Genealogy is appealing to me because it is a challenge. I love the detective work of piecing together a person’s life from only the crumbs of information they’ve left behind.
There are cases where you immediately find everything to you need to paint a picture of a life including vital records, burial records, obituaries, and even published biographies. These are fun and fast-paced cases.
There are also cases where the very first search shows zero positive results. That’s when I sit back, take a breath, and know I’m in for a journey. The challenge can be caused by endless factors - difficult name spellings, name changes, multiple individuals with the same name, locations where no records were kept or all the records were destroyed, etc. But regardless of the cause, an antsy feeling starts to creep in when questions aren’t easily answered. And when one page of notes suddenly turns into ten pages of notes on searches and negative findings and potential pathways and dead ends - only to have nothing to show for it - that’s when any genealogist can get overwhelmed.
When facing a challenging case, I have to remind myself often to go back to the basics. As an example and an exercise, I’ll write about a challenging case I’m currently working on regarding my second great grandfather. Writing a case out in a draft or narrative style can prove to be incredibly helpful in combatting the overwhelmed and discouraging feelings we get when we don't find answers. I chose this particular case because I am optimistic that there will be an answer at the end of my journey and, though I can’t say that for many challenging cases, I hope this may be especially helpful to my fellow genealogists who are just starting out.
My great grandmother was Annie Emiline Peck (pictured). Annie was born in Simsbury, Hartford County, Connecticut on 6 Mar 1885. She married Reuben Frank Smith and they had one child, Doris Vivian Smith. My mother remembers her very fondly but nothing was known about her parents - and so my investigation began.
Annie Emiline Peck’s birth record(1) named her parents as:
John A. Peck, age 36, born in West Redding, Fairfield County, CT
Alice E. Brown, age 31, born in Bloomfield, Hartford County, CT.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that the town of their birth was listed, as usually only the state or country is provided. Alice E. Brown’s line from Bloomfield has been confirmed for me over the years by many autosomal DNA matches on Ancestry. And many years ago, my grandmother’s distant cousin did a great deal of research on this side of the family tree and in his records I found his conclusion that John A. Peck was the son of Arza Canfield Peck of Brookfield, Fairfield County, Connecticut. This Peck line is well documented and resided in the Fairfield County area of Connecticut from as far back as the year 1700.
However, while gathering and analyzing documents, I discovered a discrepancy in this conclusion. The 1900, 1910, and 1920(2) census records disprove the possibility that John was of the Fairfield County Peck line as he states multiple times that his father was born in Vermont and his mother was born in Massachusetts. The Peck family of Fairfield County were all born in Connecticut.
Arza Canfield Peck did have a son named John, but he was born in 1863. This year was too late to be the 36-year-old John named on Annie’s birth record. At age 36, John’s estimated birth year would be 1849. By compiling the ages provided over four decades of census records, I can further conclude that his birth may have occurred within a range from 1843 to 1854. That range is broad and continues to be a challenge in itself.
In addition, though named John A. Peck in Annie’s birth record, all additional records show that Annie’s father went by John C. Peck. His name is engraved on his headstone as John C. Peck and he is listed as John C. in the census of 1880, 1900, 1910, and 1920.(2)
I am now left with the mystery of John C. Peck’s parents. My research has given me the following clues:
- His father was likely born in Vermont.
- His mother was likely born in Massachusetts.
- His parents moved to Connecticut around or prior to 1843-1854.
- John may have been born in West Redding, Fairfield County, CT between 1843-1854.
And the following challenges:
- West Redding is not its own town but a section of Redding, CT.
- The 1850 census for Redding shows no Peck families.
- The 1860 census shows one Peck family but the parents, John and Emily, both list their birthplaces as Massachusetts. They had a thirteen year old John enumerated with them which makes this family a definite possibility, but despite numerous searches no other records for this family have been found to this date.
- Multiple broad searches have provided no leads.
- No obituary or newspaper articles have been found online or at the State Library.
My current research plan is to focus specifically on records that could have named John’s parents:
1) Research Fairfield County town boundaries. Was West Redding a town in 1850? Was it part of or absorbed into Redding or into a different neighboring town where records may be held currently? Finding John’s birth record may depend on identifying precisely what he was referring to when he stated he was born in West Redding.
2) Visit Redding, CT (or surrounding area after research conducted) where John was supposedly born to search for a birth record in vital records (not available online).
3) Visit Simsbury, CT to obtain John’s death certificate in hopes that his parents will be listed (not available online).
4) Visit Norfolk, CT where John and Alice were married to obtain their marriage record in hopes that his parents will be listed (not available online).
It never ceases to amaze me how helpful it is to write out a challenging case step-by-step. It narrows the focus and transforms a big mystery into a manageable mystery within minutes. There is always the chance that nothing will be found and I will need to stop and reevaluate again before proceeding. But, having the facts laid out and a plan in place takes an overwhelming feeling and transforms it into organized action.
Now comes the challenge of finding the time in my busy professional/mom schedule to plan a day trip to these areas. That may ultimately be the biggest challenge of all…
This post is part of Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge, a year-long blogging project focusing on family history stories. This week’s prompt is “challenge.”
(1) "Records of births, marriages, and deaths, v. 1-2, 1847-1908," online images, Family Search (https://www.familysearch.org : accessed 11 Dec 2019), film 007730379, image 435; citing Registrar of Vital Statistics, Simsbury, Connecticut.
(2) 188O U.S. Census, Hartford Co., CT, pop. sched., Simsbury, ED 57, p. 585B, dwelling no. 239, John C. Peck household; image, Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : accessed 28 Dec 2018); citing NARA microfilm T9, roll 100; 1900 US Census, Hartford Co., CT, pop. sched., Simsbury, ED 217, sheet no. 16, house no. 5, family no. 331, John C. Peck; image, Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : accessed 28 Dec 2018); citing NARA microfilm T623, roll 131; 1910 US Census, Hartford Co., CT, pop. sched., Simsbury, ED 237, p. 16A, family no. 202, John C. Peck household; image, Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : accessed 31 Dec 2018); citing NARA microfilm T624, roll 131; 1920 US Census, Hartford Co., CT, pop. sched., Simsbury, ED 183, p. 2A, dwelling no. 38, family no. 39, John Peck; image, Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : accessed 31 Dec 2018); citing NARA microfilm T625, roll 184.