Can you prove a connection to all of the names on your surname list?
This post is prompted by an email exchange I recently had with someone who contacted me because of their connection to the Kettle family in the maternal branch of my family tree. The exchange prompted me to consider what it means to say that we are connected to someone who lived long ago. What kinds of research have we done to establish these connections? What do we consider to be a legitimate source for research? Do we document our claims, or are we simply surname collectors? Believe or not, I am surprised to discover what some researchers consider to be acceptable answers to these questions.
In this particular email exchange the author, whom I will call 'Andy'** since I don't have permission to use his/her name, wrote about having discovered my blog in the course of doing family history research. In the first message Andy claimed to be an "immediate" descendant of Andrew J. Kettle. I was a little flummoxed by the use of the word 'immediate', because I have always understood 'immediate' to be a referent for the closest family members of a person. For example, as his daughter, I am an 'immediate' descendant of my father. Setting aside meanings, I continued to read the message. Andy explained that, as the official family genealogist, for years every family member has relied on Andy to do all of the family history research.
I was very excited to be contacted by this fellow family member and so wrote back right away explaining that my maternal great-great grandmother Mary Kettle Fitzpatrick is Andrew J. Kettle's sister. I outlined the maternal branch of my family tree in order to demonstrate my connection to her, and explained that I would be happy to share my sources and documentation. Then, I asked how Andy is connected to the family. The answer I received very much surprised me. Andy said the following, "Our family surname is Kettle, and my dad said we are descended from Andrew J. Kettle, the Irish Land Leaguer".
Thinking my question had been misunderstood, I wrote back asking about Andy's lineage. You know, which child of Andrew J. Kettle is your great-grandmother, grandmother, great-grandfather, grandfather, or whatever? The email reply I received almost knocked me over. Andy repeated that their surname is Kettle, and that their dad told their family they were 'immediate' descendants of Andrew J. Kettle.
Okay, I admit it, I was like a dog with a bone on this one. I wrote back and explained that I did not understand the way in which Andy was using the term 'immediate', and asked for clarification. Also, I included the names of all of the Kettle children and asked, of the names I had listed, to whom is Andy related?
Big surprise (not): I did not receive a reply. So...I guess Andy is descended from Andrew J. Kettle because Andy's dad said so. The source is not a record or even a family tree; the source is insistence.
My dad once mentioned that our family is connected to St. Laurence O'Toole. I have not yet done the research to prove or disprove that the connection to this 12th century Irish saint is a legitimate one, but hey "my dad said" we are connected. If I use Andy's logic that would mean my dad's claim must be true. That would be a very good thing because then I would have a direct connection to Heaven, and I might very well need one.
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Note:**I am using the alias "Andy" as gender neutral: it is not my intention to embarrass this man or woman and so I am not identifying this person as a man or a woman.