When we tell the story of the ancestors who have gone before, the details we start with are often only traces left behind from the past. It is best to compile evidence from several different sources in order to see the story from a broader perspective and create the clearest picture possible. With the layers of time, sometimes it is hard to decipher and describe the most accurate of tales. Learning the how, when, why and by whom for each record or piece of evidence is also helpful. Without that knowledge, it can be hard to uncover the actual truth. The past is indeed a different country. We are just describing it from our perspective at this point in time, based on what we know or have gathered.
Take the story of little Amasa, for instance:
A modern-day photograph of his tombstone (above) found on the Find-A-Grave website under the Jefferson Street Cemetery in Ellicottville, New York provides us with the barest of details and is hardly legible anymore. The entry lists his name as “Amasa H. Williams” and provides his birth date as 2 August 1871 as well as his death date of 8 February 1872 with the words “aged 6 months” in parathenses. In the photograph, you can just about see the detail of his death and the words “6 months” on the stone. Certainly the name “Amasa” is written clear, the middle initial maybe not so much. A detail from another source notes that his complete age of 6 months and 6 days is actually listed on the stone (see here) which points to why it's best to not rely on just one source for data.
There is more information from the stone to be gleaned. It also states he was the son of A. & J. Williams. Although these details are only slightly legible in this particular photo, the accuracy of it is not disputed because of other known details about little Amasa and his family. Let's look at another source, ironically another stone in another cemetery:
The Sunset Hill Cemetery was established a little later than Jefferson Street Cemetery. Eventually Jefferson Street Cemetery was considered the old cemetery and the townspeople stopped burying folks there, especially as it was getting full. In terms of years, the stone shown in this next photograph is closer to our time than the first one. We can tell by appearance without knowing the complete story of how, when, why and by whom it was erected, that this stone is more modern. We can at least say with some certainty that it was erected after 1913, the latest date listed on it.
Here we have to interpret this is a memorial stone and not necessarily an actual gravestone unless the physical remains were re-interred. Both young Amasa and Cynthia Williams were originally buried in the old Jefferson Street Cemetery as can be seen from the stones left there. The Find-A-Grave entry for Cynthia adds an “i” which is the traditional spelling of the name. Besides the death date, it does not list the rest of the details shown on the stone which include that she was the daughter of A. & J. Williams and she was aged 9 years.
We can be assured that the parents of both children, A. & J. Williams, are more completely identified as Amasa and Joan (or Joanna) from several sources. For one, the memorial stone lists two individuals of the same initials with birth years that would make them the right age to be parents of these two children. Two, we find a 1855 state census entry in the nearby town of Great Valley for the household of Amasa and Joanna (although to add another layer of confusion, her name was indexed as “Loanna”). The ages listed for this Amasa, Joanna and “Cytha” match very closely within a year of what we have from these stones. If Cyntha/Cynthia was 9 at the time of her death, her birth year would have been 1852 and then she very well was 3 years old at the time of the 1855 census. We have no window of time in regards to records to place young Amasa in the household of his parents for he was born and died between any time such record would have been made. Of course, there is much more to the story of this family than I will detail here. Details matter but they can also cloud the point trying to be made.
I write this post to point out that the process of coming to conclusions on what happened in the past requires looking at all the evidence available from many aspects (records, observations) in order to come to the clearest perspective possible on what really happened. In most of what family historians are describing, we weren't there to be an eyewitness so we can only use what knowledge we are able to find in order to construct the story as accurately as can be ascertained.
Little Amasa's middle initial is the detail that caught my eye in the first place which led me to make this broader point about research and telling stories about the past. If we stopped with the Find-A-Grave entry, we might conclude this child's actual name was Amasa H. Williams. We might also have concluded that the Amasa N. Williams listed on the other stone was a completely different person. Gathering all the data and attempting to resolve the discrepancies, including looking at the photograph and not just relying on the transcription of what it says (another layer in time) leads me to conclude this interpretation of the story is more than likely incorrect. I am satisfied in listing the infant son of Amasa and Joanna Williams as Amasa N. Williams in summarizing this family's story. Minor detail or not, little Amasa N. Williams deserves to be portrayed in the most accurate light possible as I am sure his life had a profound impact on those who knew him, however short-lived it was.