People who lived in the past had secrets. Just as those living today may hide parts of their lives and conceal facts about their families, so may have people who lived centuries ago. Genealogists know that first-hand information is more likely to be accurate, but just because information is first-hand doesn’t mean that it is true. Even when evidence comes from an eyewitness or participant, genealogists must search for additional records to test for accuracy. Sometimes, despite extensive efforts, determining what “really happened” is impossible. William B. Saxbe’s article entitled “Historical ‘Truth,’ Clothed and Naked: The ‘Peculiar Ways’ of Judith (Bowen) Freeman Arnold” offers an illustration.
Saxbe’s subject was documented in a published family history authored by a woman whose grandmother “took delight in giving [her] the family history.” Juliette Freeman Lafferty’s History of the Freeman Family discusses the author’s grandparents, George Warren and Judith (Bowen) Freeman, and their nine children. According to Lafferty, her grandmother Judith spoke freely about the family and about her own life. The author described Judith as “a worthy woman” who valued “truth, right, and justice.” But Lafferty also said that her grandmother had some “peculiar” ways.
Given that the older woman enjoyed the opportunity to talk about her past and her family, readers could presume that she valued truthfulness. They might imagine that Judith provided accurate, complete information about her life. And they might believe that Judith’s granddaughter conveyed that information honestly in her book. Experienced, thorough researchers—like Saxbe—would recognize the need to consult additional sources to try to confirm or refute the published data.
Saxbe pursued original records based on the details in the family history. He soon located a deed showing that Judith had been married more than once—a fact that was not mentioned in her granddaughter’s book. While it was not uncommon for a widow to marry a second, third, or even fourth time, Judith’s situation was different. As Saxbe continued to work, it became clear that Judith was married to her second husband while the first was still alive.
Painstaking research in New York and Ohio records revealed the family’s movements and activities. Saxbe used deeds, wills, cemetery records, censuses, newspaper notices, and other original documents to learn more about Judith and her husbands. He tried to determine how Judith’s first marriage ended, but he found nothing definitive.
In his article, Saxbe uses timelines to organize and present his findings, including negative evidence. He shows that over the years Judith’s surname flip-flopped. Sometimes she used her first husband’s surname, and sometimes she used that of her second husband. Saxbe found that the youngest Freeman children had been born during the time when Judith was reportedly married to her second husband—opening the possibility that those children were born to another woman, perhaps a second spouse for Judith’s first husband. After Judith’s second husband died, she and her first husband evidently reunited. They were buried side by side in Ohio, with Judith again using her first husband’s surname.
Records verify some of the published family history, but someone—either Judith herself or her granddaughter, the author—censored parts of the story. Largely due to gaps in records, Saxbe was unable to come to a firm conclusion about Judith’s marriages and whether she was the mother of all nine of the Freeman children. After extensive research, unable to say what really happened, Saxbe gathered the evidence to develop two hypotheses.
What can genealogists learn from Saxbe’s article?
- Reliability of information is not based solely on whether an informant had first-hand information. Genealogists must consider whether the informant had motivation to hide what really happened. People with first-hand knowledge sometimes conceal or distort the facts—perhaps for monetary gain, to protect someone, to prevent judgment and reduce shame, or for countless other possible reasons.
- Even when a seemingly reliable account is available, it is crucial to question veracity and try to confirm details using multiple independent sources. Original sources with first-hand information are preferred.
- Genealogists might not be able to uncover the truth. When dealing with missing records, twisted facts, and outright misrepresentations, genealogists may have to be satisfied in proposing possibilities based on extensive research, thorough analysis, and precise correlation.
- Hypotheses based on extensive research are worthy of publication. Even if a solid conclusion has not been reached, others can benefit from expert research and analysis, using it as a springboard for further work on the family or as a model for a different project.
Information in published accounts as well as in original records can be misleading. Researchers who seek to uncover and present the truth must explore a wide variety of sources. Sometimes a firm conclusion is unreachable, but, as Saxbe’s example demonstrates, possibilities can be developed based on available evidence. In the case of Judith (Bowen) Freeman Arnold, Saxbe was unable to determine what “really happened.” But all genealogists can learn from the work he presents in this article.
 William B. Saxbe, “Historical ‘Truth,’ Clothed and Naked: The ‘Peculiar Ways’ of Judith (Bowen) Freeman Arnold,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 90 (June 2002): 99–110; PDF, NGS Quarterly Archives (https://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/ngs_quarterly_archives : 18 October 2017).