Assessing Reliability of Information

Assessing the reliability of information is a crucial and necessary step toward drawing genealogical conclusions. Researchers should never accept a piece of information as fact without first evaluating and analyzing it. This holds true for instances in which no known conflicting information exists, as well as when multiple pieces of information contradict each other. Researchers can use a variety of methods to help assess the reliability of information, and prove or disprove conclusions.

The case study, “Context and Comrades Illuminate a Silent Southerner: John Temple (17581838), Revolutionary War Pensioner,” by Rachal Mills Lennon, CG, published in the March 2015 issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, demonstrates one researcher’s methodology for testing the validity of information and resolving contradictory information. Revolutionary War veteran John Temple served out of Virginia and later resided in South Carolina. His pension application provides brief details about his service. However, John’s recollection of events—including his enlistment date, length of service, discharge date, and the battles in which he participated—conflicts with information found in other records related to his military service.

In 1818, John attested that he enlisted at Amherst Courthouse, Virginia, shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill, in “a company commanded by Captain Samuel Jordan Cavell or Cabell” of the Sixth Regiment of the Virginia Infantry. He stated that he lost his eyesight, served for six and a half years, and was in garrison for six months. His statement briefly mentions his participation in the battles of Amboy, Piscatagua, Brandywine, and Trenton, and at the taking of Burgoyne’s Army at Stillwater, New York, before his discharge at Middlebrook, New Jersey. The information provided by John is questionable for several reasons. The account was recalled many years after the war, and John’s memory may have faded. Also, his poor health may have contributed to memory loss. The nature of the record—for the applicant to gain financial assistance—may have also contributed to misinformation being provided. Additionally, the statement signed with John’s mark was likely not written by the partially-blind veteran, making it subject to errors.

Information from other sources conflicts with John’s 1818 account of his military service. To reconcile these conflicts, Lennon seeks out alternate sources. She examines a variety of other sources related to the war, and compares John’s account of events against historical context. She weighs and analyzes all of the information to determine reliability, and presents her conclusion about the accuracy of the events depicted in John’s statement. Separately, Lennon uses information pertaining to John’s associates to document his life during the years following the war. This methodology—rooted in assessing the reliability of information—helps Lennon eliminate inaccuracies, identify inconsistencies, and piece together an accurate account of John’s life, including his military history.

Lennon disproves John’s claim that he joined Cabell’s company shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill, which occurred in June 1775. She does this by seeking out a variety of other sources, and weighing information from those sources. Cabell’s company was not established until seven months after the Battle of Bunker Hill. This well-documented information, paired with John’s compiled military service records suggesting that his service did not begin until 17 January 1777, strongly indicates that he did not join the military just after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Additionally, military certificates identify two other privates in Cabell’s company—Joseph Staples and Daniel Conner—who enlisted on 17 January 1777. John’s bounty land records state this enlistment date, and also explicitly state that he was discharged on 6 September 1777. The author deems this body of evidence, stemming from numerous sources, as more reliable than John’s statement. She establishes that John likely joined the military in January of 1777, over a year and a half after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Together with his discharge date, these details disprove that John served for six years and six months.

By closely studying the general history of the war, and using records pertaining to both John and the troops in general, it can be determined that John was not discharged on 6 September 1777 at Middlebrook, New Jersey. Payroll records show that John was part of Cabell’s Rifle Detachment, commanded by Daniel Morgan, through at least November 1777. The detachment was deployed in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, and was part of the battle with British General John Burgoyne in September and October of 1777. The sick and wounded who fought with Burgoyne were taken to a hospital in Albany. Although no records specifically identify John as being a patient in Albany, several of Cabell’s men died at the hospital. Unable to handle the influx, the hospital closed and many of the soldiers there were sent back to their units or furloughed before mid-November of 1777. This historical evidence, while indirect, points toward the possibility that John was among those men, and was discharged in November 1777, coinciding with payroll records.

General history related to John’s unit supports that he participated in the battles at Piscatagua and Amboy. However, it is evident that he did not fight in the Battle at Trenton, as it took place before he enlisted. It is also not likely that John served in the Brandywine battle. His regiment was engaged at Brandywine, but he was with Morgan and the rifle detachment in New York battling Burgoyne during that time.

In addition to resolving conflicting information about John’s military service, Lennon also studied John’s associates from his time during the war to fill in part of his story that was untold. John received bounty land from Virginia in 1784, and by 1818 was in Edgefield, South Carolina. Following the war, a group of men from John’s military unit left Amherst, Virginia, for Georgia. By following these men—including Benjamin Taliaferro and David Merewether—John can be tracked from state to state along with his fellow soldiers, and details about his life after the war can be discovered.

Few records provide details about John Temple’s military service, and those that survive offer conflicting information. John Temple’s pension affidavit confuses his enlistment and discharge dates, overstates the length of his service, and provides inaccuracies about battles. With careful attention to detail, Lennon consulted a variety of sources, considered historical context, and analyzed information about John’s known associates to resolve conflicts about John’s military service and uncover additional details about his life after the war. Genealogists can use similar methodology—focusing on testing information against other sources, weighing the evidence, and determining the reliability of conflicting pieces of information. This process can be used to prove or disprove information discovered through documentary sources, published accounts, and oral histories discovered during the course of their own research.

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