A Case of Mistaken Identity
Mistaken identity is a problem faced by every family historian at one time or another. We are often faced with the dilemma of finding a document and making a decision as to whether or not it is relevant to our particular search. Sometimes it is difficult to know which individual fills a spot on one’s family tree because of the plethora of people in an area that have the same name and similar circumstances. Perhaps a little wishful thinking propels us to rush to judgement when finding an opportunity to extend the family tree several generations by adding an individual with the correct name to a list of ancestors. Sometimes that addition can be a mistake and lead us down the wrong path in our search.
The problem is exacerbated by the lack of variety in naming individuals in earlier generations. In my Scottish background a few given names were so common that repetition was inevitable. For men, Alexander, Archibald, John and Thomas appeared in most families. For women, Mary, Ann, Margaret and Isabella were frequently found. Scottish last names were also often repeated. Not only by related families, but by families with no close relationship who had immigrated to neighbouring farms and villages in Canada.
As a result there were many people living in proximity who had the same name and were part of the same generation, but not of the same family. The lesson in this for family historians is, “Be careful”, not every record with the same name will be
long to an individual on your family tree. When coupled with the fact that early records often contained errors it is easy to see why differences between records can be explained away and two different records of individuals with the same name can be taken as records for the same person and lead the family historian to make incorrect conclusions.
Thomas McNabb, my great, great grandfather, is a case in point. Both Thomas and McNabb are such common names in the settlement of Canada there is no difficulty finding several people with the same name living close to one another. In fact I have found mention of three different unrelated people with that name living near the small Rama community of Cooper’s Falls during the late 19th Century.
My great, great grandfather Thomas McNabb married Charlotte Robbins (sometimes spelled Robins) (1) and lived near Cooper’s Falls, Rama Township, Ontario for most of their adult lives. (2) Of this I am certain and consequently use Charlotte’s name as a
marker for this Thomas whenever I can.
The name Charlotte Robbins seems to be sufficiently unique that I have found few other references to a person with the same name. Charlotte’s parents were Abijah Robbins and Susannah Gilpin, both of whose names are sufficiently unique that mistaken identity seems unlikely. (1)
Let’s examine the cases of mistaken identity involving Thomas McNabb.
The Mysterious Sister-in-Law
The most egregious error involves the marriage of Thomas McNabb to Charlotte’s sister, Anne Robbins.
Anne was married three times. In 1860 she married Henry Parker (4) and had 5 children. (5) In 1904 she married Andrew Hummerson (6) and in 1907 Thomas McNabb. (7)
It is sometimes assumed that this Thomas McNabb is the same person who had earlier married Anne’s sister Charlotte, but that assumption is simply a leap to judgement that is not supported by the facts.
While examining the marriage registration of Thomas and Anne, several facts stand out. They were married on August 12, 1907. (7) This would have been a hasty marriage for Charlotte’s Thomas as Charlotte had only passed away six months earlier, on February 12, 1907. (8) On the marriage registration Thomas provides his age as 70,7 but Charlotte’s Thomas would have been 65. (1) Thomas lists his mother’s name as Nancy Campbell7 while Charlotte’s Thomas’ mother was Ann, maiden name unknown.1 The new couple states that they will reside in Perry Township after their marriage (7), while Charlotte’s Thomas remained in his Cooper’s Falls home until after he sold the farm in 1910 (9) and moved in with his step son, John McPhee sometime after 1911. (2) The 1911 census shows Charlotte’s Thomas living alone, or possibly with Gus Pilger, (10) the man who purchased his farm from him. There is no evidence that Thomas ever remarried after Charlotte’s death and in 1920 he was listed on his death record as a widower. (2) Anne lived until 1932. (11)
It would take a great stretch of the imagination to overlook this evidence. Thomas, the husband of Charlotte, and Thomas, the husband of Anne, were not the same person.
The Clash of the Family Trees
Another instance of mistaken identity for Thomas McNabb appeared unexpectedly. While searching through the materials collected by a great aunt who was a family historian I came across two important documents. One was a photo of my great aunt, Mildred (McNabb) Larmour, as a young child along with her mother and her grandfather, Thomas McNabb. This was an exciting moment for it was the first and only time that I had seen a picture of my great grandfather. He was a large man and that characteristic has come through the generations to reveal itself in my family. (12)
The other find turned out to be almost as exciting. It was the name and address of another family historian, Donna O’Dean, who had been in contact with my great aunt. Although my great aunt passed away, many years ago, I decided on a whim to contact Ms. O’Dean and was able to talk to her on the telephone. We had a pleasant chat. She responded by sending me an envelope of material she had compiled, including a picture of Thomas McNabb. (13)In this picture Thomas is standing with his brother, his brother’s son and his brother’s grandson. The grandson was the brother of Ms. O’Dean who had sent me the package. Thomas therefore was her great uncle. This was an incredible find. Both ladies had pictures of Thomas McNabb; both ladies were sufficiently close to the subject that they were able to identify the people in the picture. Their closeness to the subject makes their identifications very reliable.
The problem was the pictures identified two very different men as being Thomas McNabb! Clearly the Thomas McNabbs in these women’s family were different people. I began to refer to these two men as
the “Larmour Thomas” and the “O’Dean Thomas” after the names of the two ladies who had introduced the men to me.
The Larmour Thomas was my great, great grandfather and the husband of Charlotte Robbins. The O’Dean Thomas was the grandson of Henry McNabb. These became the primary identifiers which I use to differentiate between the two men as I try to learn more about my family tree.
The difficulty in differentiating these two Thomas McNabbs is that they have many things in common. Not only do they have the same name, but so do their mothers and fathers. Both men were born in Mono Township, Ontario at about the same time. It is quite understandable that some people would mistakenly identify one man for the other.
Starting with the photographs, and the recognition that these are two different men, leads to a series of differing conclusions when considering historical documents. It cannot be immediately assumed that a document with the names of Thomas or of Robert McNabb refers to one particular person. More care will be required before assigning any given document to one man or the other.
Documents from the period are often unreliable, to put it kindly, and those for the Larmour Thomas certainly fit that description. For his age, I have chosen to believe the marriage certificate between Thomas and Charlotte. It seems likely that a young man at the beginning of his married life and with his father and mother present would likely know the details of his birth. At the end of his life another person supplied the information for the death registration and would be more likely to get that information wrong. As for the census reports, there is no way for a modern person to ascertain the reliability of the data provided there, so I still prefer to use the birth year provided on Thomas and Charlotte’s marriage record.
So the Larmour Thomas was born in Mono Township, Ontario in 1842, (1) possibly on March 26. According to O’Dean’s Genealogy, the O’Dean Thomas was born near Rosemont, Mono Township on the west half of Lot 31 in Concession 8 in 1837. (14)
On March 1, 1866 the Larmour Thomas married Charlotte Robbins while living in Melancthon Township. (1) In 1869 Thomas and Charlotte purchased the east half of Lot 7 in Concession 3 in March and resold it in June. (15) Two years later they were living in Muskoka near other members of the Robbins family. (16)
In 1871 Robert McNabb (the son of Henry) and his family moved to Michigan (14). O’Dean tells us that Thomas moved with them, but returned in 1873 with his brother William to work in the lumber camps. (14) While the dates do not completely rule out that these two men were different people, they do make it seem quite unlikely. There is no evidence the Larmour Thomas ever worked in the bush and by 1871 he and Charlotte were already farming near the community of Cooper’s Falls in Rama Township. (16) By 1877 they had moved to their farm at Lot 13, Concession N (9) near Cooper’s Falls. Thomas continued to live on this farm until he sold it in 1910 (9) and was probably still living there during the census of 1911. (10)
The Investigation Continues
My hypothesis that the Larmour Thomas and the O’Dean Thomas were different people, rests on the assumption there were two families living in Mono Township at the same time in the 1830’s and 1840’s. Both families were led by a man named Robert whose wife was Ann and both had a son named Thomas. At first this seems too co-incidental to be true. But notice these are all common Scottish names in an area with extensive Scottish settlement at a time when many people did share common names. It seems highly possible, perhaps even probable, that two families could share such characteristics. When one considers the pictures of the two Thomas’s, it is difficult to conceive of any other conclusion than that they are two different people.
A search of the census records for the district would be the obvious next step. If two families with similar characteristics existed, they should show up in a census canvass of the county. Unfortunately this is impossible as the census records for the time period in question have disappeared. The truth will require a different approach.
The next step will be to search property documents for evidence of two families similar to the ones described above, living in Melancthon and Mono townships in the years between 1830 and 1870.
There is no doubt that the identities of different people in the past can become entwined with one another and create confusion among modern investigators. The repetition of common names and errors in the records of the time can cause mistakes to be made. When family historians view these records it is easy to jump to conclusions when a record with the same name as a person they are studying is discovered. The case of Thomas McNabb should be a cautionary tale to all of us to check our assumptions and to look for more evidence before forming our conclusions.