Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What to Believe?

I want to believe what I read, simple as that. But when doing family history, or anything else I suppose, one still needs to apply a critical mind to any information coming through the door. We can't just buy it off the shelf, even though culturally that's how we live. We have to assess everything all the time and monitor what we believe at all times. It's tiring and certainly easier to do otherwise. But really, how else can we ever approach truth, or even versions of it?

See how I introduce my topics philosphically? Maybe as a reader, you're lost before I get started, but bear with me. It's just my process for sorting through thoughts ....

Here's the scoop. Recently I found a will for Ernest Mann who died in 1846 which named an executor as Jacob Summers. I went to find out more about Jacob Summers and in the space of two days I came across multiple sources published in the late 1800s telling the story of one Jacob Summers, a legislator from Michigan. Except there was more than one Jacob Summers, one was a legislator and one was not. And the tale of each Jacob's origin (from New Jersey or Pennsylvania or Germany) turns out to be a mix of folklore and facts that can only faintly be corroborated.

Honestly, I want to attach a big red flag to the sources in question that says "Don't believe everything you read!" and then send out an All Points Bulletin that would magically reach anybody even remotely involved in researching this branch of the Summers line warning them: If time is your most precious resource, don't waste it here, here, and here! But who am I? Naturally and maybe rightly there are those who wouldn't believe me.

Some days, I want more than anything for there to be an authoritative accounting of my family history that outlines everything from people and places to successes and failures. But even if such a thing existed (it would be available on amazon.com), there is always the matter of wonder. Who wrote what, when and why? Maybe more importantly, who did not write, when and why? Then there is the matter of interpretation and by that I don't refer only to the meaning associated with words. I mean perspective - how we see a picture of people and places from our own geographical and historical location. No matter how close we get, we are always removed. There are some days when I have a vague awareness that some things, even if they survive to be passed down, can't even be imagined by me. It was a vastly different reality that somehow exists now in shadow stories about people whose relationships in the world resulted in me, today, pounding the internet, wandering library stacks, staring blindly for hours at microfilm readers, and then wondering what there is to believe.

Here's what I believe. The true story is a journey of many. It's a very long, sometimes wonderful, sometimes horrifying story. It's going on now as it always has, a collective memory that persistently evolves and occasionally introduces me to myself in new and mysterious ways. My 4th great grandfather Ernest Mann had a trusted cousin, Jacob Summers. No footnote required. Except to say that by some miracle, I now have trusted cousins of my own who believe with me in discovering, telling, and preserving our unpredictable story.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Rediscovering Earnest Mann II

Well, it's been awhile. OK, a long while. Maybe that's how it goes – relentless focus on any one subject necessarily requires stepping away. Coming back six months later makes it all seem fresh and interesting again. Ahhh.

As usual, I must report on the details that have lain hidden behind my assumptions. A couple weeks ago, I was at the Family History Library in SLC, and was rummaging through my tree for any documentation that I didn't yet have. To my surprise, I realized I did not have the last will and testament of Earnest Mann who died in 1846. Hmmm, well there it is, in Macomb County, Michigan probate records. Very nicely the will spells out all Earnest's children, complete with married names for the daughters. But then a surprise: the executors are his wife Catherine AND his cousin Jacob Summers. Huh?

Well, this discovery has launched some detailed digging. Aside from identifying cousin Jacob Summers (who would become a Michigan state legislator) came the interesting realization that the Mann family group did not move to Michigan alone - at least three Summers family groups made the move along with the Mann's. (The connection being that Maria Magdalena (aka Mary) Summers was Earnest Mann's mother.) There are a few unanswered questions that remain from this exercise, but I will post those separately. Let me continue this summary.....

The next lesson lies in studying the work of others. I tend to get so involved in what I'm doing with my tree that I don't want to be distracted by false reports or false leads. Unless others have documented their claims, which often seems rare on ancestry, I don't bother looking. But for some reason, I decided to look at other trees involving the Summers line, which is at best fraught with several contrasting theories of lineage. But it turns out there are a few researchers trying to focus in just as hard! AND they are including documentation! And what's this? Here's a source I've never seen or heard of: Newspaper Clippings from the Sussex Register. Following that source gave some interesting detail about the death of William Summers in Oxford, New Jersey. Cool.

So what happens next if I search this new source for “Mann”? The result made me realize just how deep my assumptions have run. It seemed reasonable to assume that Earnest Mann died in Macomb County where he was last seen on a census and where his probate record was found. But no. Here is what happened:

Ernest Mann, of Michigan, crushed to death at Lockport, NY while enroute to visit his relatives at his former home in Warren county.
See what happens when you think you know the whole story? Not even close. Well, Lockport, NY is part of the Erie Canal, and Ernest was traveling that way to get back to see his New Jersey friends and family. What happened that he got crushed? Reading some history about the Erie Canal tells me that any number of things might have happened to cause such a demise. More digging might tell us.

But in the meantime, the story is already changed. Ernest Mann, born about 1773 in Philadelphia to German immigrant parents – before America was even a country – met his end traveling through one of the most important engineering feats of that time (or maybe since). In his 70s, his wife recently gone, half his children in Michigan, the other half in New Jersey, and caught in the middle of an uncontrollably changing world, one can imagine that he died painfully and alone - or - that maybe his dying was just another way of moving into the next unknown. Oh, Ernest. Here we are now, because of you, reading such stories as if our own world were not changing uncontrollably. Rest in peace, dear 4th great grandpa. We know now how you got there, and how you left. We know better now how to remember you well.