Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Indexing Concerns

As an Online Parish Clerk (OPC) for four Devon, England parishes, I have occasionally been asked about the data I have collected and used and how to go about searching for ancestors. Of course, experience in family history studies helps as we all learn things over time through reading and asking questions ourselves.

Just this week I was asked by a family researcher, Ron, about how to distinguish between two individuals named Richard Hillson, both born in Cornwood parish, Devon, in 1812. One of them was his 2nd great-grandfather but he was not able to tell from the information he had who, Richard’s parents, his 3rd great-grandparents were. Ron’s 2nd great-grandmother was Eliza (nee Horton).

The couple and their family had been found on various censuses and on indexed lists on FamilySearch, but telling which one came from which family was confusing. Ron contacted the Churchwarden for Cornwood parish who looked up the baptisms and basically confirmed what was on the indexes. She then directed him on to me. It appears he had not yet found my own OPC webpages.

One thought Ron had was that perhaps one was baptized as Hilson and the other Hillson and the spelling might be a way to tell them apart. FamilySearch showed the two different versions of the surname for the two Richards, information apparently taken from transcriptions of the England, Devon, Parish Registers, 1538-1912.

But when I looked at the images of the parish register pages, I found that both were baptized as Hillson. One Richard was baptized on 1 August 1812 to James and Elizabeth Hillson; the other was baptized on 11 October to George and Elizabeth Hillson.

All the censuses for the two Richards show Cornwood as their birth place, so that narrowed down the searching somewhat. But, as we all know, census records frequently have problems with spelling of names, both surnames and forenames. Indexing in general among most databases is replete with errors, so care must be taken in identifying individuals. It is the main reason why I decided to obtain copies of all the parish registers in my OPC areas and transcribe them and the censuses myself, with the help of several volunteers it should be noted.

Richard and Eliza married in 1837 and are shown on all censuses from 1841 to 1901 living in Cornwood. The family consistently was shown as Hillson. Their nine children were all baptized in Cornwood although two of them were recorded by the Vicar as Hilson.

Richard Hillson and Mary Jane Lumley married in 1838. They were shown living in Cornwood in 1841 (as Hillson) and in Plymouth Saint Andrew in 1851 (as Hilson). Ancestry shows the family as Helson on the 1851 census, further complicating the search. The couple had four children in Devon, one born in Cornwood and three in Plymouth. By the mid-1850s the family had moved to Ontario, Canada where they had one last child in 1856. Mary Jane died before 1861.

Back to the problem of which family Ron’s 2nd great-grandfather had come from: I told him how I thought he might find the right connections, even with the indexing problems, by looking at certain family data and records:

1.      First, he should be careful with indexed spelling. Both Richards were baptized as Hillson, so FamilySearch was wrong on that count. Both married as Hillson as well, so some of the census information was not recorded correctly.
2.      Naming patterns in Europe and the British Isles in past centuries often resulted in children being given the names of grandparents. Thus, he might expect one Richard to have a son named George and one with a James, after their respective fathers. The bride's father might also be there, along with her maiden name as a second name of some children. The Richard who married Eliza did have a son named James, born 1853 but no George. They also had a daughter names Fanny Northmore, born 1841, and a son named Philip Horton, born 1858, probably after their maternal grandparents. The other Richard did not have sons with either name of James or George, so that was not much help.
3.      Marriage records in England and Wales after September 1837 show the fathers' names of both groom and bride. If Ron was to obtain the 1838 marriage record for Richard and Mary Jane it should likely demonstrate who Richard’s father was.

With this information I believed that Ron would be able to identify his 3rd great-grandparents and hopefully move on to finding ancestors even further back. What is important is to look at copies of the actual records, especially those from parish registers and not necessarily accept information that is second-hand from indexed sources.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Does sharing the same name make you a relative?

We can find many people with the same surname around the world who come from different family lines. Often, they may even have the same unusual spelling that matches our own. But does that mean that they are in any way related to us? Not necessarily!

The people I am talking about might be found within our "families" but are not blood relatives. I have already written about mixed families and individuals that have been adopted (Don’t Forget About Those Half-Brothers and Sisters, 13 January 2015). Some were under formal agreements but, in the distant past, there were frequently never any paper records that demonstrated such relationships. People just took in nephews, nieces, half-cousins or siblings and raised them as their own.

We have all found "cousins" whether through DNA tests or more traditional records. Many would have come down through people who had moved away from their birth places, perhaps to very distant shores. It may have only been accidentally that we ran across them again, through Internet searches and connections that now allow us to view records and databases from international sources.

It is this latter way that Mike, a 5th cousin, found me. As an author of articles, occasional speaker, blogger and Online Parish Clerk, my name is out there where genealogists can find it. I have published many articles and stories about family members, in journals and magazines as well as on my blog. Almost all of them mention the area of Cornwood, Devon, England, where my Shepheard ancestors lived for hundreds of years. A search of 'Cornwood' and 'Shepheard' or with even alternate spellings will bring up references to my work.

OK, so what is all this leading up to?

Mike was born in South Africa and is descended from Shepheards born in Cornwood. His great-grandfather (my 2nd cousin, 3x removed), Richard Shepheard (1861-1934) migrated to South Africa about 1890.  As it turns out, Richard’s father (Mike’s 2nd great-grandfather, my 1st cousin, 4x removed), Nicholas Shepheard (1839-1919), was the last person to own part of the family "estate" there. I wrote about that in a 2011 article about how the lands were passed down to Nicholas through various ancestors' wills.

Incidentally, the family dropped the ‘a’ from their surname. Richard signed his 1886 marriage entry as Shepheard. The birth of his first child was registered in 1887 with the ‘a’; the birth of his second child was registered in 1889 without it. Throughout his life in South Africa he was known as Shepherd. For Nicholas, he made his mark on his 1860 marriage entry and is shown with the Shepherd on most census and other records.

Richard’s family connection is problematic, as is his father’s in some respects. Richard married Ellen Cole (1863-1896) in Plymouth in Plymouth in 1886. They had two children, Arthur (b. 1886) and Nellie (b. 1889), in Plymouth and a third, Richard (b. 1892), in Johannesburg. Nellie Ellen was Mike’s grandmother; her daughter, Olive, was his mother. So, we have two surname changes to get to Mike.

Mike has indicted that, through a DNA test, he has found a large number of hits on his father’s side of his family, but apparently does not have any connections through the Shepheard line. We may have a reason for that.

Mike’s Great-Grandfather Richard was baptized in Cornwood on 6 February 1861 as “reputed son of Elizabeth Pascoe and Nicolas Sheppard [sic]” Nicholas and Elizabeth had married only three months prior, on 29 November 1860. It is possible, then, that Nicholas was not Richard’s biological son. That may explain why Mike has not had a Shepheard hit on his DNA test. No birth registration has been found for Richard either, under Shepheard (or variation) or Pascoe surnames, so we cannot verify Richard’s real name.

A similar conundrum exists for Nicholas. A birth year of 1839 is indicated on the 1841, 1851, 1871, 1881 and 1911 censuses. The 1891 census shows 1841 and the 1901 census shows 1840. He has not been found on the 1861 census. His age on his first marriage in 1860 was 21 and on his second marriage in 1907 was 67. His 1919 burial and death records say he was 80. From this data we can be fairly sure that he was born in 1839.

No birth or baptism record has been found for Nicholas Shepheard or variation. All of the other children of Nicholas’s parents, Richard and Sarah have baptism records. But there was a baptism in Cornwood, for a Nicholas Andrews, which was Sarah’s maiden name. Parents shown were Richard and Sarah, and with him as a carpenter, which makes one wonder if either there was a mistake in the entry, the wrong surname having been recorded, or whether Nicholas was Sarah’s biological son but not Richard’s.

Either of Nicholas or Richard being someone other than sons of Shepheard men would obviously break the biological connection. But that does not make them not part of the family!

In my opinion, families come with all kinds of complicated relationships, some with blood connections and some without. Mike and I are still cousins whether or not we can demonstrate shared DNA.


Shepheard, Wayne. (2011). Analysis of the Last Will & Testament of Nicholas Shepheard (1761-1820) of Cornwood Parish, County of Devon. The Devon Family Historian, No. 139.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Memorable Modern-Day Events: 1969 Moon Landing

There are a few events that most of remember vividly: where we were; what was going on in our lives; what the ramifications were. September 11, 2001 and November 22, 1963 are two dates that have meaning and invoke emotional reactions.

July 20, 1969 was one of the more magical events that I remember: the day a human (Neil Armstrong) first stepped on the surface of the moon. Next Saturday will be the 50th anniversary of that momentous occasion.
Footprint of Edwin Aldrin, the second man to walk the Moon’s surface (photo retrieved 16 July 2019 from https://www.space.com/16758-apollo-11-first-moon-landing.html)

Perhaps because I was a geologist that I found this particular exploration of a big rock in space amazing. It is a field trip I would probably have wished to undertake, except for the fact that I might not have been able to survive being cooped up in a small craft for a long period of time on the way there and back.
The Apollo 11 lunar landing mission crew, pictured from left to right, Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. (photo retrieved 15 July 2019 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apollo_11_Crew.jpg)

Landing on the moon was one of humankind’s greatest achievements. It capped off less than a century of events involving powered, human flight that began with the Wright brothers’ flying machine launched on 17 December 1903.
The first powered, controlled, sustained airplane flight in history. Orville Wright, age 32, is at the controls of the machine, lying prone on the lower wing with hips in the cradle which operated the wing-warping mechanism. His brother, Wilbur Wright, age 36, ran alongside to help balance the machine, having just released his hold on the forward upright of the right wing. The starting rail, the wing-rest, a coil box, and other items needed for flight preparation are visible behind the machine. Orville Wright pre-set the camera and had John T. Daniels squeeze the rubber bulb, tripping the shutter. (photo first published in 1908; image retrieved 16 July 2019 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wright_Flyer)

The aviation industry literally “took off” following the flight of the Wright Flyer. Within a generation, fixed wing aircrafts had moved from primitive boxes with one pilot to monster machines capable of carrying hundreds of people and using technology never dreamed of even a few decades previously.

The largest passenger airliner is the Airbus A380-800. This double-decker A380 is able to carry, theoretically, up to 850 passengers at a time, however most of its operators have opted for a 450 to 550 passenger layout. That is still a lot of people!

By the way, the landing gear for the Apollo 11 lunar module was designed and made by a Canadian company, Quebec's Heroux-DEVTEK. Canadians, in fact, played important roles in the US space project (https://www.trurodaily.com/living/canadians-played-integral-part-in-getting-apollo-11-crew-to-moon-and-back-151420/).
The Apollo 11 Lunar Module (LM) "Eagle" was the first crewed vehicle to land on the Moon. It carried two astronauts, Commander Neil A. Armstrong and LM pilot Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr. (photo retrieved 16 July 2019 from https://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/spacecraft/display.action?id=1969-059C)

But leaving the Earth and going to space is still the most exciting dream – as Captain James T. Kirk said in the icon series, Star Trek: “To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!

So where was I during this important event. Like millions of others, I was glued to the television watching in real time (or at least a few seconds delayed) while the Eagle landed and Neil Armstrong stepped out on to the Moon. Also like many others I am sure, I took photos of the TV screen to document the historic event. These pictures are now part of our family album.

I have the December 1969 issue of National Geographic magazine that told the story of the 1969 landing. Now I also have the 50th anniversary issue as well documenting the history and future of the space program.

When you think about it, many of our ancestors also went where no one had gone before, at least to settle new lands and raise families with few restrictions, kind of like stepping out of a lunar module on the lands no one else had trod.