How Do I Know They Are My Ancestors?

The question I’m asked above all others is, “How do I know they are my ancestors?” Faced with several people of the same name, how do I know which is mine? The simply answer is by proving it! Proof or evidence is the ‘holy grail’ for genealogists. We look for evidence, to ‘source’ and ‘prove’ our family trees. We match names, occupations and addresses across multiple documents, collating information to form a holistic view. We join parts of a puzzle together to make a whole.

The reality of finding proof is a little less straight forward. In this article I explore how to use cross-referencing and disproof techniques to answer the question, “how do I know they are my ancestors”? Plus, give advice on what do we do when we find contradictory information? AND tackle, how do we manage anomalies and gaps in data?

Using Cross-Referencing to Answer: How Do I know They Are My Ancestors?

Cross-Referencing Questions

Cross-referencing data is an essential skill to master for anyone tracing their family tree. This means going beyond just matching father’s names and occupations.

Let me give an example: Annie Louisa Pithers

Baptism of Annie Louisa Pithers London, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1906 [database on-line], London Metropolitan Archives, Holy Trinity, Kensington & Chelsea, Register of Baptism, p84/tri1, Item 001

I have Annie’s baptism and located her in the 1891 and 1901 censuses. I now look for Annie in 1911. I can’t find her with the name Annie Louisa Pithers (or variants of this name).

Did she get married? I find a possible marriage between an Annie Louisa Pithers and a William Baker in 1904. Luckily the parish register is available at Ancestry. I take a look. Ah, a problem! This Annie’s father’s name was recorded as Thomas. That’s not right. My Annie was the daughter of Elisha (or Elisha George).

Marriage of Annie Louisa Pithers to William Baker London, England, Marriages and Banns, 1754-1921 [database online], London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; Church of England Parish Registers, 1754-1931; Reference Number: p84/js/014; Borough: Kensington, Parish: St James Norland

OK. Before I investigate this marriage further, let’s just check whether it’s even possible for it to be my Annie.

How Do I Know They Are My Ancestor: Disproof & KillingThem Off

I turn to another essential technique – seeking to disprove a potential fact. Sometimes proving something is false is easier than proving it’s true. 

Let’s try to “kill off” my Annie! Did she die before this marriage in 1904? Or between 1904 and 1911? I check death indexes, using transcriptions at different sites to be as thorough as possible. No joy (wrong age, wrong location, already confirmed as a different Annie Pithers etc).

I think it’s safe to presume she didn’t die using her maiden name. OK. Can I find Annie, alive on or after 1911 but using her maiden name? I re-check the 1911 census. The 1939 Register. The Electoral Register. No finds. Did she witness any of her siblings marriages, after 1904 and use her maiden name (Pithers)? If so this might suggest the marriage I’ve found isn’t her. I check. Again no finds.

I return to deaths. Did she die after 1911? No obvious finds, although it’s harder to be sure as the search is so much wider than my previous attempts to “kill her off”.

OK, at this point I stop. I think it’s fair to say I’ve not been able to disprove that Annie married William Baker in 1904.

Let’s return to the marriage I’ve found. Am I sure this is the only possible marriage? I widen my search. Re-check. Use wider variants. No this looks like the only candidate. There’s one other Annie marrying in 1928 and viewing the original I can see she’s not “my Annie”.

Cross Reference Again!

Could this Annie marrying William Baker be mine, despite the fact her father was recorded as Thomas? The father’s occupation at the time of the marriage was “labourer”. This fits with my Annie’s father, but it’s too common to really use as sufficient evidence.

Time to cross-reference. Were there any other Annie Louisa’s born about the same time, in the same place? Nope.

cross referencing information

What about Louisa’s or Ann Pithers? Nope. None that I haven’t accounted for already. OK. So let’s look at the address on the marriage record. It’s Latimer Road. My Annie’s parents didn’t live at No 34, but they did reside on Latimer Road at various different times. It was their address when my Annie was christened, and in 1901. Several of my Annie’s siblings lived on the road too. None at 34, but still it’s a good fit.

Let’s look at the witnesses. The first witness isn’t familiar to me. It’s not a surname I’ve come across before. I note it for future reference. You never know it might turn up somewhere again. What about the second witness…someone Pithers? Elena or Elen? My Annie had a sister, Mary Eleanor. This could be her.

Ok, next job. What happens to this Annie after she marries William Baker? I look at the 1911 census. They lived at 16 Mersey Street. My Annie’s parents resided at No 30 during the same time period.

Segment of 1911 census
Ancestry, 2 April 1911 England, Ireland & Wales Census, Digital Images, Class: RG14, Piece: 222, and ED: 26

Did this Annie have any children? I search the GRO index for children with the surname Baker, mother’s name Pithers.

Yes, there is some circumstantial evidence here. The children of this Annie have middle names that correspond to the names of my Annie’s family members. Elisha was my Annie’s father, and this Annie’s sons’ middle name. Beatrice and Eleanor were also the names of my Annie’s siblings. They are the middle names of two of this Annie’s children. George was the middle name of my Annie’s father, and the first name of her sibling. Samuel was one of Annie’s siblings too. This Annie has a son, Samuel George.

I check the 1939 Register for this Annie. No clues there. I check witness names on my Annie’s siblings marriages. Was there a Baker witness I’d missed? No.

OK, lets recap. I probably can’t say with 100% certainty (yet) that this Annie is “my Annie” but I can say there is a high likelihood, based on:

  • Addresses; both on the marriage and in 1911, match roads lived on by my Annie’s parents

  • This Annie names her children with several of the same names as my Annie’s family members

  • There seems to be only one Annie Louisa Pithers born in the ‘right’ time and ‘right’ place.

  • I’ve been unable to find a death for my Annie Louisa using surname Pithers (with variants)

  • I’ve been unable to find evidence of my Annie Louisa living after 1901 and using the surname Pithers (with variants)

  • Annie’s sister Mary Eleanor Pithers may be the ‘Elen’ Pithers witnessing the marriage

puzzle pieces

For now I’m happy to add this Annie and William Baker to my tree, but I will note my workings. I’ll also continue to search for further evidence. I’ll pay close attention to documents which often mention a wide range of individuals – such as wills and obituaries. I’ll look, not just for documents pertaining directly to Annie Pithers and William Baker, but at wider family members too. Did William have siblings? Did any of Annie’s family members witness their marriages?

I’ll need to review my existing data too. I’ll re-check the census. Were the Baker family living close to the Pithers family during Annie’s younger years?

By cross referencing these various pieces of information I will complete the jigsaw and gain either proof to support, or disprove, my theory.

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