Evaluating evidence is probably the most critical skillset to master in order to break through some of the most stubborn brick walls in genealogy. This post provides an example of how I put that skill to use.
When I first discovered that my enslaved ancestor’s name was Rezin Prather, I thought, “What an odd name. I’ll easily be able to find him.” Guess what? Turns out it was a very popular name in Montgomery County, Maryland, for everybody. There were several African-American “Rezin Prathers” floating around the county and in Washington, D.C. This situation makes genealogical mistakes easier to make, since people are prone to connect ancestors when they share the same name and live in the same place. It was important for me to finally “sort out all the Rezins” in order to ensure that I was connecting identities properly.
I began with various census records, vital records, deed records and military records as evidence for the different men, and oh of course their names, first and last, were spelled in a million different ways. I will spell them all here as “Rezin,” for simplicity. I had documents I collected online, but I had done most off this research offline.
My ancestor Rezin Prather was born in about 1800-1803 and was found presumably living with his son Levi in 1870. He is most certainly the same Rezin Prather who “departed this life” on Jan. 8, 1872 as lovingly stated in the family bible. He is the only Rezin found with that birth date.
I believe that this “elder” Rezin Prather likely had at least three sons: Levi, Wesley and Tobias Prather, who all lived in the same community, and diligently passed their names down to their children. Looking at the assortment of records, I compiled a list of birthdate ranges. They describe at least 6 different men:
b. 1800-1803 (the elder)
b. mid 1860s
I found six marriage records in the area for men named Rezin Prather:
In Montgomery County:
Rezin Prather married Albina Riggs, 4 March 1867
Rezin Prather married Elizabeth Brown, 10 June 1886
Rezin Prather married Annie Simpson, 13 August 1889
In Washington, DC:
Rezin Prather married Rosetta Bowie, 18 April 1900
Rezin Prather married Ella M. Butcher, 26 May 1902
Rezin Prather married Annie D. Stewart, 19 April 1911
Here’s a summary of my analysis:
1) My great-grandmother’s brother Rezin Joseph was born ca. March 1881-1882. He never married nor had any children. He must be the 19-year old “outlier” shown below in the 1900 census living in the Brown household and he can be tracked until his death in
2) From oral history, I knew that Wesley Prather’s son Rezin was the same 25-year old Resin Jr. already married to Albina Riggs and raising two children in 1880, living just one page over from his father. The two men can further be connected by their occupation as carpenters. This Rezin was born around 1845. He had the middle initial “R.”:
3) A 1900 census for an “R.R. Praither” in Camden, New Jersey sparked suspicion. He was born Nov. 1844 in Maryland, and was living with wife “Mary. E.” and three children. He was a minister. When he died in 1903, his body was shipped back to Maryland, and the death certificate verified his father’s name as “Wesley Praither.” That means he is the same man who had first married Albina. This Rezin secondly married Elizabeth Brown in 1886 in Washington, D.C. What about the wife called “Mary E.” in 1900? His wife’s name (as confirmed by city directories) was Mary Elizabeth Brown.
4) A World War I draft card identified a “Rezin Singleton Prather” born 1876. His name was garbled and transcribed incorrectly, but I found him living in Washington, D.C. I finally noticed that one of Rezin R. and Albina’s sons was called “Singleton” in the 1880 census (see above), born 1876. Thus, Rezin R. Praither, the preacher from Maryland who died in New Jersey, had a son he named Rezin Singleton who lived his life here in Washington D.C. That son married Ellen Butcher in DC (called Elnora below). He is further traced by his occupation as a waiter.
5) The last connection is where it gets tricky. The Rezin Prather who married Annie Simpson in 1889 is never found on any census. Annie was probably dead by 1900, when her two children –Ethel and Wilson –were living with their grandparents. Annie was also referred to in her father’s will as “Annie Simpson Prather.” What’s unclear is whether or not Rezin Prather survived his wife.
The Rezin who married Rosetta Bowie in 1900 was found in D.C. in 1900. His occupation was “sexton.” Rosetta Prather died on 28 May 1908.
A 1910 census intensified the mystery. A widowed 42 year old Rezin Prather was living in D.C, in a household with his sister “Hester Prather.” Ethel and Wilson Prather, who had been living with their grandparents, are in his household and called “lodgers.”
The only person who had a daughter named Hester who could have had a son born in mid 1860s is Tobias Prather. And I believe he is probably the same Rezin who had been first married to Rosetta. Had he been the one married to Annie, Ethel and Wilson should have been labeled as his children, not lodgers. Another clue was his occupation as a “janitor” in a church. That’s awful close to what a sexton does, which was the occupation of the man who was married to Rosetta. This man was still in DC in 1922, according to city directories, working as a janitor.
This “other” Rezin Prather, born in the mid 1860s–the one who first married Annie Simpson–went on to marry Annie D. Stewart in 1911. He was found on the 1920 and 1930 census records living as a farmer in Montgomery County. I do not know who this man’s father was, but I hope to find his death certificate, since he lived well into the mid-20th century. I think he was the 14-year-old “outlier” in 1880:
Is your head spinning yet? I hope that you too will consider trying to track identities if you have several people living in the same area with the same name. Here are some of the important takeaways I discovered from this exercise:
*Watch out for “outlier” children and teens, especially in 1880 and 1900. Black people are frequently living in other households as servants or lodgers and not in their parent’s households. It can easily cause you to miss children who should be in a family unit.
*Be aware of middle names and initials. I often find people using their middle name in one document and their first name in another.
I have posted before about the need to be on the lookout for multiple marriages. They can impede our ability to discern between one person and two.
*Use occupations, addresses, city directories and deed records to help properly merge identities. Sometimes city directories add spouses in parenthesis, which is extremely helpful.
My chart after analysis looks like this:
b. Born 1800-1803: “elder” Rezin Prather, d. 1872
b. Born 1840-1845: Rezin R., mrd Albina and Elizabeth, died in NJ, minister
b. Born early 1860’s: This Rezin married Rosetta only, worked as janitor in DC. Do not know who his parents were.
b. Born 1866-68: This Rezin mrd Annie Simpson and then Annie Stewart, his father was Tobias
b. Born 1876: Rezin Singleton, son of Rezin R., waitor, mrd Ellen
b. Born 1881-1882: Rezin Joseph, never married, his father was Levi