Casefile Clues

19 February 2014

Two Johns and Why I Needed to Learn

I will be the first to admit that I learned a great deal about genealogical research by the seat of my pants. It was the 1980s, there was no internet, and methodology books were few and far between. I also grew up 3 miles from the county courthouse in the county where most of my family had lived since the mid-1850s.

I began my genealogical research I was thirteen years of age. By the time I was fourteen I was confused and it was my ancestors' fault. Half of my family had non-English names, who all married within the same ethnic group, and found it perfectly normal to have children named Anke, Altje, Antje, Anna, and Gerd, Gerhard, Garrett, and George. The other half of my family found it normal to not mention much about their past or to have first cousins, who were also second cousins, who were also third cousins (yes, that's possible without anyone marrying a relative). This post is partially about the confusion and how I worked through it, not about extraneous details and citations (although though citations are important).

My ancestor was John M. Habben, who married Antje Fecht in Hancock County, Illinois, in 1881. As I researched John and his parents, Mimke and Antje (Jaspers) Habben, I learned that John had a brother slightly older than him. That brother's name:

John M. Hobbin.

Another researcher had merged the two Johns together, after all their names were similar, they were born in the same place, and their names were unusual, so they must be the same man. John M. Habben was my grandmother's grandfather. She never explained why there were two Johns, but did tell me that her uncle was a separate John M. Hobbin and he had changed his last name due to some sort of falling out. The fact that her grandfather had a brother with the same name was apparently something she had always known. She saw no need to question it.

Ok, so my great-great-grandfather John Habben had a brother John Hobbin--who shared the same set of parents.

The search is a long story, but the answer is relatively simple. In the area of Germany where the Habbens were from, the first names of Jann and Johann were different. In English, those names were both John. Jann was my ancestor. Johann was his brother. That's why they had the same name. But it took researching in the actual church records in Germany to dig out that distinction.

I could have taken the easy route and concluded the two men were the same. I could have merged them together and attributed the differences to the ever-so-vague realm of inconsistencies. Or I could not have cared about the differences. It would have been much faster and saved time and allowed me to complete my "tree" more quickly, as if there is any reward for finishing "first."

Genealogical research is not about getting it done as fast as we can. If the families are "non-traditional" and complicated, it may not even be about getting it "done" at all.

Sometimes there are those who say that some researchers take their research "too seriously." Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not always serious. But I do want to make my summarized information about my ancestors as accurate as possible. I don't want to merge two Johns together when they are in fact separate men. I want to avoid as much as I can connecting a person to the wrong family simply because I want to get it done so that I can move on to the next task.

Working out Jann and Johann required me to learn about a variety of records, both in the United States and in Germany. It required me to improve my methodology skills that have helped me research families in, not only 19th century Illinois and Europe, but also 18th century Virginia and other locations. Methodology can be applied to a variety of areas. Being concerned about being accurate does not make one "elite."

Each one of our ancestors took a lifetime to live. We shouldn't try to condense our discovery of them into a five minute search.

They deserve more.