Bank on collateral relatives to find hidden treasure

Last summer I spent some time cleaning up around George W.L. Murray's gravesite during a trip to Pennsylvania. I even planted posies by his headstone to spruce up his mountaintop resting place. I figured I owed him. For if it weren't for George, the fate of his brother, Samuel, might have forever remained a mystery, and I wanted to know what had happened to Samuel.

George never married. In his will, he left his estate to his siblings or their heirs. A portion went to the "children of my late brother, Samuel." Probate records name the kids and show them living in West Virginia. (No wonder the family simply vanished from the Pennsylvania census rolls.) The documents imply that Samuel married twice and that his youngest child was born to his second wife. George's will gave me better directions than a compass.

So what was I doing snooping around in George's affairs? Basically, it's because I know from experience that researching collateral family members can produce substantial information about my direct ancestors. In genealogical parlance, collateral relatives are siblings, aunts and uncles. Your direct line means you, your parents, your grandparents, etc. It's strictly linear.

Some "rooters" ignore anyone not in their direct line. This baffles me. Why disregard potentially significant information? I suspected that Samuel Murray had moved to West Virginia. But without George Murray's will to pinpoint the location, I would have had to wade through records for each county until I got lucky.

More important, such documents are essential for confirming family ties, especially before 1900, when so many people shared the same name. How else can you be sure which John Smith is yours?

Take my convoluted Murray family, for example. Brothers John and Jacob each married women named Catherine. Each couple named their first-born son John and their second son Jacob. We're talking early 1800s, a time when paperwork is scarce and census rolls listed only the man's name. With three John Murrays and three Jacob Murrays living in the same tiny township, it's easy to get confused, which a couple of earlier researchers actually did. By latching on to the first John or Jacob they came across who fit the right age group, they incorrectly paired up spouses and killed one man off before his time.

These inaccuracies surfaced when I was tracing my own direct line. I descend from one of those Jacob Murrays. To avoid making the same mistakes, I painstakingly traced each of those families through the late 1800s. By then, thank goodness, my branch widened its repertoire of given names. Researching got a whole lot easier.

Another good reason to investigate aunts and uncles is to establish where they were born. Were children from the same family born in different places? A migration pattern could emerge. That clue could direct you to other counties or states.

You also might discover an aging parent living in a sibling's household. Such data will help you more accurately determine death dates. Did the sibling live in another state? Then you'll know where to look for your ancestor's will.

This technique helped me ferret out which of two elderly widows named Catherine Murray was my relative. Both appear on the 1850 census. One lived with her daughter and son-in-law, Elizabeth and Jacob Miller. Based on my collateral research, I immediately eliminated her. She was John Murray's widow. The other Catherine Murray lived with her unmarried daughters, Elizabeth and Hannah. No question about it. She was Jacob Murray's widow. Subsequent research proved it.

Copyright © 2002 Donna Murray Allen. All rights reserved.
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