Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Common source vs. obscure source SMACKDOWN!

In the course of a volunteer local abstracting project, I recently came across the roster of 71 individuals who bought items at the estate sale of Valentine Cattron in early October of 1840 in La Porte County, Indiana.

I was thinking what an obscure record this is. Many people do genealogy for years without going near a probate file (yes, I was one of them). By contrast, everyone uses the census, early and often. And -- hmmmm! -- this obscure record, buried in a microfilm reel of loose papers in a probate case, was created only a few months after the 1840 census.

One way -- by no means the only way -- to evaluate a source or a research tool is what it can find for us. Did the 1840 census pick up everyone who attended that sale? Or can this obscure sale list expand our reach? Why not find out? (Note that the timing of this test favors the census; an 1845 sale of similar size might well catch even more people not in the county for either 1840 or 1850.)

After working the census index and reading through two counties (the deceased, like every other ancestor, lived near a border), and very conservatively counting everyone who was doubtful as "identified," I still ended up with sixteen individuals who bought at the sale but who were not enumerated in the 1840 census.

16 missing out of 71 is 22.5 percent. Call it one out of five. That's a lot, especially if your guy is one of them. That's a reason to index or abstract those sources and make them available, and to use them when you can. (There are other reasons, but that'll do for today.)

BTW, we can crowdsource this if anyone has the leisure time. The sixteen purchasers who do not appear in the 1840 census in either Porter or La Porte counties, according to me, are James P. Cain, Isom Campbell, Hezekiah Cattron, John Eaheart, Edward Evans, Wm. Lynn, Daniel Mahony, Daniel Main, Samuel Maine, James McCord, Samuel Parkinson, John Pattee, Wm. Petro, E. J. Simmons, Edwin A. West, and Daniel Wooley. Let me know if you find any of them -- or if you've wondered where they were hiding in 1840!

(A good word for's indexing, too: I did find one individual in the read-through who I had missed when working the index, but I think I should have been able to find even him by creative searching.)

Why would they be missing at census time? Most, I suspect, were "hidden" in relatives' households, because only household heads were named in 1840. Some were probably elsewhere in June but not in October. And perhaps some were missed, or fell victim to bad handwriting and random spelling.

La Porte County, Indiana, estate no. 160, Valentine Cattron, sale record 1-2 October 1840, loose papers; microfilm E1, 48th item on roll, County Clerk, La Porte.

Harold Henderson, "Common source vs. obscure source SMACKDOWN!" Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 30 May 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Nettie said...

Harold the two Mains, Daniel and Samuel (our line, wrong time frame) were brothers in Bracken Co., KY according to my research, but Samuel is a common given names in any and all Main/Maines/Mains families. There is a different Mains family in Clermont Co, OH in that time frame also. I like your article and so true what you are talking about. Thanks for pointing this out. Most of our Mains went to Johnson & Wayne Co. IN but later and not in 1840.

Debbie V. said...

Great post Harold. This kind of thinking is so important these days. Thanks for being a good role model for me!

Harold said...

Thanks for the kind words and good advice for Main family researchers -- don't assume the person is the same because the name is!