, but the moral here is that there may be key details about your ancestry that were simply not captured by the public records available online, whether by purpose or by happenstance and many times they will be hidden with grandparents, great aunts, and even distant cousins.

My wife's late great grandmother had for decades hidden a beautiful story of romance and tragedy until one day, while helping her move, her daughter found a few old war letters, photos, and the wings from a military uniform hidden in her stuff and began to ask questions. Little did she know, these were the only relics of her real biological father, a corporal who had died a hero's death when his B-29 was shot down over Guam in 1945.

Accepting family stories "as-is" without validating them:

The last two scenarios have involved family stories, however, there is some circumstantial evidence that supports both and additional tests to validate the stories are currently underway–or will be in the future. On the other hand, many stories are just accepted, "as is". It's true that testimonial evidence is admissible in a court of law, however, a first-hand account is typically more trustworthy and bears more weight than hearsay, for instance. I can easily accept straight answers to pointed questions about my ancestors lives when it relates to…say, where they lived when they were a child, or the details about a certain tradition they had, or maybe particulars about how they butchered a hog. But stories that have been passed down from generation to generation can have a different dynamic–they're not really that different from hearsay. Surprising to some, hearsay, in some cases may actually be admissible evidence in a court of law–thus, I will sometimes use these stories in my collection of genealogical evidence. However, over time, places can get shuffled around, stories can be re-appropriated, mistakenly, to other people, time-frames can be warped, and other particulars can get colored or lose their coloring in this generational telephone game. Here are some examples:

  1. My grandpa always told me that "Jesse James ate at the Old House". The "Old House" was the old farmhouse, originally a log cabin, that was on the farm where my Dougherty family has lived since 1903. When I was probably 12 years old, I went to the library and checked out a biography on the life of Jesse James to learn more about him. Well to my surprise, I discovered that the renowned bandit Jesse James died in 1882, which was a little over two decades before my family bought our Missouri Ozarks farm where the Old House was built. I was somewhat perplexed and now quite skeptical. Some years later, two distant cousins from different sides of the family told me the story of how a group of men rode in to the house when great great granny Susan Trachte was a girl. Their parents were away and she and her sister gave them butter milk and biscuits and watered their horses. Only a short while later a posse came to the house and said they were on the trail of Jesse James. The thing is, based on the ages from these two independent versions of the story I discovered later, and from where that side of the family lived during that time, it fits perfectly with the period of Jesse James' first train robbery at Gad's Hill. It is known among the historic community that the James Gang often stopped in at various farmhouses as they crossed the country after robberies, treating their hosts courteously. The thing is somehow in the version of the story I had been told as a kid, the location of the story had been erroneously and accidentally changed from Iron County, Missouri to Wayne County, MO and the names of the family members had been completely lost from the story.

  2. Similarly, there was a story about how there used to be a silver mine in the garden on the farm. I searched hundreds of pages of deeds and abstracts in search of any record of this, but it came up in vain. Only later on did I learn that two generations earlier the property the family lived on at that time (which was in another county) was purchased by a mining company. After comparing plat maps and the deeds I learned that the company had established a silver mine there. While the truth was buried within the story, the story was not completely truthful and thus for some time was completely useless–in fact, a red herring.

  3. In another instance, there was a story about three Dougherty brothers and how one of them went on the Oklahoma land rush and found oil. I found the census records for the brother in Oklahoma, the homestead application, and then looked up the location in Google maps only to realize every farm for several miles surrounding Wilson Dougherty's homestead, including his, had at least one gas well (not oil, but close). The fact is there were actually five brothers, but one of them died–so there were only four for the story's sake. In this case, I think William Dougherty told the family how he had three brothers (which makes four including him), but the family had passed it down that there "were three brothers", making the error of omitting him from the context of the story accidentally. Regarding the very same story, I heard another family member say "there were three brothers who came over and one went to Texas". It took me a while to put these together and finally realize they were the same story, but just mixing up your states and adding the phrase "came over", based on an assumption, put a whole new spin on it.

  4. That assumption in the previous story of "came over" was a strong one in the family and stemmed from a more complex set of circumstances. The whole crew of the oldest members of my family swore up and down that their grandpa William Eli Dougherty, was born in Ireland. I'm not sure how the story got started, but the assumption was that the family always talked of how they had "came from Ireland", though no one could say when, if you asked. I already had seen many census records, city directories, and other records–including the family Bible–which all agreed that William Eli Dougherty was born in Ohio and that, in fact, his father, Roswell was born in New York. Even Roswell's children's 1880 census records from distant cousin family lines all showed American born parents, so I knew something was up with the story on my side. They said their dad, William Eli's son, always "talked about the rocks in Ireland", and played Irish fiddle, and he was called the "Irish bachelor" or later "the Irishman", and always talked to his "Irish friends", and planted his potatoes on St. Patrick's Day…and finally, after asking some pointed questions I was told "we just got the idea, somewhere along, that he was born in Ireland". This is how easy it is for an assumption to enter the room cloaked under the guise of fact and eventually we just let it become part of our family. They appear to have had a fair reason to make this assumption, trying to make sense of the information they had been given, but this is where citing your sources and critically examining the generational stories for accuracy comes into play. Also, reaching outside of known family back to cousins from distantly connecting ancestral lines who may have a similar or contrasting story also helps to gain additional context. For example, talking with Wilson Dougherty's 94-year-old grandson, I was told that our Doughertys had "been in America for a very long time", always moving with the frontier–a statement from the other side of the family which, unlike the story from my side, actually agreed with the dozens of records I had found.

  5. Conversely to the stories above, there's one story passed down that seemed too incredible to be true, and didn't at face value it didn't seem to fit with its historical and geographical context. However, after making a thorough and very careful search, and cross-referencing all the evidence, it just ended up being an eye opener that helped let us know we were on the right trail. The story was actually true. This is the story of the friendly Indians and the owl soup. I'll share the background for that one in a later blog post.

Thinking the spelling of the name was important

My great grandpa Trammell always told me that their family always spelled their name with "two M's and two L's". He said that the families who just used one 'm' and one 'l' may have been related to us somewhere back there, but they were known to be liars! Well to my surprise, I found records where his own great grandparents signed their name without those double letters. Does this mean we’re liars too? Ha ha! Well, what it actually means is that, while some of us hold religiously to "our spelling" as being the only right one, this limiting concept can severely or totally cripple your ability to break through brick walls in your family tree and discover the whole truth.

My last name is spelled Dougherty, but I could understand when the census taker recorded my family's name as Doherty or Daugherty at various points that is was the same name. I was, however, a little baffled when I found that in colonial Massachusetts many times our surname was spelled Dorothy or Doroty! I would've almost written if off, but after seeing it noted in some DAR records and then really researching the documentation behind them, that it was a true connetion, indeed. Alternatively, in early 1800s upstate New York, I found my ancestors had not only been enumerated as "Dorety" or "Dority" in one record and then "Dougherty" in another, but I actually found where some individual family members, in their own handwriting, used both spellings. I actually discovered some of my distant cousin lines (confirmed with Y-DNA and traditional records) who, because of this, actually bear the Dority spelling to this day. It wasn't until one day, after I expanded my searches to include some of these unsuspected alternative spellings that I found records I had been looking for for years. Never had I imagined my family using that spelling!

Connecting people with similar names

The very first mistake I made in my Dougherty research was thinking that "Ross Dougherty" of Ohio was short for "Roswell Dougherty" of Ohio. I was green and a cousin suggested the possibility and I ran with it. I had a Civil War draft registration showing Roswell Dougherty, but no service record. I had a service record for Ross Doughery, but no draft record. It seemed logical to me, not having been experienced enough to research further. It took me a while to figure it out, but when I discovered records for both names, living concurrently, I realized they were actually two separate people.

More recently, I was searching for my ancestor Henry Dougherty and his wife Mary Clark Dougherty who both disappeared from Batavia, NY records after the 1830 census. Family lore from distant cousins said Henry died young, having drowned in the Erie Canal. My Henry was born 1792 in Massachusetts, right before his family moved to Herkimer County, NY. He enlisted at Utica, NY, just four miles away from his father's farm, and served in the War of 1812. Afterward he settled in the fertile farmland of Batavia, NY. After not being able to find Henry and Mary in Batavia after 1830, I began looking in nearby counties for the 1840 census and, after much searching, came across a Mary Dougherty of Lewiston, in the caddy-cornered Niagara County. The Niagara County historian located that Mary in their obituary index card file and said her husband, named Henry, had died in 1839 and was buried in the Lewiston Village/First Presbyterian Cemetery. I thought I had found my Henry and Mary!!! A few things about the ages and birthplaces didn't match up, though, as Henry was listed as having been born 1808 and Mary in 1799–both in Ireland. After doing an exhaustive research of them, I found a deed from Mary Dougherty of Lewiston to a George Dougherty of Scranton, PA in 1885–the year before she died. I hadn't seen this George on any record with Mary prior to this, but the U.S. Censuses prior to 1850 didn't list the names of family members, so I wasn't surprised. After researching this George I found a death certificate showing he was born to Henry Dougherty and Mary Carlin in Utica, NY. What? This is even more convoluted than I thought I could possibly get! Two Henry and Mary families, who at one time were both in Utica and both later moved to western New York. The fact is that the ages and birthplaces were simply not reconcilable and confirmed to me that, as coincidental as it was, there were in fact two Henry and Mary Dougherty families–mine and someone else's. I had a host of records proving my family was in America for at least a generation earlier or more. It could've been easy to say I found my family, go put some flowers on their grave while on my research trip, and convince myself that I'd closed the gap–but I had too much experience in making mistakes of misassociation by not paying attention to the context and the details and I wasn't going to fall prey to that.

Accepting unsourced relationships someone put online and connecting to "possible parents"

My previous brick-wall ancestor, Roswell Dougherty, was born 1819 in New York state and first appeared in Ohio in the 1840s. When I joined Ancestry, someone had, in their public member tree, listed my Roswell Dougherty's father as "unknown Dougherty", placing siblings of William, Emiline, Mary, and John R Dougherty beside Roswell. Unfortunately, they failed to provide any sources (remember I said that was as good as any other lie?). While I couldn't find any information about a William, Mary, or Emiline, I did find that there was a John Richard Dougherty born 1822 in New York, whose' family had moved to Ohio in the early 1800s. I was elated, because, in my inexperienced logic, I was sure I had solved the mystery and found our elusive ancestor! A more experienced cousin shot me down and, honestly, I was pretty ticked off for a while. All the while, inside, I knew she was right. Over a period of time, she challenged me to think critically about my sources and not just surface level and it changed the way I approached genealogy completely. I knew that if we did our homework and gathered enough data, there was a chance that we might actually be able to come to a good conclusion.

Never, never, never, never, never give up!

Another pitfall into many amateur genealogist fall into is not taking the time to learn genealogy best practices and not wanting to put in the time it takes to do an exhaustive search (especially when you think you've already got most of the records you think exist). There is no microwave oven for good genealogy recipes. Malcolm Gladwell said that to become a master at something you have to put in 10,000 hours. While I certainly am no master and I don't think I've quite put in 10,000 hours, I can say that it does take time, requires you to be teachable, and a lot of persistence to be successful at genealogy…or at anything else for that matter. Dave Ramsey sums up his Momentum Theorum as "Focused intensity, over time, multiplied by God, equals unstoppable momentum." It was Edison while working on the light bulb who said “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

After realizing I that critically examining the sources was the only way to go, I had another letdown. That was, sometimes there just doesn't seem to be any hope of finding that linking evidence that connects one generation to another or one location to another. After a while of efforts with no results, I basically gave up–right in the middle of our search. I come to think that it was just very likely that no such linking record exists and how we could search a hundred years and still turn up nothing. Well, maybe that sounds dramatic, but with sparse record keeping and courthouse fires, it seems certainly possible for a two century-old problem to be unsolvable. In defense of hope, however, we have Locard's exchange principle. This is a principle in forensic science that says "every contact leaves a trace"–there will be some shred of evidence left somewhere–just finding it is sometimes the hard part. Even though the search became tediously frustrating and I gave up multiple times throughout the process, I'd always find myself back looking at the puzzle pieces and digging through some more records. I think my internal drive to understand and connect with the past as a means of context was the only thing that kept pulling me back into wanting to solve the mystery.

Finding a DNA match, when you have no close matches.

In order to crack a case in which there are few traditional genealogical sources (paper records, such as census, birth, marriage, and death records), you must look beyond the traditional sources to alternative evidence. This is where using DNA comes in. Just like "public member trees" on the web have made a fool of good research, there's just as many folks who are using DNA evidence wrong or at least very poorly. Solving a complex genealogy problem with a technical genetic solution must be accompanied by one taking the time and obtaining the training necessary to interpret the results and understand what they are actually saying. It's all a game of getting connected with the right training and the right teachers, taking the time, wanting to learn, and being teachable. Zack Daugherty, "Earthquake Bob" Doherty, and the late Carleen Doherty were instrumental in both teaching me as well as pointing me to good educational material to learn better how to interpret the meaning of the DNA results. Some of the material they suggest is on the site's Y-DNA Page, as well as the contact information for Zack, Bob, the other DNA project administrators, links to our Y-DNA project at FamilyTreeDNA, and the Clann Y-DNA Facebook research group.

What made my project unique was that I did a Y-DNA test, but it didn't come back with any close Dougherty matches in the United States. That told me that no distant relative from my particular male lineage had taken a Y-DNA test. I was the pioneer. Pioneering is nice when you want to be known for making a breakthrough, but it sure requires a lot more work than coming in on the tail-end of someone else's research! My cousins and I finally came to the conclusion that we might just have to randomly Y-DNA test men from different Dougherty families from New York, since our brick-wall ancestor was born in New York. The problem is that only knowing they were from New York state is not a lot of help in narrowing down our list down and we just didn't have money for more than maybe a couple tests. That's where praying came onto the scene. I believe it was less than coincidence, and more of God's help, that my cousin and I both came across a World War I draft record for a man named William Roswell Dougherty in our search. Normally, this wouldn't be significant, but Roswell (the name of our brick-wall ancestor) is a rather uncommon name. Not a lot to go on, but it was the best we had. Tracing this interesting William Roswell Dougherty's family back from his WWI draft card, we discovered that his Dougherty ancestors were living in New York at the time that my family's Roswell was born. This was a long shot, but it was our only shot.

As Y-DNA is passed from father to son, I started to trace this William Roswell Dougherty's male descendants down to the present day and compare their Y-DNA to mine. An exact or nearly exact match could indicate we were closely related cousins. Conversely, a distant match or no matching at all would tell us that's not our family. Either way would be progress because it would help us focus our research where it would be more likely to bear results. Unfortunately, while this William Roswell Dougherty had one son Edward Thurber Hall Dougherty, it was the gracious note of one meticulous genealogist on ancestry that let us know Edward T. H. Dougherty was adopted and not biologically a Dougherty, nor carrying the Dougherty Y-DNA. Had this not been revealed, we could've done a test on the Hall-Dougherty descendants, got frustrated, wrote off the family as not being related, and missed our connection entirely. While it was sad to find he had no biological sons, I began searching for cousins. Unfortunately, neither of this William Roswell Dougherty's two brothers had sons either. We went a generation back further, now mapping out the paternal descendants of his uncles' lineages, from the mid-1800s. on down. While tracing each family out for a century and a half was tedious, my cousin, Susan, and I sent messages and emails to as many lines as we were able to trace to the present day. Out of the few who did reply, only one was willing to take a test. One is all we needed, though, as his Y-DNA came back an exact match our the Y-DNA of our family. This then allowed us to focus our research entirely on that New York Dougherty family and then find the evidence we needed to locate if and where we fit into that family. You can read more about the story of how the case was cracked and another four generations back further were added to the family tree in the 100+ page report on our Example Research page. The report is entitled, An Examination of Evidence Relating to the Paternal Ancestry of Roswell Dougherty and Henry Dougherty.

Boots on the ground records

While major genealogy databases (such as Ancestry, MyHeritage, and FamilySearch) are incredible resources, you often hit road-blocks, where you can't go any further because there's not sufficient information to make an accurate decision on who is who and where they came from. One of the most important things you can do is to actually go to the physical locations where your brick-wall ancestors lived and do an exhaustive search. Searching these non-digitized records that are only available in dusty courthouse rooms, genealogical societies, churches, city halls, public libraries, and other repositories you will often find hidden clues that may be just what it takes to solve your case or at least narrow down your possibilities. One other option is to hire a volunteer from a local genealogical society. I reached out to a number of kind folks who, during the earlier part of my research (when I couldn't afford to make a trip) helped me do research, sent me records, and I mailed them checks for their time (which most were billing me like $10 an hour).

Keeping it all together

After putting in thousands of hours of research over a period of several years keeping a record of what was searched and what clues, leads, and contacts you have is almost an impossible task. However, without it you may waste time duplicating research, forget something important, miss a connection, or just can't remember the source for an important piece of data. My cousins and I sent hundreds of emails to each other over this period and each time I would copy important sections or quotes from the email, along with the date, and who sent it into my master research document. I can't say it was always perfectly organized, but it was always all in one place and could be searched with the press of a button (two buttons, actually: CTRL+F). Sometimes I used a Word document, later I used OneNote. The program doesn't matter so much as the fact that you have a searchable place where all your research on a particular family unit of study is stored. The key is to have the notes, and then be able to search them, periodically review them for patterns or relationships, and have them (at least somewhat) organized. When you go to analyze, corroborate, and cross-reference your evidence later on to arrive at your conclusions–and especially when you go to cite your sources while writing out that conclusion–you will thank yourself for doing this. Another important thing related to this is keeping good backups of all this stuff, preferably some of the backups off-site as well.

Continuity: If something seems "off" it just might be

One thing to be mindful of is a sense of continuity. You do not typically find ancestor who was born, lived, and raised in one area and all their family from that area and all of a sudden, they pop up in a completely different part of the country with no relatives, no reason, and nothing connecting them. Yes, it is certainly possible that you had an ancestor who just went completely rogue and started a completely different and new life–maybe something from the Wild West. However, most of the time, there will be some kind of connecting factor or other family members who ended up going that direction. Travel in early days often occurred in groups and families: if one ancestor moves you are likely to find siblings, cousins, in-laws, or at least maybe neighbors who also made the move to that county or the region nearby your ancestor. I've seen public member trees on major subscription databases with people who were listed as having been born in England, had a child born in Montana, USA, and then they and all the rest of their family lived and are buried in England. I suppose that's certainly possible, but highly improbable.

Typically you will find something in common with families when there's a connection, whether it's shared occupations, religious beliefs, or something else. In one lineage I follow, the Medley family, one of my ancestors, John Medley of Maryland, was an illiterate Catholic immigrant. Someone's research published in a decades-old book says he was the same as John the son of a Protestant parish clerk from England named Richard Medley. While it's theoretically possible, it's highly unlikely that a parish clerk's son would both be illiterate, and have converted to Catholicism. Recent Y-DNA evidence from Medley researchers has now proven, by testing both lineages, that they are two separate families from completely unrelated Y-DNA haplogroups.

Due to the hazards of life during the 1800s, some people may disappear due to early deaths, but if you find all the evidence, chances are that you're going to find something that ties it all together. In my search for Roswell Dougherty, he showed up in Ohio, his father drowned in the Erie Canal in New York, and his brothers show up in Iowa, however there is an incredible flow of patterns throughout the whole thing between shared occupations, the canal system and waterways, shared religious denominations, and much more. The simple matter is, if it doesn't make sense, it may be that you have someone elses' puzzle piece and not yours. Always check to see if your work makes sense. If it doesn't begin to ask yourself why and begin your search to make sense of things.

I know this post has been a little hodge-podge mostly of some of my lessons learned the hard way. I've made a lot of mix ups, I've learned from my mistakes, and I believe I'm a better genealogist because of them. That's actually one of the goals of this site, to promote excellence in genealogy amongst the O'Dochartaigh Clann. If you haven't already read it, take a glance over my research report, An Examination of Evidence Relating to the Paternal Ancestry of Roswell Dougherty and Henry Dougherty to see if some of the methods my cousins and I used to find our ancestors could be something you could use to find your own. I wish you the best of success in your research efforts!

Ta Ta For Now!

Will Dougherty, III

Curator, O'Doherty Heritage

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Wonderful post! I have been researching both mine and my husband's genealogy for many years, but still consider myself new to the genealogy game and still learning from my mistakes. I have made many of the mistakes you mention and am still trying to correct my tree and remove/replace the bad information I accepted from other people's trees before I realized most of them do not do the hard work to verify their information. I am currently focused on working with a cousin to track down our Daugherty lineage on my paternal grandmother's line. We hit our wall pretty early with John R. Daugherty, Sr., born sometime between 1828-1832 in Lebanon, Marion County, KY. I was quite excite…


Michael D Lacopo
Michael D Lacopo

Bravo, Will! And for those who see this comment and have not read the hyperlink to Will's report "An Examination of Evidence Relating to the Paternal Ancestry of Roswell Dougherty and Henry Dougherty", please do so! It's an excellent discussion of how one piece of evidence leads to another and a good piece of detective work and perseverence. There are MANY, MANY errors and fabrications in Daugherty genealogies online, especially those associated with the colonial United States south. Good research and DNA testing will help correct them!


Hats off for a great job on describing with instructive detail the effort it takes to search for and double-check records to produce reliable, defensible research. The most common error I've seen people make is the wholesale adoption of hints not backed up by public records, whether on-line or in public repositories. The second error I've seen people make is taking old family stories at face value without verifying facts in public records. What we do is a labor of love for the benefit of future generations. Care is warranted. In my experience thus far, it's likely that the effort cannot produce anything reliable past the late 1700s for Irish Catholics or Anglo-Irish ancestors. Let's at least do…

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