The name’s not the same
It was a lesson not to be forgotten, taught by Uncle Ray.
He was The Legal Genealogist‘s uncle by marriage, the husband of my mother’s sister Carol. And, I remember, as I was just learning to carefully document the members of my own family, I was trying to find out exactly who his parents and siblings were.
In other words, as a baby genealogist, I was trying to find him in the census records.
This was purely collateral research, of course, not anything I really needed to know. After all, I thought, there wasn’t much I didn’t know about Ray; I’d known him most of my life.
He’d married my Aunt Carol in 1953,1 and I can’t remember a time in my growing-up years when he wasn’t part of all of our lives. Ray and Carol always lived either in Virginia or in North Carolina — easy driving distance from my grandparents’ Virginia farm — and he and Carol and my cousins Barbara and Philip are always there in all the photos taken as I was growing up.
But we had lost Ray early… born 91 years ago this coming Monday, on 5 October 1924, he was not yet 68 when he died in January 1992. He was buried at Byrd Memorial Methodist Chapel in Kents Store, Virginia.2 These days, Carol lies next to him, and they are surrounded by members of my mother’s family.
And — I remember thinking — how hard could it be to find him? Unlike some of the people I was trying to chase in my family history — like my fifth great grandfather John Jones — somebody named Ray Childress shouldn’t be all that hard to find in Virginia.
The first thing I encountered was that nasty little rule that says census records won’t be available for 72 years after the year in which it was taken.3 Since Ray was born in 1924, the first census he might be recorded on would be the 1930 census. Not available until 2002.
And I remember when that census finally became available… and then finally was indexed… and finally went looking.
There are somewhere on the order of 20 or so Childress families on that 1930 census in the area of Virginia was Ray was born. Among them, living in those households, they had roughly an equal number of boys of an approximate age to be Ray.
And not a single solitary one of them was named Ray.
Had to be a mistake, right?
So I did it the hard way.
I read that census record, line by line, page by page, looking for an unindexed (or inaccurately) indexed Childress family.
And came up empty.
So I expanded the search. I went out beyond the independent city where I knew Ray had been born and looked in the adjacent counties.
And came up empty.
Expanded the search again — somewhere in the Commonwealth of Virginia, there had to be a census record for Ray Childress in 1930.
And came up empty.
I can’t tell you how many times I put this aside and came back to it, sure that if I just searched a slightly different way I would find Ray Childress in that census record.
And, of course, you can tell me what kind of a ditz I was for not going back to my Aunt Carol, or to some other source than what I “knew” from having been around Ray all of my growing-up years.
Because you already know the way this story ends, don’t you?
His name wasn’t Ray.
Not his first name.
Not his middle name.
Not Ray at all, except to the family.
When I finally got around to doing genealogy the right way — gathering facts and documents instead of going with what I “knew” to be true — I carefully documented that Miller Hamilton Childress, affectionately known as “Ray” to the family, was born 5 October 1924 in Lynchburg, Virginia,4 the fifth child and third son of Thomas Henry Childress and Dora Bell Moore.5 He lived there throughout his childhood,6 and until he joined the U.S. Navy on 31 August 1942, just before his 18th birthday.7 And he returned there when he was discharged 9 November 1945.8
It’s a hard lesson to learn, as a baby genealogist, that just because two records talk about someone of the same name (my John Jones, for example) doesn’t mean they refer to the same person. We all eventually learn not to make assumptions just because the name’s the same.
But it may be a harder lesson still that just because we “know” what the name is, maybe, just maybe, the name’s not the same at all.
- Interview of Carol (Cottrell) Childress (Kents Store, VA), by the author, 28 Mar 2004; notes privately held by the author. ↩
- Byrd Memorial Methodist Church Cemetery (Kents Store, Fluvanna County, Virginia; on Venable Road (Route 601), approximately 1000 feet east of the intersection with Kents Store Way (Route 659), Latitude 37°52’43″N, Longitude 78°07’27″W), Ray Childress marker; photograph by J.G. Russell, 22 Dec 2002. ↩
- See “The ‘72-Year Rule’,” U.S. Census Bureau (https://www.census.gov/ : accessed 2 Oct 2015). ↩
- See Social Security Death Index, entry for Miller H. Childress; Mocavo.com (http://www.mocavo.com/ : accessed 4 Oct 2013). ↩
- See 1930 U.S. census, Lynchburg City, state, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 18, page 160(A) (stamped), sheet 14(A), dwelling 231, family 258, Miller H Childress; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 4 Oct 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 2468 ↩
- See ibid. Also 1940 U.S. census, Lynchburg City, Virginia, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 111-35, sheet 4(B), household 70, Miller H Childress; digital image, Archives.gov (http://1940census.archives.gov : accessed 4 Oct 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication T627, roll 4309. ↩
- “U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850-2010,” database, Fold3.com (http://www.fold3.com : accessed 4 Oct 2013). ↩
- As to the discharge, ibid. As to his residence, see e.g. Hill’s Lynchburg City Directory 1950 (Richmond, Va. : Hill’s Directory Co., 1950), 35, entry for Miller H Childress; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 4 Oct 2013). ↩