Disambiguation: An important skill to hone

Research Tips   •   August 19, 2019

By Allison Peacock

Disambiguation refers to making something clear in order to avoid confusion. We’ve all seen the Wikipedia notices that give you links to a list of listings with similar names so you can find exactly the right article, right? According to the cooler-than-a-dictionary site Vocabulary.com, “disambiguation narrows down the meaning of words and it’s a good thing.” Further explaining, they state:

This word makes sense if you break it down. Dis means “not,” ambiguous means “unclear,” and the ending -tion makes it a noun. So disambiguation is the act of making something clear. Disambiguation distinguishes between different meanings of words. If you say the word joker, do you mean a playing card, a prankster, or a Batman villain? Disambiguation will clear things up. If you mention that you were playing poker, then it’s clear which joker you’re talking about. When you see the word disambiguation, think “clearing up confusion.”

For anyone who has been a family researcher on one of the big repository websites such as Ancestry, Family Search or Wikitree I don’t have to tell you how frustrating it can be to find the wrong distant ancestors attached to trees, or the source materials for people with similar names all mixed up in a way that doesn’t make any sense. One of the most important things to do in genealogical research is to maintain clarity of individuality with regard to individual ancestor profiles.

I don’t like poor research floating around to replicate itself!

One such hornets nest in my own family tree was exposed when I began running into trees online containing men named Richard Taylor in colonial-era Virginia. It seems anyone of the Taylor persuasion wants to claim an Ancient Planter named Richard Taylor as their progenitor.

My need to disambiguate these various Richard Taylors meant I couldn’t just let it stand. This led me to some fascinating and insightful email conversations with a Taylor genealogy expert who is a Harvard historian and editor of The American Genealogist. He was actually intrigued by some of my own findings – discoveries that I’d not seen anywhere else – enough to encourage my further research. It also inspired me to become a Richard Taylor, Ancient Planter activist online. I even wrote a blog post on one of the big sites (replicated here) hoping to inspire people to look deeper.

It’s often about common sense, something many casual or new genealogy researchers don’t always keep in mind. Does it really make sense to you that two men with the same name, living in different parts of Virginia at the same time, married to different women, having different children, and owning different parcels of land, would all be the son of one man? I go with Occam’s razor every time in genealogy research until something more interesting – like bigamy or two sons with the very same name – is proven.

In my case, they were not the same man.

In another situation of grateful disambiguation I had a closer to home case that was easily put to rest with a few minutes of research. I was relieved to find that a man I call Bob The Criminal and whose records kept popping up in my hints, was not related to me.

Bob The Criminal

I’m sharing the case of *Bob The Criminal because it’s another great example of how important it is to dig deeper and not jump to conclusions in genealogy and historical research.

For more than a decade, I’ve researched a particular family in my mother’s tree because of rumors and missing facts in that particular branch of my tree – my beloved grandfather’s family. I soon became an expert on my grandfather’s clan reaching back to Ulster, Ireland and South Carolina before the whole lot migrated to Arkansas. It took this kind of dedicated focus in my research to eventually identify the missing ancestors, prove where the family originated, and put to rest some family myths while proving others.

Back to Bob. With a surname in common in families full of boys named similarly in a small county in Arkansas, it’s no wonder that Ancestry kept delivering up this Bob’s prison records in my research hints. Fairly sure he didn’t belong to us, but shocked at the surname match and proximity in the small Arkansas county where my grandfather was born, I decided to build out a tree for him. After reading more deeply into his crimes I had to know if he was related to us.

It was easily validated within a few minutes that this man had no relation to us. His family hailed from Caswell County, North Carolina, mine from York County, South Carolina. His 2nd great grandfather was born in Virginia and served in the Revolutionary War. My immigrant ancestor on that line landed in Charleston right after the war. His descendants on my branch of that family remained in York County for more than 100 years before eventually migrating westward with much of their kin still in York County today.

Why I researched a criminal

When I began researching my Arkansas family in order to learn more about the oral traditions in the family I was shocked to be met with staunch denial of the results of my meticulously sourced efforts. Of course I started sharing immediately.

“Our family is absolutely not Scots Irish. We are German. Daddy said so,” my aunt related to me when I excitedly shared our Scots Irish history with her.

One of the things I’ve learned in my decades of family history obsession is that before the digitization of historical records, we could only pass down what we were told. I don’t fault anyone – in my family or someone else’s – for passing down stories that turn out to be incorrect. It wasn’t as easy as it is today to verify things. Passing down incorrect information can happen to anyone.

Now it seems I have discovered more than enough anecdotal evidence for why my grandfather’s older siblings, parents, aunts, and grandparents may not have told him the full truth. This means my grandfather – a much beloved physician and respected socialite in his community – told my mother and her sisters what he knew to be the truth. Even though I can now say it was not accurate.

What do you think your family would say if a man with the same first and last name as several of your own relatives became a notorious criminal in your small Arkansas county? Add this social nightmare to a rather unconventional lifestyle in our own family two generations before, and you have a situation rife with a need for secrecy.

Beginning in the 1930’s there are easily found prison records for this man who was born 15 miles from my own family to an unrelated family of the same last name. That family lived for decades in the same county with my own and no doubt stirred up a lot of social problems by mere surname associations.

To make matters worse, this Bob originally came from the adjacent Arkansas county where many of the families who intermarried with my family were socially prominent. It’s not hard to imagine they certainly had heard of this man who is listed as being of Scots-Irish ethnicity on his prison records and in newspaper accounts.

A Generally Bad Guy

After leaving Arkansas in the 1940’s to become a prosperous dealer of oilfield equipment, our badly behaving Bob ended up in New Orleans. He soon became embroiled in a national controversy that went all the way to the Supreme Court after he threatened the life of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a drunken rant. This made newspapers all over the country, including Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

Honestly, Criminal *Bob even looks like he could be related to one of my ancestors. Thank goodness he is not.  (His name has been changed in this article in order to protect the innocent.)

After being released from federal prison, Bob was forced down a notch in occupational circumstances. He became an oilfield worker in Texas and Oklahoma and his family went on without him. In 1954, he assaulted a 16 year-old girl within mere miles of three different tribal reservations in Montana. This hit me hard when I discovered the details of his crime and was another reason I was determined to dig deeper.

I spent several weeks at Standing Rock in 2017 in support of indigenous land rights and clean water. While involved, I became educated on many of the social justice issues faced by the original Americans. With what I now know about man camps, I immediately realized Bob’s case was indicative of this unacknowledged underbelly of the petrochemical industry. The abuse of young Native American women by oilfield workers living in temporary housing adjacent to the reservation land being exploited for profits is a tragedy that few are paying attention to.

As I said, Bob’s family was able to go on without him and no doubt stopped the cycle of violence and trauma for their own descendants. His daughter never used her father’s surname in school after he was convicted of assaulting a girl her age. After several publicized childhood incidents that made the paper, she went on to raise a family. His former wife never remarried, never used his surname legally, and was called “independent” for the rest of her life. He was not mentioned in her obituary.

Write this down….disambiguation.

Primary Post Photo: This gorgeous old map of Colonial Virginia was published in “The generall historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles: together with The true travels, adventures and observations, and A sea grammar,” by Captaine John Smith, published in 1624, the year Richard Taylor, The Ancient Planter was enumerated in the first colonial muster (census.)