Does My Ancestor’s Name Change Hide a Paternity Issue?

Tracing Your Roots: Untangling a thicket of spelling variations and mismatched details in documents.

 
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It also depends on who was giving the information to the census taker. It’s possible that the information came from a neighbor or family member who wasn’t quite sure of the exact ages of everyone in the household. In addition to discrepancies in age, there could also be some ambiguity in the classification of race. Until the 1860 U.S. census was enumerated, the census taker determined the classification of race or color. The University of Michigan’s Population Center has copies of the exact instructions given to enumerators for each census year from 1850 to 1950 posted online. For example, in 1880 the instructions for filling in the “color” column state the following:

Color.-It must not be assumed that, where nothing is written in this column, “white” is to be understood. The column is always to be filled. Be particularly careful in reporting the class mulatto. The word is here generic, and includes quadroons, octoroons, and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood. Important scientific results depend upon the correct determination of this class in schedules 1 and 5.

So with these instructions, why was the son of Jeffrey Vedard listed as mulatto, but the son of Jeff Beddard was listed as black? Both of these children had a mulatto father and a black mother. This highlights how, even with these instructions, the classification of race in these census records was ultimately up to the enumerator based on appearance, and therefore it could vary by person, and even more so from census year to census year.

Take, for example, Jeffrey Bedard. He was listed as black in the 1870, 1900 and 1920 census returns, whereas in the years 1880 and 1910, he was listed as mulatto. The fact that Jeffrey Bedard was listed as mulatto in the census records doesn’t necessarily mean that one of his parents was white. However, it can be an indication that he does have some white ancestry. Keep this in mind as you continue your research on the family.

The differences between the two 1880 records of Jeffrey Vedard and Jeff Beddard are significant enough that they very well could be for two different people. The best way to confirm this is to research each family separately to see if you can find duplicate records in another census year. Start by searching for a record of Jeff Beddard in the 1870 federal census living in or near Mingo. If you find one, it’s possible that they are for different people.

You can also search for records of this family in later census records, such as the 1900 census (unfortunately, the 1890 census was mostly destroyed by a fire in 1921). We did a search of both of these collections, but we were unable to find another record of Jeff, Martha and their son, James. Remember, a lot can happen in the 10 years between census enumerations, so it’s possible that a member of this family died or moved away.

Even if you are unable to figure out for certain whether or not the record of Jeff Beddard is also a record of your ancestor, that’s OK. You have good evidence that the record of Jeffrey Vedard in Turkey Township in 1880 belongs to your ancestor Jeffrey Bedard (your initial spelling at the beginning of your query), since he was living in Turkey Township in 1870, listed as Jeffrey Nesmith, and his death record lists his mother’s name as Peggy Nesmith. Also, in 1900 he was living next door to the widowed Peggy Nesmith.

Why Did Jeffrey’s Surname Change Between 1870 and 1880?

This is another question that you can answer by taking a closer look at the census record and then expanding your search to other record types. Although Jeffrey was living with Prince and Peggy Nesmith, it’s still possible that he wasn’t the son of Prince Nesmith. The 1870 census, unlike census records taken in 1880 and later years, did not contain a column listing the person’s relationship to the head of the household.

It’s generally assumed that if everyone in the household has the same surname, they are probably related. Along with this, researchers usually assume that the older male and female in the household were the designated parents, and the younger members of the family were the children. However, this assumption isn’t always correct. For example, a niece or nephew with the same surname, or younger siblings of the head of the household, could be living in the household, and without knowing their relationship to the head of the household, one might incorrectly assume that they are his or her children.

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