The Source that Got Away
December 21, 2019
Most folks who have been doing genealogy for a while probably have a story or two about mistakes they’ve made. These mistakes often involve neglecting to properly source information. Who doesn’t have an orphaned obit or two malingering in a file with no way to figure out where or when it was originally published or an unsourced birth date on a pedigree chart? Probably nearly everyone has at least a few of these types of omissions.
My own tale of woe about sources isn’t particularly dramatic, but it still haunts me occasionally when I wake up in the middle of the night and remember how stupid I was. The story involves my third great grandmother Rhoda Skinner Terry Cornell. Rhoda is one of those ancestors who left few records and even fewer stories about what her life was like. She was born into a Loyalist family sometime during the Revolutionary War in perhaps New York or New Jersey or Pennsylvania. Her family soon moved to the Toronto area of Canada where she eventually married a man named Parshall Terry. As was typical in that period, Parshall and Rhoda produced a large family. Parshall was accidentally drowned when Rhoda was pregnant with her seventh or eighth or even ninth child, depending on whose tree you trust. At least seven of the children survived to adulthood, all but one of them being daughters.
Left with all of those children, Rhoda probably had no recourse but to quickly remarry, which she did within a year of Parshall’s death. Her second husband William Cornell had been married before, and he brought seven or eight children from his first marriage to his union with Rhoda. Most of his surviving children were also daughters. As if this weren’t enough children, William and Rhoda soon added six more babies to their flock. Three of this group were also daughters.
Although the bare bones of Rhoda’s story are fairly well documented, there are still enough gaps to frustrate an intrepid genealogist. For example, exactly how many children did Rhoda actually bear? The number varies from perhaps as few as eleven to as many as seventeen. Whatever the final total, raising that many children must have been an impressive feat. How did her children with Parshall, William’s children from his first marriage, and Rhoda and William’s children all fit into one house? A number of years ago, I actually found a source that talked about that very subject, and, of course, this is the very source that got away. Somewhere on the internet, I found a copy of a letter or a journal or who knows what which described all of the handsome young daughters a visitor had met at the Cornell house. I remember being thrilled to find this firsthand account that mentioned my family, but clearly not thrilled enough to keep a record of my find since I didn’t write down the quotation or read further to see if there was anything else of interest. And if I didn’t copy the quote, it goes without saying that I didn’t bother to write down where I’d found it either.
So there it is, I found an interesting document that was a first hand account concerning my family, and I didn’t bother to copy it or source it whatsoever. Why? At this point, I can’t remember that either, but presumably I was busy or on the trail of something else and just assumed I’d remember where I found that quote. That hasn’t happened yet, and believe me I’ve looked. I suppose someday I might stumble on that elusive document again, but I’m doubtful at this point since I really don’t have enough information to make an effective search for it.
While I know I’m not the only one who has done something like this, that doesn’t make me feel much better about having lost a potentially interesting tidbit about my family. I wish I could say that it has taught me a lesson, and now I always copy every document I find and faithfully record a complete source citation. While I’m better about it than I used to be, and I definitely try to be completely methodical when it comes to recording source information, I have a feeling that I probably have some unsourced (or incompletely sourced) documents hiding in my files. Hopefully, there are far fewer of them than there were back when I started my genealogy journey. For anyone else, I guess I’ll quote my mother and say “Do as I say, not as I do.” If you do, someday you’ll be glad you did.
Researcher/Director at Large