Dear Myrtle's Study Group on "Mastering Genealogical Proof", which we have been following with steady perseverance, came to an end last Sunday, with the panellists' diligent applications of the Genealogical Proof Standard to the work of other genealogists to determine if they hold up. Based on some of the truly wacko lists of names masquerading as family genealogies that we have seen on the Internet, in certain lineage society applications and in some privately printed family histories, we think that learning to apply Dr. Jones's eleven questions (p. 95) to such works to be a fine, nay urgently needed, suggestion.
How would they be applied to comparable French genealogical publications? With difficulty, as published French genealogies do not follow the same pattern. As we have discussed earlier in this series, while North American documentation prior to the twentieth century may, for a number of reasons, be not entirely reliable -- leading, in part, to the requirement for a Genealogical Proof Standard in the first place -- that is rarely the case with French documentation. (As a matter of fact, we surmise that France's historical, busy-body approach to documenting as much as possible about everyone's private life may have been the very reason some of her citizens chose to hop a boat for what was once the Land of Opportunity and Anonymity.)
We have never seen articles concerning the genealogical proof of an ancestor's identity, such as one would find in the "National Genealogical Society Quarterly" or the "New England Historical and Genealogical Register", in French genealogical publications because the occurrence of vague or untrustworthy documentation is so rare here. Yet, mysteries as to identity abound, in most cases because a father and possibly also a mother were not named (non dénommé) on a birth registration or because a child was born sous X, or anonymously. As the birth registration in France is the core document for all subsequent documentation about a person, this can constitute a monumental brick wall.
With the advent of online genealogy and of websites where people post their family trees, a very small amount of chipping away at this type of brick wall is beginning. People descended from someone born fully or partially anonymously are putting their guesses, reasonings, suppositions about the unnamed parents into their online trees. These, we think, are one of the few types of French genealogical works that could be submitted to examination according to the Genealogical Proof Standards with useful results.
By way of example: we have been researching for some years a well-documented Parisian family - Jean-François Robert, his wife, Catherine Caroline Debanne, and their three sons -- and have explored a number of its generations. We felt ourself to be something of an expert on this family (ah, hubris) when lo, one day we were informed of a genealogy online which claimed that an ancestress, Caroline Martin, whose father was not named on her birth registration, was a daughter of the family we were studying. Briefly, the reasons for the claim were:
- "There is no document to show that Jean-François Robert (1763-1844) may have been the father of Caroline Martin (1825-1900), wife of Victor Gassaud (1818-1868).
- A hand-drawn genealogical chart -- now lost -- on which appeared, beside the legitimate spouse of Jean-François Robert, Catherine Caroline Debanne, and her sons, Catherine Martin, mother of Caroline.
- Papa told me often that little Caroline was reared with the Robert boys.
- When Caroline married Victor Gassaud in 1846, she had a large dowry. Her marriage contract specified that she had a trousseau, furniture and silver, valued at 2600 francs, 30 Belgian annuities of 50 francs, ....all "given by hand". They could only have come from her natural father.
- Jean-François Robert's grandson was a witness, identified as a nephew, on the death registration of Caroline Martin, and at the marriage of her grandson, Henri.
- In turn, Caroline's grandson Henri, identified as a cousin, was a witness on the death registration of the grandson of Jean-François Robert.
- As late as the 1920s, members of the Robert family were included in the list of bereaved on the funeral announcements of the Gassaud family."
The descendant of Caroline, who gave the points we quote above did indeed have a clear research question and did cite her sources -- birth, marriage and death registrations all of which could be verified. Without question her search was exhaustive and her sources, which included notarial records in addition to the civil registrations, were excellent. Her claims based on family lore -- that there was a hand-written genealogy and that "little Caroline was reared with the Robert boys" -- could not be verified, (though it could be noted that the youngest Robert boy was nine when Caroline was born and the first Robert grandchild was born when she was nineteen, making it unlikely that she was a playmate of any of them). Nor could it be verified that the large dowry given "by hand" to Caroline, who married two years after the death of Jean-François Robert, came from him. Additionally, the descendant showed how the relationships in nos. 5 and 6 above would indeed be true were Caroline to have been the daughter of Jean-François Robert.
The descendant's conclusion is not claimed to be more than a strong suspicion. It is obvious to all that, if Caroline were his daughter, Jean-François was scrupulous in ensuring that no document with their two names should ever exist: he is not named on her birth, marriage or death registration; he is not named in her marriage contract; she is not named in his will or in the estate inventory after his death. The descendant is clearly aware that her only hope of proof would be through DNA testing with known descendants of Jean-François Robert. Her case, however, is very well made and using the GPS (albeit loosely, to allow for the many cultural differences) to examine it makes that clearer.
It was a good study group and many thanks to Dear Myrtle for organising and presenting it.
©2013 Anne Morddel