About two weeks ago I posted a blog entitled “Disconnected Russells – The James Walter Russell Family.” As is my habit, whenever I post a blog I also post a link to it in my Facebook account. I will also often tag people who I think might be interested in it – in this case any of my Facebook friends who are descended from James Walter Russell. Since then I’ve gotten a number of replies, not only from these friends, but from other descendants of James Walter who saw it posted. In the process, I’ve had not one, not two, but three different mistakes pointed out to me. So I thought it would be interested to explore the “anatomy” of these mistakes, why I made them, and so to learn from them.
Mistake 1 – Not being careful
One of the first responses I got said, “Hi Alan, I’m Donald Russell’s second daughter, Donna Russell Todd. …” She was not one of my Facebook friends (but since then I’ve friended her), so I checked out to see where she was in my long document on all the descendants of Walter J Russell (our common ancestor). She was listed there, but to my dismay she was listed as the first daughter, not the second! My mistake! So, where did I go wrong?
Ancestry.com is a great source for finding information on ancestors, but it’s not designed for doing so for living individuals – so for that you often have to turn to other sources. One good source is obituaries. I had found the online obituary for Donald Russell, Donna’s father, from 2007. In it were listed the names of his children. Children are often listed in descending order by age, but that’s not always the case (for example, sometime the sons and daughters are in separate lists). So I generally check them out by using other sources that give the age of the individual. In this case, I was able to find three of Donald’s daughters but not the fourth (the root cause turned out to be that I had misspelled her married name as it was an unusual one). So I put the three whose ages I could verify in the proper order and put the other one at the end. As it turned out, the one I put at the end was the oldest, not the youngest.
That’s not a real big deal, except that the descendant chart that I use relies on birth order in order to assign a unique ID to each person. So I had to go back and renumber everyone in the subtree for Donald’s descendants.
Mistake 2 – Making assumptions
Donald’s obituary, as is common, did not list any one below his children, it only stated that he had “10 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren”. But in exploring whether any of them were passing on the Russell surname I made an assumption that the family would be using the patronymic naming convention that we generally use.
The patronymic naming convention is based on a male hierarchy. Thus, when individuals get married, the wife changes her last name to be the same as her husband’s. And, any children will also have the family name from the husband [and the wife]. Donald only had four daughters. I could see from the obituary that three of them were married and that all three had taken on the last name of their husbands. Thus, I felt pretty secure in assuming that any children would also have the last names of the men, and that none would have the Russell surname. However, that assumption proved to be incorrect!
One of the replies I got stated, “Alan, Laura Russell Donaldson, my mother-in-law, has a son who was given the Russell name. Should he and I have any children they will carry on the name. There’s still hope that it won’t disappear forever!” This reply was from Cody Elizabeth, someone whose name I didn’t recognize.
Further conversations with her uncovered the fact that this son was from a relationship that happened before Laura was married. Since there was no husband to name him after, Laura gave her son her family name, which was still Russell. I have since friended both the son, Chris Russell, and his wife, Cody Elizabeth [Russell].
Mistake 3 – Having a point of view
The final conversation came from a reply from Michele Russell, another of James Walter’s descendants. In my blog about his family I had called them the “missing branch” because of the combination of circumstances (primarily early deaths) that had caused them to lose connection with the rest of the “family tree”. But that presumed that I was part of the main tree and they were the “missing branch.” But Michele ended her conversation with me by stating, “And all this time we thought YOU guys were the lost branch, LOL!” And she was right.
In my blog on “Why I do what I do”, I noted that when my mother died in 2012, “I came to the conclusion that I was then the oldest living ‘Russell’ in our family tree” because I was not aware of any relatives from my great-grandfather on down who had the Russell name and who were older than I was. So only 3 years ago I was feeling like the “lost branch” and now I assign that label to someone else just because I had since discovered all the relationships by going further back up the family tree. How you feel about something depends on where you are and your point of view.
We will always make mistakes. But if we learn from them and try to avoid making the same mistakes again, then we can turn the negatives into positives. I’m thankful to Donna, Cory, and Michele for pointing out these mistakes to me.