For example, the first time I ever had opportunity to look at actual records--well, microfilmed copies of the originals anyway--I had no clue what I was doing. I got my machine, found an index, looked up an entry, found the appropriate roll of microfilm, threaded it through the viewer, fed it into an empty spool, and scrolled to the right page number. And there they were--my great-great-great-great grandparents, Washington and Elizabeth Stafford, recorded at the top of the page with the first list of their children that I had ever seen. I was beyond excited!
That same day, I randomly scrolled through the census list and stumbled upon the household of Louis and Elizabeth Hartman, whose daughter Katherine would grow up and marry Washington's oldest son James, thereby becoming my great-great-great grandparents. That too was a thrill, considering that my great-grandfather Louis Jackson Stafford had once told me he was named for his grandfather. The name Jackson we knew was his mother's maiden name, but to find out that Louis had been passed down as well was a minor triumph for me.
Not knowing anything, really, about the census and how to interpret its data, I still managed to follow Washington backward through the census, from Livingston County, Illinois, in 1870 & 1860, to Coshocton County, Ohio, in 1850. There he was residing very near a Stafford I had never heard of--Francis A. Stafford. I recorded the information and kept on going. I knew Washington Stafford had come to Ohio from Hampshire County, Virginia, because his son James had given that as his place of birth when he enlisted in the Union Army. So I looked to Hampshire County, there finding the name Joseph Stafford in the 1810 (along with Richard A. Stafford), 1820 (along with Westley Stafford), 1830, 1840, and 1850 censuses. The latter included several of his children, but of course Washington was not recorded in that household being married and gone. I guessed that Joseph Stafford was likely the father of Washington Stafford. Only years later did I find enough evidence to prove it.
Then I made my big mistake. I looked at the indices for Virginia censuses and found that there were several Joseph Staffords recorded in the early censuses for Norfolk County, and I made an imaginative leap from Hampshire County to Norfolk and began telling the relatives that I had traced us back to colonial Virginia and a line of several Josephs. I don't mind confessing my own embarrassment when I sat at the table with one of the relatives, looking over material I had sent her, and realizing I had stated as fact things that were not only untrue, but I had done so without any documentation whatsoever. Fortunately for me, that was before the days of internet genealogy and those mistakes didn't get passed along the world wide web.
Guessing, in genealogy is a dangerous business. Sometimes it is a necessary evil, when facts lend their service to the imagination. But making great leaps without support can create a genealogical quagmire from which you may never escape.
Take, for instance, my guesswork in compiling a list of Richard Stafford's children. In the records of Hampshire County, Virginia, and Allegany County, Maryland, I found enough evidence to give me the names of Francis A., Richard A., John F., Joseph S., Westley, Washington, and Sarah as probable siblings. A relative of mine went to Salt Lake City to conduct research in the greatest of genealogy repositories, and found enough evidence to show that Richard and Catharine Stafford were probably their parents. And I had in hand a biography of my previously mentioned ancestor Washington Stafford, submitted to the History of Livingston County, which claimed his father Joseph Stafford had been one of eight children.
In the Special Collections Library in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I found a genealogy for the Henshaw family, early settlers of Northern Virginia along the Potomac and neighbors of the Staffords. It claimed that one of the Henshaw men had married Elizabeth Stafford and moved to Coshocton County, Ohio, where they died. Francis Asbury Stafford had also married a Henshaw, Eliza by name, and moved to Coshocton County. When I found out that Jonathan S. Henshaw had died leaving two orphaned children who were raised in separate homes--a son George in Kentucky by his uncle Adam Stephens Henshaw, and a daughter Rhua Ann Henshaw in Ohio by Francis Stafford--I concluded that Elizabeth Stafford Henshaw had also died. I calculated her birth as about 1777, making her 18 when George Henshaw was born, and listed her as the first child of Richard and Catharine Stafford. I collaborated with the Hinshaw Family Association, who agreed with my conclusions, and we proceeded from there. I had 8 children for Richard and Catharine Stafford, and I was happy.
While tracing one of Richard's grandsons, William J. Stafford son of Francis, from Ohio to Missouri, I began corresponding via email with several researchers focused upon that particular branch and their activities in Osage, Moniteau, and Johnson Counties, Missouri. One researcher noted William J. Stafford's close connection to one Dr. John Giles and his wife Amelia, also of Virginia, and speculated that Amelia may have been a relative. Her birthyear of 1792 certainly made it a possibility. And in all the email exchanges, I shared the speculation with a Giles descendant desperate to find their lineage. The next thing I knew, genealogies across the world wide web were popping up with the information that Amelia Stafford Giles was one of Richard's children. Someone else had made a rookie genealogy mistake, the same kind I had made before, the same kind we've all made before. Only now it was out there for everyone to see and reproduce at will without any kind of control. Now I had 9 children for Richard and Catharine Stafford, but since Washington had apparently died as a child, I justified that there were still really only 8.
Then I found the tax rolls for Hampshire County, and discovered a James Stafford who paid taxes there for several years at the same time Richard, Catharine, and others of their sons were paying taxes. It could only be assumed that James was also a child of Richard and Catharine, and now I had 10 children for Richard and Catharine. Perhaps Washington Stafford had been wrong about how many siblings his father had. After all, he had been wrong about other things in his biography.
During a five-week stay in West Virginia and Maryland, I managed to find original documentation regarding the family of Richard and Catharine Stafford. First I saw her handwritten will, signed by her mark, and witnessed by her sons John & Joseph. Second, I found the microfilm (poorly preserved) of Richard Stafford's estate, which showed another previously unknown Stafford, William by name, who could only be a son. And now I had 11 children on my list for Richard and Catharine.
One day while on a drive through the area, I happened to stop at the library in Winchester, Virginia. When a kind librarian asked me what I was looking for, I told her, and watched as she quickly pulled several volumes from the shelf, and then proceeded to find a document in their computer index of a Chancery Court lawsuit filed by Joseph S. Stafford against the other heirs of Richard and Catharine Stafford. She brought out the microfilm, and in those documents I found what I had been hoping for--a list of the Stafford children. In two sworn statements, Joseph Stafford listed his siblings in order of their birth--William, Francis, Richard, John, James, and Sally, with living brother Wesley and deceased brother Washington mentioned elsewhere. I actually cried at the discovery, tears of joy to be assured. I was completely overwhelmed by the find!
But now I had documented proof. I had a list of Richard and Catharine's children, 8 plus the deceased Washington. Elizabeth and Amelia were not on that list.
Finally, in 2011, I found information presented online--full names and birthdates of Richard and Catharine's children--that I had never seen in any source. It was also the first time I encountered another researcher who had anything close to a list of names for those siblings. Again, Elizabeth and Amelia were not listed. After a quick exchange of emails with the submitter of that information, I was overjoyed to find a distant relative through whose line of descent the Family Bible of Richard and Catharine Stafford had been preserved. She sent me scans of the Family Record pages, and later I had the privilege of visiting them personally and taking pictures of the pages myself. The Family Bible records absolutely confirm that Richard and Catharine raised a family of 8 children--William Josephus, Francis Asbury, Richard Adams, John Fletcher, James Bruce, Joseph Stone, Wesley, & Sarah--with two additional children--Washington and Mary--who both died young.
So what about Elizabeth and Amelia?
In corresponding with descendants of Francis Asbury Stafford, we unraveled the mystery using information from his own Family Bible. The Elizabeth Stafford referred to in the Henshaw genealogies was actually Eliza Mounts, second wife of Jonathan Seman Henshaw, step-mother of George and mother of Rhua Ann. When Jonathan Seman Henshaw died, his widow married Francis Stafford and moved to Coshocton County, Ohio, where Rhua Ann was raised with her half-siblings. When they all grew up, the two oldest Staffords named their daughters for her. I have done my best to communicate this untangling to all interested parties, especially the Hinshaw Family Association. But I still encounter online genealogies that include Elizabeth Stafford as a daughter of Richard and Catharine.
Additionally, I wrote a series of frantic emails and left posts everywhere to inform over-eager descendants of John and Amelia Giles that they were not descended from my Stafford family. Nevertheless, some online genealogies persist with the error.
One more example, and I'm done. Several years ago, before we knew Catharine's maiden name of Brobeker--also taken from the Family Bible--the name Catharine Eels started popping up in online genealogies. Let me say here and now that I had nothing whatsoever to do with that. That was a computer generated error made by One World Tree, when it started trying to connect the various submitted genealogies to each other by finding similar names, dates, and places. But anybody can see by simple investigation, that One World Tree was wrong.