Untangling the Knots: The several Smith Mullins families

This is the first of possibly many posts under the theme of “untangling the knots”. The purpose is to demonstrate the complexity of tying names, people, events, and source citations to the correct person and family.

For this case study, I will use the example of SMITH MULLINS.

In my current database, there are at least four persons with the name of SMITH MULLINS. They are as follows, based upon information available to me.

  • Smith “Bitter” Mullins, (b. abt 1809, Franklin, VA; d. bef 1866, Floyd, KY).
  • Smith Crittenden Mullins (b. 1831, Pike, KY; d. 1898, Pike, KY).
  • Smith J. Mullins, Jr. (b. 1843, Pike, KY; d. 1915, Pike, KY).
  • Smith Mullins (b. 1877; d. bef 1910).

As I was attempting to utilize the multitude of online databases at FamilySearch.org to link events such as census enumerations, marriages, birth and death records to the appropriate individuals or families, I discovered the proverbial “rat’s nest” of mislinked records. More particularly, the examples of Smith Crittenden Mullins (1831-1898) and Smith J. Mullins Jr. (1843-1915) highlight the problems for family researchers.

SMITH CRITTENDEN MULLINS (1831-1898) was the son of James Booker “Dr. Jim/Pound Jim” Mullins and Polly Newsome. This individual married SARAH CRAFT (1837-1898) in Letcher County, KY, on 12 [Oct 1854. This marriage is clearly documented in the public records of Letcher County [Creda J. Baker Isaacs, compiler, Letcher County Kentucky Marriages, 1842-1884 (Books 1-6) (Whitesburg, KY: Letcher County Historical and Genealogical Society), Marriage Book 1, p. 50]. This Smith Crittenden Mullins and Sarah Craft lived on Shelby Creek of Pike County, KY throughout their marriage.

SMITH J. MULLINS (1843-1915) was the son of SMITH “BITTER” MULLINS and MARGARET “PEGGY” NEWSOME. This Smith Mullins also married a woman named “Sarah” — SARAH “SALLIE” MULLINS (1841-1913). Sallie was the daughter of JAMES SHERIDAN “JIM” MULLINS and MARY “POLLY” NEWSOME. Their marriage was recorded in Letcher County, Kentucky on 25 Nov 1869.

“1831 Smith” and “1843 Smith” both lived on Shelby Creek of Pike County, near the Letcher County line. They were separated geographically by only a few households. And both families included children who bore the same given names, such as Polly, John and William!

Only by comparing census records for a particular decade, side by side, would one easily determine that “Smith and Sarah/Sallie” would be two different families, not just one. But sloppy research can lead to assumptions, and assumptions can create big errors — and myths!

For example, on one website that attempted to resolve two marriages, the researcher simply claimed that “1831 Smith” married twice — first to Sarah Craft and then to Sarah Mullins. He ignored clear census entries showing a span of twelve years between the estimated birth years for the “one” Smith Mullins.

At least other researcher jumped to the conclusion that “1831 Smith” Mullins married Sarah Craft, but then divorced her and later remarried. And that is the false assumption that has been propagated around the internet community of Mullins researchers.

All of this is not to criticize any particular family researcher unduly. Rather, it is to begin to correct the record of one small family unit. And to highlight how easy it is to jump to a conclusion that, just because we find a single public record — or two, or six — that seem to fit a pattern, we cannot simply decide to connect a dot from Point A to Point B. I have done it myself, far too many times!

Sometimes we have to have several “Points A” laid up side by side — e.g. 1880 census entries for two different households in the same neighborhood, where birth dates for the parents can be compared, children’s given names and birth years can be sorted out, presence of a parent or sibling of the head of household can be explored, etc.

In this particular case, I spent several hours comparing records to resolve the quandary. And then I spent a couple more hours just on one website — FamilySearch.org — unlinking and relinking various records and individuals. I cannot vouch for the quality, or lack thereof, of family tree entries for these families on Ancestry.com, because I am not a paid subscriber there. However, I will make the editorial comment that my experience with their family tree records has not been good (an issue of “quantity” being valued more than “quality”). Therefore, I can only hope someone who is a client will eventually commit equal time and energy to corrections of the records there.

Anyway, for now at least, users of my database can rely a bit more on the investment of time to thoroughly document events and relationships with a critical eye. Oh, yeah… you may also want to check what you have for Smith Mullins in your own records/database!!!

(Hint of things to come: BOOKER MULLINS may be an even more tangled knot to unravel — over multiple generations.)

Forgive us our sins…

This blog posting is long overdue — both in terms of the lapse of time but also in the significance of its message to readers. While it does not directly relate to any of our Appalachian pioneer family ties, I sincerely hope it will be of value to all of us “cousins”!

Millions of Americans have dabbled in matters of family research in this, the era of the internet. We have information — good and bad, reliable and farcical, documented and traditional — at our fingertips. And we have wonderful tools in the form of our computers, sophisticated genealogical database software, online repositories of data, images, and books. For-profit companies such as Ancestry.com, MyHeritage, the DNA testing companies, and others fill the airwaves with advertisements for their services, teasing us with the mysteries of our lineages. Similarly, not-for-profit entities such as FamilySearch (my personal favorite “go-to” place), regional public libraries, universities, and organizations such as the DAR and SAR provide a cornucopia of data.

It is enough to totally bedazzle a “newbie” — or even an “old hand”. And it frequently does! I know, because I too have been like the moth drawn far too close to the candle’s flame…

But sometimes wealth — not just in the form of money, but in overabundance of information as well — can make us greedy. And careless. And arrogant. And just plain blind to common sense.

Much has been said, over the last few months, about the glut of “fake news” and the public’s gullible thirst to drink from any poisoned tap offering whichever particular flavor will satisfy our fickle tastes of the moment.

My intent here is not to become “political” — rather, I want to use that current debate to set a context for my own “MEA CULPA”. When I first envisioned, some twenty years ago, the possibility of utilizing technology to build a “master database” of the pioneering families of the Appalachian highlands, I had no clue how large that web could be. Nor could I imagine the hunger for information, and the willingness to share, that existed among thousands of “cousins” whose family lines may have intersected with my own.

Today my Highland HomePage — that mass of information comprising some 119,000 individual records and 43,000 family units — stands as evidence of the breadth of information that can be compiled through online sharing. And I am extremely grateful for the cooperation and generosity of everyone who helps make it possible.

But this brings me to my main point — and my personal confession and act of contrition…

More is not always better — it’s just more! Information, even when provided by friends and loved ones whom we trust, is not always perfect. It can sometimes be self-contradictory, or it can be just plain foolish!

An example… Even in my own most careful searches of public records, such as census enumerations, I can occasionally confuse households and link children to the wrong parents. Consider a census that shows William Smith, b. 1870, in the household of John (b. 1848) and Mary [Jones] Smith (b. 1852). Even in a relatively small, remote portion of Appalachia, the odds are very good that there are more than a single household in which these names and dates would be good approximate matches. As a result, we can occasionally get families “crosslinked”.  As the saying goes:  “Stuff happens!”

When intermarriages between two families were frequent due to geographical proximity and personal alliances — and when families also used naming patterns in which children were named for uncles or aunts over and over through multiple generations — it is sometimes well-nigh impossible to cut through the ambiguities, even though written “public records” are the sources of documentation.

And I have also received — and passed on — the mistakes of others, even when they have been ridiculous enough to posit that a child was born a century before his/her parents! In my eagerness to merge a batch of a thousand new “cousins” — family research that someone else generously offered to share — I have in good faith passed along bogus info in the mix.

I have been guilty of these and many other sins — despite my best efforts to remain blameless. And I bet you have, too! In that spirit, I hope that you will be kind and gentle when you point out my errors. Calling me stupid — and it has happened — or questioning my motives in distributing “false” information, or whatever, is no way to establish a dialog that will further our mutual search for the truths of our roots and our families.

In this new year of 2017, I am redoubling my efforts to weed out errors of my own commission or omission, and to cut down the background noise along the way. If you wish to join in that effort, pass this message along to your own network of fellow researchers with best wishes for true discoveries!

We’re All In This Together

Forget the Adam-and-Eve story. Ignore the Darwinian “common ancestor” (or “missing link”, if you prefer). You can disbelieve either of those narratives, and yet — if you are Appalachian — you still cannot deny that we are all related to one another!
When I first began to delve into Appalachian history and genealogy, I already knew that certain surnames were prominent in every community and every family’s background. It was that awareness that spurred my interest in documenting the interwoven stories of “the pioneers”.
Now I have compelling evidence of the interconnectedness of our Appalachian family experiences. Continue reading We’re All In This Together

RootsMagic 6 and FamilySearch Central: A Review

For many years I have been a user of genealogy software to collect, collate, and analyze information on my own ancestors and the other families who early settled in the central Appalachian highlands.  My product of choice is RootsMagic, currently in version 6.  RootsMagic is the successor to a program I used back in the late ’90s called Family Origins.

The current release of RootsMagic offers some very impressive functionality that any researcher would deem valuable.  First, it is scaleable to very large databases — mine is more than 87,000 records, plus image files, etc.  Second, it can compile very attractive reports and charts for publishing, either in print or as web resources.

However, the most significant new tool in RootsMagic 6 is its integration with the totally-redesigned FamilySearch Central,

sponsored by the Latter Day Saints.  The LDS has the largest collection of genealogical records in the world,  and much of it has been digitized — including online images of records for many collections.  RootsMagic is the first software product that has been “certified” to directly link with, and exchange data with records in the FamilySearch Central files.

While I have to acknowledge that there are regular database-error messages that can crash the connection linkages, the folks at RootsMagic have aggressively dealt with bugs and posted fixes that will automatically update to the user’s system.  In reality, one can expect a few such problems due to the complexity of the interface between the two services.  And, in my opinion, it is worth the occasional error message to be able to fully integrate facts from an individual record on FamilySearch Central into a specific record on my database.

As any frequent visitor to my online database knows, I disclaim any guarantee of accuracy of the data presented therein — that is because so many records have been contributed by others whose diligence in fact-checking and documentation may be somewhat lacking.  The same can be said for many of the family trees submitted to FamilySearch Central, so a user needs a discerning eye (and suspicious nature) to filter through the wealth of “stuff” there.  However, one can quickly see many of the contradictions that are so common — such as children whose birthdates are a hundred years earlier that the birthdates of their parents — an error resulting from similarities/repetitions of names over generations and frequent intermarriages among a handful of families.

RootsMagic 6 helps the user manage these inconsistencies, using logical tests to flag “problem records”.  In the family view or tree view, a warning icon is affixed to any record that seems logically impossible or unlikely.  Therefore it is easy to visually scan through one’s most immediate ancestry tree to locate and fix problems.  And the same logic can be used to generate a problem list for the entire database that can be saved or printed out for extended troubleshooting efforts.

RootsMagic 6 also provides the capability to automatically query the full collection of public and church records (census, marriages, deaths, births, baptisms, etc.) that have been digitized in FamilySearch Central.  I have been able, for example, to access online transcriptions of the 1900 census of Letcher County, Kentucky (my home county) for any person with surname of Hall (my maternal line), and (1) quickly put each individual into context with his/her family, (2) document the census entry as a unique fact on each personal record, and (3) affix a clear citation to support the quality of the research.

RootsMagic can also automatically query a variety of other online resources — Find-a-Grave, Ancestry, RootsWeb, and more.  However, “hits” to these sites do not provide a means to “click and import” pertinent facts.  The user will have to transcribe the newly-found or verified information into the RootsMagic individual record.  That is still a small price to pay for quick access to phenomenal quantities of captured data from original sources.

As a result of these tools, I am now focusing much more energy on improvement of the quality of data in the records on my website.  Rather than simply “acquiring names” to enlarge the headcount, I can serve you — my users and research colleagues — by more fully testing and validating the connections among our shared ancestral pioneers!

Disclaimer:  I have no business connection with RootsMagic or its owners.  I am just a satisfied customer who wanted to acknowledge how helpful their integration with FamilySearch Central has been for me.