On the right track?

When working on a family tree one has to be careful to follow the correct path back through your ancestors. This can often be difficult when there are people with the same name born at around the same time. How do you determine which one to follow; that is, which one is your ancestor. This can also be made more difficult by errors in records, which unfortunately do happen.

In trying to produce a Complete Unst Family Tree I feel I have the luxury to follow all these different people and therefore work out who is who. It is never a waste to follow the ‘wrong’ person, as it is still someone from Unst who fits into the tree somewhere.

As an example, I will illustrate three men called James Sutherland who were born very close together. If you were looking for the ancestors of a James Sutherland in your own tree, which would you follow?

My reminder of possible confusion

My reminder of possible confusion

There are so many examples of such in my Unst Tree now that I have adopted a process of making a note of it in the birth event of each.

Modern (post 1855) Death records, should give you all the information you need to sort out such confusion, listing as they do the names of the parents and spouse. Modern Marriage records will also list the same useful information for fully identifying people, but in this example, some of the marriages were pre-1855 and so then the parents are not listed.

James Sutherland b. around September 1808

James Sutherland's Family Tree

James Sutherland’s Family Tree

This James was born to father Thomas Sutherland, and mother Agnes Jamieson, and was Christened on 4th October 1808. He and his wife Dorothy can be found in the census returns living in the north of Unst, initially in Norwick, and then later, and for most of their lives, in Sotland. He worked as a Fisherman, and died on 14th April 1886, in Burrafirth, Unst (same year and place as one of the others to add to the confusion) leaving his wife Dorothea Anderson, a widow.

James Sutherland b. around September 1810

This James was born to father James Sutherland and was Christened on 29th September 1810. I have yet to find his Death Record, but since there are only two James Sutherland’s of appropriate age living in Unst in the census returns, he either died, or moved away in early life.

James Smith Sutherland b. around March 1808

This James was born to father John Sutherland, and mother Osla (Ursula) Smith, and was Christened on 13th March 1808. His Death record indicates he worked as a Tailor, and died 2nd May 1886, in Burrafirth, Unst as a Single man.

James Sutherland, Tailor and wife Mary

A James Sutherland, of the same age, and his wife Mary can be found in the census returns living in the north of Unst, initially in Spragatup, and then later, and for most of their lives, in Towrie. He worked as a Tailor. When they married on 9th March 1843 he is recorded as living in Papal, Unst. He died before his wife Mary who died on 18th February 1892 in Haroldswick, Unst. The question in my mind is which of the above two James Sutherland’s is the one that married Mary?

Finding the right James Sutherland

James and Mary Sutherland's Family Tree

James and Mary Sutherland’s Family Tree

I find it unlikely that there were two Tailors on Unst with the same name, but unfortunately the first issue of Manson’s Shetland Almanac was published in 1892, by which time both (if indeed they are different people) were dead. It also seems likely that the man who married Mary who lived in Papal in 1843, was related to John and Ursula (who had a son James) who in 1841 lived in Papal. I can therefore only conclude that the Death record is wrong when it indicates that James died as a single man.

Errors such as this in record, especially the modern (post-1855) can make it difficult to be absolutely certain about relationships in a Family Tree. You have to look at all the other evidence you can gather to overturn what has been erroneously recorded.


5 thoughts on “On the right track?

  1. Morag, thanks for the story “On the Right Track?”. My grandfather’s grandmother was Eliza Mary Sutherland bn 1860 in Lerwick, Shetland. My research shows that Eliza’s parents are James Sutherland and Mary Gilbertson (m 9 Mar 1843 Unst). Eliza’s siblings include Joanna, Ursula, Jemima, John William and Sophia H Sutherland. I believe James’s parents are John Sutherland and Ursula Smith (m 19 Mar 1868 Unst) with Eliza’s sister Ursula being the common link. I too was confused by the marriage index showing James Sutherland and Mary Jamieson (Still not sure if the family I am searching is Gilbertson or Jamieson). Interesting to note that Sophia’s middle name may be Henderson (shown in a 1945 probate notice Sophia Henderson Smith). It appears Sophia married Thomas Smith 2 Oct 1881 in Kent. Middle names can provide a bit more certainty.

    • Hi Wayne,

      Eliza Mary Sutherland was born to parents James Sutherland and Mary Gilbertson. She was actually born in Unst on 30 Oct 1856 (see Scotland Births and Baptisms). Her birthplace is incorrectly recorded as Lerwick in the 1881 census when she is working as a Domestic Servant in Kensington, probably due to a lack of Shetland geographical knowledge by people living in London!

      We are researching an era here that still uses patronymics in some families, so surnames do sometimes appear to go off on a strange tangent! Although, her surname ought to be Johnson, not Jameson, following patronymics, so it was very confusing. I agree on James’ parents.

      Sophia’s middle name is indeed Henderson as shown on her Birth Record. I had not yet found her marriage – many thanks for the tip.

      I have the details of Eliza’s marriage to James Page from our earlier contact on the Ancestry website – just worked out it’s you! 🙂

      Good to hear from you,

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