Search Tips: Challenge Your Assumptions; or, Who Was Peter Garcelon?

For this month's search tips article, we present a simple concept that can have a profound impact on your family history research: challenge your assumptions! To illustrate this concept, here is a real-life example that happened to Tom Kemp, NewsBank's Director of Genealogy Products. Tom has been pursuing genealogy for nearly 50 years, and has worked with other family members to extensively develop his family tree.

Like many genealogists, Tom began his family history research with an assumption, based on family lore, that he knew which ancestor was the first to come to America: Captain James Garcelon, who was born in 1739 on the Channel Island, Guernsey, England, and settled in Lewiston, Maine. Family tradition always held that James Garcelon held this honor in the family's history, and Tom accepted it as the truth. However, if Tom had stuck to this assumption, he would never have discovered the true identity of his first ancestor in America.

Based on his initial assumption, Tom focused his early research on James Garcelon, Maine, and sometime after 1739—and was getting good results. He was pleased to be able to anchor the American side of his family tree with this first ancestor. Then, one day he decided to broaden the date range and geographic scope of the searches he was doing, and something exciting happened.

Using GenealogyBank's extensive collection of historical newspapers, Tom was startled to find this article, printed by the Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia) on 14-21 March 1738, page 2:

The article contained a long list of letters that were sitting in the Philadelphia Post Office waiting to be claimed. To his astonishment, under the listing for the letter "G" Tom found this:

What was going on? Someone had sent a letter to a Peter Garcelon sometime between September 29, 1737, and March 1738, and it was sitting in the Philadelphia Post Office waiting for him to claim—before James Garcelon was even born!

Who was Peter Garcelon?

Excited, Tom set to work digging through more old newspapers and government records, until he had enough information to surprise his family with the following announcement: James Garcelon was not their first ancestor in America! They had another, earlier ancestor that the family lore had forgotten about.

Here is some of the information Tom discovered about Peter Garcelon:

He was likely Peter/Pierre Garcelon (1724-1763), a son of Pierre Garcelon, Sr. (1686-1772) and his first wife, Anne LaRue (1690-1734). James Garcelon was Peter's brother, the son of Pierre Garcelon, Sr., and his second wife, Jeanne Bedat (1708-1742).

Peter/Pierre Garcelon was born on the Isle of Guernsey on March 16, 1724, and was very young when he "apprenticed" out as a seaman. When he died in July 1763 in Havana, Cuba, he was serving on the King's ship Elgar.

A few years ago Tom heard from a cousin who has an original letter written by Pierre, Sr., to his son James, written on June 9, 1753. It contains these lines: "...Your brother Pierre came here a year ago. He was in very good (ship's) company. All over the island I heard all the gentlemen pay him courteous attention, and he would have been able to get aboard a ship if he had waited, but he wished to go to Jersey [Channel Islands]. There he had fallen in love and married...After this marriage he left from Jersey to Philadelphia where he is a petty officer for Captain Coultes. I have sent his sea chest and clothes to Philadelphia."

Perhaps the letter that was waiting for Peter Garcelon at the Philadelphia Post Office in 1737 or 1738, as noted in the newspaper article Tom discovered, was an earlier message from Peter's father!

Tom had another experience in his genealogy career that reinforced the lesson of challenging your assumptions. When he began researching his Kemp family history nearly 50 years ago, he found a death record for an Edward Kemp (1830-1901) who was born in County Cavan, Ireland, and died in New York City. Since Tom was operating under the assumption that his Irish ancestors came from a different part of Ireland and settled in Connecticut, he did not follow up on this Edward lead because he assumed he wasn't an ancestor—and therefore not part of Tom's family tree. Over a decade later, Tom learned that his family line was also from County Cavan—and that Edward was in fact his cousin!

Remember this important search tip: challenge your assumptions! Be prepared to discover that your assumptions are wrong; be open to what you're looking for and what you'll find. By thoroughly searching old newspapers you can find details that just might change family traditions and supply the information you need to accurately document your family tree.

Sometimes it is a good strategy to narrow your search to a specific name, geographical region, or time period when doing your family history. But don't make the mistake of thinking your assumptions are always correct. If Tom had only focused on James Garcelon in Maine sometime after 1739, he would never have made the important discovery that he had another, earlier ancestor that his family had forgotten about, a Peter Garcelon in Philadelphia in 1737 or 1738.

GenealogyBank's historical newspapers archive contains more than 5,500 titles, from all 50 states, covering more than 300 years of American history. By doing a broad search in such a vast collection, you may make a startling discovery in your own family history!

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