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29 October 2010

Genealogy: the Great Adventure or separate fact from fiction

“Grandma sat on the Indian chief’s lap,” teased my grandfather. “Stop that, Will!” retorted grandmother. At various family gatherings and over many years, this verbal bantering was witnessed by my aunt, my mother, and me. All families have their own stories. Every person has a unique tale. The genealogist researches the validity of the anecdote. Using five steps as road markers, a genealogist will point the way down the path to the authenticity of a family narrative.  

The first road marker is to consider the source or informant. Families do not purposely mislead other family members. Remember the game of telephone? Every person sits in a circle. Some fact is whispered to the next person in line. By the time the whispered fact returns to the beginning, some of the essentials have been unintentionally altered. In the above example, the players are William John Schuler (1871-1964) my maternal grandfather and Nettie Ethel (Couch) Schuler (1884-1965) my maternal grandmother. The three witnesses are Selma (Kampe) Blackmon, me, Mildred Louise (Schuler) Kampe (1919-2008), my mother, and Eleanor Lena (Schuler) Boldt (1910-1995), my aunt.

In order to determine probability, place the individuals in time, place the individuals in location and thoroughly search the records, these three road markers all combine into demanding research. The genealogist will search for family records, study local history and research church, land, vital, and tax records. In this example, the event would take place in LaSalle County, Illinois. The time would be between 1850 and 1900. The chief’s name would be Shaubena (Shabbona) of the Pottawatomie tribe. As a chief, grandfather and ally to the settlers, the 83 year old man probably welcomed the tired travelers. At the time of his death on 17 July 1859, he lived on the Illinois River.[1]

According to the 1896 obituary for Elisha T. Couch (1820-1896), paternal grandfather of Nettie, the Couch family came to Seneca (Crotty), LaSalle County, Illinois, from New York in January 1857.[2] This places the family and the chief in the same location at approximately the same time. My grandmother, Nettie, was born in Illinois in 1884.[3] This information definitely causes a time conflict. The chief died in 1859 and my grandmother was born in 1884. Carrie S. Couch (1856-1927) daughter of Elisha T. Couch was born just before the family left for Illinois.[4] Carrie, instead of Nettie, could have been the Couch family member held by the chief.

The last road marker is to scrutinize the research findings against the family folklore. Again, using the information available above, I reached the following conclusion. The Couch family and Chief Shaubena lived in LaSalle County, Illinois, at approximately the same time. Nettie Couch was born 25 years after the death of the chief. Carrie Couch would have been born just before the migration. Therefore, Carrie was most likely the Couch family member welcomed by Chief Shaubena.

Any research uncovers more questions. Was grandfather referring to another chief? Not, likely, as the natives moved further west. By the use of “grandma,” did he mean Nettie’s ancestor? Again, not likely as grandfather called Nettie “grandma.”

As seen by my example, traditional stories are fascinating and often colorful. By using these five markers, the family historian can analyze his/her own family lore. The validity of the story can be authenticated and documented. The road markers in my example point to likelihood of another family member being greeted and held by the Indian chief.

[1] Matson, N. Memories of Shaubena. Chicago: D.B. Cooke, 1878. Page 268.
[2] Illinois, Ottawa. Ottawa Daily Republican Times. 17 December 1896.
[3] Illinois, LaSalle County. Birth register number 7525. (1884). Nettie Couch. County clerk’s office. Ottawa.
[4] 1920 U.S. census, LaSalle County, Illinois, Manlius Township, population schedule, town of Crotty. Micropublication T625, roll 378, Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration., ED 122, s3A.