The Big Picture and the Small Details

As genealogists, we are encouraged to uncover the small details about our ancestors’ lives, as well as look at the bigger picture to learn more about who they were associated with throughout their lifetimes. Why do we examine our research subjects up close with a magnifying glass, but also pull back to get a bird’s-eye-view of their lives and who surrounded them? The case study “Indirect Evidence Identifies Ancestry of Beverly C. Fleming of Illinois, Tennessee, and Virginia” by Ann Carter Fleming, CG, CGL, FNGS, published in the June 2013 issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ), demonstrates exactly why.

Image: Mike Kniec,

Image: Mike Kniec, “Picking Up The Pieces,” via Flickr Commons

Fleming sets out to identify the origins and parentage of Beverly C. Fleming, a nineteenth-century migrant who lived in Virginia and later in Tennessee and Illinois. She studies Beverly throughout his adult life in Sumner County, Tennessee, and Saline County, Illinois, to discover his approximate birth year, reported birthplace, military service, marriage, and residences. She also pays close attention to the smaller, more specific details about Beverly’s life, such as the precise location of his land on Bledsoe Creek in Sumner County, and the names of his associates, including Thomas Scurry, who served as a surety when Beverly married Polly Aspley in 1813.

Fleming also looks at the bigger picture to discover who surrounded Beverly during his time in Sumner County. She uncovers a network of other men with the same surname: James Fleming, Robert Fleming, and William Fleming. Her knowledge of the specific details about Beverly’s life help connect him to these other Flemings. Each of these men also owned land on or near Bledsoe Creek, and was of a similar age to Beverly. Additionally, Thomas Scurry also served as a surety when Robert Fleming married Polly Barr in 1818. Numerous pieces of information suggest a connection between Beverly Fleming and the other Fleming men.

The author researches these Fleming men, just as she did with Beverly Fleming. Robert Fleming’s first wife, Nancy (Mitchell) Fleming, was the daughter of Henry Mitchell. When Henry died in 1819 in Sumner County, several men purchased goods from his estate, including Robert Fleming, William Fleming, Whitfield Holloway, Nathan Holloway, and William Phillips. Ten years earlier, some of the same men—Henry Mitchell, Robert Fleming, and Whitfield Holloway—along with John Mitchell, James Phillips, and Thomas White, sold two slaves in Sumner County.

Several of these men and their wives can be traced back to Virginia, where sources indicate Beverly was born. James Phillips married wife Milley (Fleming) Pentecost, daughter of William Fleming, in Charlotte County, Virginia. William Fleming’s other daughter, Jincy (Fleming) Campbell of Virginia, also later lived in Sumner County. By studying the big picture surrounding Beverly, the author discovers a body of indirect evidence that connects several Fleming brothers and sisters, including Beverly, as the children of William Fleming.

When researching our families, we are always seeking information—but are we paying attention to specific details about our ancestors? And are we looking at the big picture to learn more about our ancestors’ associates? The big picture and the small details work together. The author’s success in identifying Beverly C. Fleming’s parentage and origins in Virginia is the result of identifying and studying Beverly’s network, and using details about these individuals’ lives to make connections between them.

Click here to read Fleming’s case study.

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