Of Time and Family 3: Barking up the Wrong Family Tree?

Posted August 29th, 2012

In genealogy, I have found, it is always easier to see a connection than prove one, to imagine a family than establish one, to design a tree rather than allow it to grow.

When we attempted to track down my Dear One’s Lithuanian progenitors, for instance, an administrator at the National Archives in Vilnius sniffed that Americans (and other English-speakers) look at records and “paint” the names. By this she meant that we lack the skills to accurately decipher hand-written records. We don’t usually know Lithuanian, German and Russian; we get hung up by orthography, specifically the Cyrillic alphabet and Lithuanian diacritical marks; and we have a tendency to see what we want to see.

She wasn’t wrong, really. There’s usually a lot of forest surrounding any particular tree.

barking up a tree

A birth certificate, for instance, provides extremely accurate information about the newborn: name, date, place and so on. It provides slightly less reliable information about the parents, because the clerk filling out the form has to rely on the parents’ ability to spell (or the clarity of their penmanship) and the accuracy of the data provided about themselves.

The reliability of an entry in the federal census depends on the information provided by the householder and the care taken by the census-taker in recording the information. If the householder does not speak good English, if the census-taker has poor hearing, or if neither has any clue how to spell the names spoken, then the record can be a problem.

Then of course there are the idiosyncratic transcriptions found on sites like Ancestry. Call it carelessness, call it bad eyesight, call it the inevitable fallout from decisions to stop teaching cursive in the public schools, but what ends up in print can be pretty distant from what appears on the original document. That’s nothing, however, compared to the way someone else’s family mythologies can lead you astray when Ancestry offers them up as research “hints.”

All this matters because memories are sketchy and oral traditions unreliable. Facts require context in order to have meaning. If data hangs logically on a contextual armature, then maybe, just maybe, you are in the right forest. If enough sources concur, then maybe you have found your way to the right grove.

The goal is, of course, to isolate the tree that is taxonomically correct, to find your personal species, genus, family, order, class and phylum of that Kingdom of humanity.

Even when you know all this, though, and hew to academic standards of research, you can go astray. I am pretty sure I have gone significantly astray myself. In fact, I may have been barking up the wrong Wavle tree as I wandered down the Granny Trail, trying to track the paternal ancestry of Hazel Harriet Wavle Cutler Pope (1892-1978).

I ascertained the name of Granny’s parents by searching her. A match in the 1900 census for Berkshire, Tioga, New York listed her parents G. Albert and Laura A. Wavle. G. Albert was about 43 years old, giving him a birth date around 1857. Harriet Legge was identified as “mother-in-law,” although “foster mother” might have been more accurate. That detail detoured me briefly into Legge ancestry although I soon enough realized that Laura’s birth parents were Thomas Mills Macey and Selina Carrington.

Laura’s backstory was fairly easy to map out. George Albert Wavle has been another matter.

I found a George Albert Wavle with a death date of 1913 in Evergreen Cemetery in Berkshire. According to the Cambridge, Massachusetts, City Directory, G. Albert had died on 12 August 1913. I concluded there was some likelihood that his bones had been brought home, so to speak. I still think I may be right about that.

I went wrong, however on so much else.

The 1880 census lists Albert Wavel (oh, yes, variant spellings) as a laborer on the farm belonging to Chauncy Smith in Freetown, Cortland County. The age was right.

The 1870 census for Canajoharie, Montgomery County, offered George A., age 12, the son of Jeremiah and Nancy C. Waffle.  The same family pops up in the same place in 1860 with the surname spelled “Wfull.” George and Mary “Wafull” appeared in the same census and in 1850, their name was “Waffle” and their family included Jeremiah, age 28.

From there I followed the name back: Waffle, Wabel, Weibel. They all seemed to be part of a well-established family that emigrated from Switzerland and settled in Montgomery County, first in Stone Arabia, later in Canajoharie. Dared I hope I had my lineage? Day three on the Granny Trail took us to the Montgomery County Department of History & Archives in Fonda. I had called ahead: yes they had three folders for those names.

Had I found the genetic pot of gold? I was pretty darned excited.

I worked my way through the folders; a helpful employee brought me a history of Cortland County which included mention of a Wavle.

Here’s the thing, though.  There was a photocopied sheet, lots of notices and squibs, most focusing on the family of Jeremiah and Nancy. When old Jeremiah kicked the bucket in 1906—and when Nancy followed him in 1909—it was said that they had eight surviving children, four sons and four daughters. A couple of obits helpfully provided the survivors’ names and addresses. George Albert was among them but that George Albert was living in Troy, New York.

Suddenly my carefully constructed family tree was looking like a Frankensteinian grafting project.

The problem I had all along—the problem I still have—is figuring out how Laura Alice Macey, living with foster parents in Caroline, Tompkins County, could have met George Albert Wavle. Canajoharie in Montgomery County, just seems remote from Caroline. The towns are about 125 miles apart, at least two and a half hours by car on modern roads that include a piece of Interstate 88. It just didn’t make sense.

I backtracked to the information gathered a day earlier in Berkshire. A 1907 photograph of a Mrs. Jessie Manning Legge standing in front of the Gillson Ball home on Main Street appears in More History and Life Around the Town of Berkshire, New York. “Legge” is a relatively uncommon name and Laura Macey had been fostered by a couple named Legge.

There are nine Wavles (including George Albert)–all of them spelled “Wavle”–in the Evergreen Cemetery in Berkshire. It seems reasonable to assume that some Legges and Wavles knew one another.

Finally, Caroline is less than ten miles northwest of Berkshire, a manageable distance even in the 1880s. Any matchmaker would see potential here for a union between Laura and George Albert.

It is time to prune the Canajoharie branches with their seductive fruit from my Wavle tree and let some new growth emerge.



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