I started this journey with very little information about my grandfather.
James R West
From my mother’s birth certificate I had his name listed as Jas R West. I knew that he had lived in Oklahoma and Arkansas during the time that he was married to my grandmother.
My mother remembered that he left the family when she was about two years old and that he came to visit her in Tulsa for one day when she was about nine years old.
James Richard West in Tulsa about 1929
The only other piece of information that I had to go on was that my mother had found out that he died in 1951. My recollection was that he died in San Jose, California. My sister thought it was Montery, California. With only this information to go on I started doing research on ancestry.com.
What I found was that there were many James Wests in Oklahoma and Arkansas during the years that my grandfather was with my grandmother, 1903 to 1922. A check of the 1920 census in Oklahoma showed my grandfather and grandmother and their four living children as being born in Oklahoma. It also stated that both my grandmother’s and grandfather’s parents were born in Oklahoma and that my grandfather was 44 years old.
Searching with that criteria I could not find a James R West that matched. I decided next to search on FindaGrave for cemeteries in Monterey County. I found internment records for a James R West at Garden of Memories Memorial Park, Salinas, Monterey County, California, USA (I also found that John Steinbeck was buried in this same cemetery).
Headstone James R West
Next I sent for a copy of the death certificate for that James West. The date of birth and death, plus location, made this seem like a match for my grandfather. However, the death certificate said he was born in Kentucky, while the 1920 census, one of the few records where I was sure I was looking at the correct James West, said he was born in Oklahoma.
That same census also said that my grandmother’s mother and father were born in Oklahoma and I knew that was incorrect. It also said that three of my mother’s siblings, that I knew were born in New Mexico, were born in Oklahoma. I surmised that the census taker had just put Oklahoma as the place of birth in every birth place related spot for this family.
James Richard West with Unknown Person Roswell New Mexico
James Richard West, son James Edward West, Eliza Crittenden West around 1905 in Roswell, New Mexico
So, I started looking for a James West born in Kentucky in 1875 whose father was named Dave West and whose mother’s first name was Sarah (information also on the death certificate). I searched and searched and found nothing that was a match.
I then changed tactics and started looking in the 1890 census for any West families, in the county where my grandmother lived before her marriage to my grandfather, that showed a James West about 24 years old.
I found a few, but none with a mother named Sarah and a father named Dave. I found none where James West was born in Kentucky. I did find a family. with a mother named Sarah and a father named Benjamin, where the eldest child was named David. On this census, James was born in Alabama but it was the correct year. I put this census in my records as a long shot possible match, but my best possibility so far.
Fast forward several months when I have all of my relevant census data for 1900 printed out and sitting in front of me. Evidence that I had the correct family was sitting right in front of me.
The census page for the family that I thought was a possible match for my grandfather in the 1890 census, no longer had the elder brother David on the census. However the family listed next to my grandmother’s family on her census page showed David West as the head of household. This David West was the correct age to be the elder brother of the Benjamin West household. David was now living in a separate household with a wife and children of his own.
This made me study both census pages more closely and I realized that both of the census pages were from the same neighborhood. At last I was 90% certain that I was looking at the correct James West and had found my grandfather’s family.
Now that I was on the right track, there were many discoveries over the next few months that confirmed beyond any doubt that this was the correct family.
The big lesson learned here? Those of us searching for our roots are always looking for the “official” documentation that proves the connections in our family tree. But the truth is, those official documents often have errors.
In this case both the 1920 census and my grandfather’s death certificate had conflicting information about my grandfather and much of the information in both of them was incorrect. How does this happen?
A tired census taker realizing the answer to most of the questions about place of birth for this family is Oklahoma, just writes that in every blank space. A woman, who has lived with someone for a few years and met when they were both in their 70s, provides the data for the death certificate to the best of her ability. An older brother gets listed as the father, a state that as near as I can tell this family never set foot in, is listed as the place of birth.
Records are a valuable source of information. But don’t forget to look at the big picture. When you look at the families living next door to your ancestors on the census what does it tell you? Does looking at the census page before and after your family’s shed any light on the mystery you are trying to solve.
Finding your family roots much more resembles solving a mystery than collecting data and organizing it.
Good luck in continuing to solve the mysteries in your family trees.