Crowdsourcing in genealogical research is being used less frequently than in prior years. It’s still here but structured differently and in my opinion, less impactful. The Macmillan dictionary defines crowdsourcing as:
“[Obtaining] ideas, opinions or help to develop something from a large number of people, usually members of the public using the internet”1
Since the disappearance of the Rootsweb mailing lists in 2020 and the discontinuation or read-only status of popular message boards, such as Genealogy.com (Genforum), it seems harder to connect and collaborate with a large number of researchers. Sure, we have other ways to crowdsource, but these tools are either difficult to search and find, come with their own sources of frustration, or fail to be fully public and reach large numbers of people:
- Social media posts and Facebook group content can get buried within our feeds or missed entirely. Often times, they cannot be easily and subsequently searched.
- Email enables in-depth information sharing but frequently lacks engagement and tends to be more dyadic than mass communication. Messages from unknown researchers frequently end up in spam or go unanswered. Once read, messages become lost or buried in the mailbox.
- FamilySearch.org’s Family Tree provides crowdsourcing capabilities where users cooperate to build a single, sharable tree, but it can become a source of frustration when your ancestor’s information is frequently changed by others without proper sourcing.
For better or for worse, we are now principally reliant on within app messaging on Ancestry and MyHeritage that often goes unnoticed or unanswered. Other services, such as FamilyTreeDNA and Gedmatch, make available our email addresses, but here, too, many queries to one another go unanswered. All of these services make mass communication difficult or impossible and none provide for publicly displayed and searchable information that is peer reviewed, evaluated, and well, crowdsourced.
Ancestry.com’s message boards are perhaps one of the last bastions of true crowdsourcing, but here, too, it seems to have fallen out of favor with researchers and Ancestry, who doesn’t actively promote this tool. Indeed, the most recent posts on most Ancestry message boards are often one to two decades old!
Call me old-school, but the Rootsweb mailing lists, message boards, and others like it were great aggregators of searchable, archival, and mostly public information wonderfully organized by location, surname, and other specialized topics that somehow rose above the clutter in our mailbox. I miss the ease of crowdsourced genealogy where we frequently communicated with one another in mass to solve family mysteries and brick walls.
While I can’t bring back Rootsweb or promote Ancestry’s message boards, I do have a platform with this blog. I hope I can use it to promote collaboration, and there’s no better time than the present. So, let’s give it a try.
A Crowdsourceable Problem
John McMasters: One or Two People?
I’m working on a proof argument for a potential ancestor named John McMasters, who lived in the 1700s. Unfortunately, collected evidence is unclear whether one or two men with the same name lived at the same time in the location of interest. If I may, I wish to briefly present the evidence and allow my readers to cast their vote and comment whether evidence points to the same person or to two different people.
There were potentially two different John McMasters in the Bucks County, Pennsylvania area between 1747 and 1768 (see the map below for geographical context). It hass been difficult to discern whether they were the same person or two different individuals. The importance in making the determination is that I am currently searching for potential candidates for the father of Mary McMasters, who was born about 1755 and married William Boyd in 1778 in Newtown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Mary McMasters is my 5x great grandmother.
John McMasters appears to have been poor and never owned land, which makes tracing him in the 1700s very difficult. An exhaustive search of tax records, land records, will and probate records, court records, church records, and other miscellaneous county records identified the following occurrences for John McMasters. The records are listed in the table below and then briefly elaborated upon, one at a time, after the table. At its conclusion, two theories are presented, and I invite you to cast a vote for the theory best supported by the records or provide comments.
Each record from the above table is briefly elaborated:
- On 25 November 1747, John McMasters witnessed the will of James Paxon of Solebury, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.2
- On 16 July 1748, John McMasters witnessed the will of John Wells of Solebury.3
- In 1751, John McMasters was recorded as receiving funds from the Bucks County Treasury for payment for some service which is unclear on county records.4
- In 1751, John McMasters is found on the Poor Tax List in Solebury,5 which is a list of individuals paying the tax rather than a list of paupers. Tax records indicate John is single and living at “Bob Tompsons”. Robert (Bob) Thompson was a miller by trade.6
- On 5 October 1752, Kingwood Monthly Meeting records list John McMasters among the attendees of a Quaker wedding in Amwell Township, Hunterdon County, New Jersey, which is located just across the Delaware River from Bucks County.7 The wedding was for Benjamin Canby of Solebury and Martha Whitson of Amwell.
- In the 1758 probate file for Christopher Search of Amwell, Search’s widow is listed as Lydia McMasters (late Lydia Search) suggesting she had recently remarried.8 Future records indicate Lydia married John McMasters. Records also suggest that the Search’s lived near Rosemont in present day Dealware Township, Hunterdon, NJ, which was formed out of Amwell in 1838.9
- In October of 1759, an entry in the Hunterdon County Common Pleas minute books lists the case of Abraham Cottnam v. John McMasters but no additional details were available.10 It is probable that this entry is related to another court case where Jacob Arnwine, through his attorney Abraham Cottnam, sued Christopher Search’s estate.11 William Pidgeon was Lydia (Search) McMasters’ attorney in this case.
- In March of 1761, John McMasters is identified as a tenant in possession of a piece of land under dispute between himself and Benjamin Howell.12 The disputed property was in Amwell.
- A 1761 entry for Edward Prall v. John McMasters was found in the Hunterdon County Common Pleas minute books with no additional details available.13
- On 16 February 1762, John McMasters signed a lease of indenture with William Briggs of Southampton, Bucks County.14 It’s unclear what the indenture was actually for, but given that both men were identified as millers, it was most likely related to employment. The indenture listed the goods and chattels to be forfeited to William Briggs should John default. The results of this transaction are unknown.
- On 13 September 1765, William Pidgeon sued John McMasters for a £20 debt to which John borrowed from William on 25 February 1764.15 John was identified as “John McMasters of Southampton in Bucks County, millwright and carpenter”. John was represented by his attorney, Isaac Allen of Trenton, Hunterdon County, New Jersey. William Pidgeon is most likely the same attorney from Hunterdon County, NJ, who represented Lydia (Search) McMasters in the earlier Jacob Arnwine case.16
- John McMasters died in 1768 in Byberry Township, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania.17 John was identified as a wheelwright, and Lydia McMasters was the executor of the estate. John’s estate made payments to 19 individuals, of which nine were from Southampton, five were from Byberry, and two from Bensalem. Byberry and Bensalem are adjacent to Southampton (see previous map).
Theory 1: John McMasters as One Person
One interpretation of the evidence is that all records are associated one individual. The arguments in support of this hypothesis are briefly highlighted blow:
- At no time were two different John McMasters entries found within the same document. Similarly, records for John McMasters were not found in two different locations in the same year.
- The timeline outlined in the table presents a reasonable migration route from Solebury Bucks County, PA to neighboring Amwell, Hunterdon County, NJ and then back to Bucks County (Southampton) and finally to neighboring Byberry, Philadelphia County.
- The attorney William Pidgeon is associated with two of John McMasters’ court cases – one when he resided in Amwell and another when he resided in Southampton. John’s attorney in the latter case was from Hunterdon County.
- Nearly half of the individuals receiving payments from John McMasters’ estate resided in Southampton suggesting that John may be the same individual who lived in Southampton prior to Byberry. This assertion is despite John’s occupations being identified as a miller in 1762, a millwright and carpenter in 1765, and a wheelwright in 1768. It is conceivable John took his miller skills (perhaps obtained earlier when living with Bob Thompson in 1751) and combined it with his abilities to fix and/or build things to become a millwright and carpenter and then a wheelwright. Given his frequent moving from place to place, perhaps to find work, he may have had to be flexible when it came to earning a living.
Theory 2: John McMasters as Two Different People
Another interpretation of the evidence is that records suggest two different individuals as outlined below:
- While three different occupations are found spanning six years, two occupations appear similar – miller in 1762 and millwright in 1765. The former is concerned with grinding grains and the later toward the mechanics of operating and maintaining a mill. It’s possible that the 1762 and 1765 records are for the same person. In fact, the earlier 1751 tax record where John lived with Bob Thompson (a miller by trade) may be where he initially learned the miller occupation. This leaves the 1768 record where John McMasters was identified as a wheelwright. Progressing from a millwright (and carpenter) to a wheelwright appears less plausible suggesting John McMasters the wheelwright is a different person.
- John McMasters married Lydia Search, widow of Christopher Search about 1758 in Amwell. It’s unclear when Lydia was born. However, with his first wife, Christopher Search had a son named William, who was reportedly born about 1735. This suggests that Christopher might have been born between 1710-1715, assuming this was his first marriage and child. In contrast, John McMasters was identified as single in the 1751 tax records indicating he was at least 21 years old at this time making him born in 1730 or earlier, and probably earlier given that he potentially witnessed two wills in 1747 and 1748. Therefore, if Lydia was about the same age as Christopher Search, it seems less probable that a younger and single John McMasters would marry an older widow. Therefore, it is plausible that an older John McMasters (the wheelwright) married Lydia Search leaving a younger John McMasters (the miller) as a separate person.
Cast Your Vote
I recently discovered a family history research tool that might help those interested casting an opinion on whether the gathered records for John McMasters suggests one or two different individuals. The tool is called a Subway Map because of its resemblance to city transit systems. The map makes it easy to visually compare the locations of where your research subjects lived across time.18 Subway Maps are just one of the research tools developed by Richard K. Miller and available at GoldieMay.com.
From the above image, three different timelines are presented for John McMasters based on the available records: John McMasters as one person (i.e., John McMasters combined — green line) and John McMasters as two different people (i.e., John McMasters Jr. — red line, and John McMasters Sr. – blue line). The later two assumes the John who married widow Lydia Search and was a wheelwright is the Senior and John the miller and millwright is the Junior.
There’s a lot to digest here, but I welcome any comments and suggestions. Please also consider casting your vote for whether you believe records indicate one or two different John McMasters. Whichever way you vote, I hope you help me crowdsource this genealogical problem! And, if you know of any great genealogy crowdsourcing tools or platforms, leave a comment.
4 responses to “Crowdsourced Genealogy”
From researching my ancestors who lived in the same area, I know that the Delaware River was not a barrier to people living in the area. I have a couple of ancestors who owned land on both sides of the river, and it was more like a street than anything else. I see the entries from 1747-1761 as all concerning the same person, who moved south about 1762. Walter Pidgeon is a connection for John’s data points, it seems to me. If Lydia were a young bride of Chistopher Search, she would not have been that much older than John if he had been 21 when he witnessed the will in 1747.
I’m also interested in the map you included. This is a great way to visually see how close the locations actually are. Did you draw the map, or is there an application which can help with this? I would love to do this for my research work. Thanks for another informative blog.
Rick, great post! I’m really impressed with the thoroughness of the research (I guess “exhaustive” is the word!) and, like Carol said, I also liked the hand-drawn map, including the inset map.
Thank you too your mention of the Subway Map. I appreciated the opportunity to think about how the Subway Map might be able to help more with tough situations like this in the future.
As for the decision, you’ve made compelling arguments on both sides. I’m not familiar with whether there are any genealogical standards that would encourage you to assume fewer, or more, people in the case of ambiguity. I’m curious if you were to assume theory 1, or alternatively 2, where would you go next in your research? Maybe it’s best to work on both theories, separately, and see if the downstream research leads you to more clues about this decision?
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1. Macmillan Education Limited (2022), Crowdsource, accessed 18 September 2022 at http://www.macmillandictionary.com.
2. Bucks County, Pennsylvania, estate file, no 572, James Paxon (1747), Recorder of Wills, Clerk of Orphans’ Court, Doylestown.
3. Bucks County, Pennsylvania, estate file, no 608, John Wells (1748), Recorder of Wills, Clerk of Orphans’ Court, Doylestown.
4. Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Treasurer’s Accounts, John McMasters (1751), Board of County Commissioners, Doylestown; database with an image (www.familysearch.org), image 391 of 594, film 008716905.
5. McNealy, Terry A., and Frances W. Waite (1983), Bucks County Tax Records, 1693-1778. Doylestown, PA: Bucks County Genealogical Society, pg. 12.
6. Bucks County, Pennsylvania, estate file, no 3236, Robert Thompson (1804), Recorder of Wills, Clerk of Orphans’ Court, Doylestown.
7. Moore, James W. (1900), Records of the Kingwood Monthly Meeting of Friends, Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Flemington, NJ: H.E. Deats.
8. New Jersey, U.S., Abstract of Wills, 1670-1817, Christopher Search (1757), vol. 32, p. 284; database with an image (www.Ancestry.com), image 285 of 471; citing New Jersey State Published Archives Series.
9. Snell, James P. (1881), History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, New Jersey with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers. Philadelphia, PA: Everts & Peck, p. 371-373.
10. Hunterdon County, New Jersey, Abraham Cottnam v. John McMasters (1759), Court of Common Pleas Minute Books, Trenton; database with an image (www.familysearch.org), image 177 of 864, film 8218331.
11. Hunterdon County, New Jersey, Jacob Arnwine v. Lydia Search, executrix of Christopher Search, deceased (1760), item no. 5074, Court of Common Pleas, Trenton; database with an image (www.familysearch.org), images 288-296 of 738, film 008351192.
12. New Jersey State Archives, Supreme Court Case Files 1704-1844, John Denn (Benjamin Howell) v. Richard Fenn (John McMasters), tenant in possession (1761), Amwell, Hunterdon County, Case 17018; New Jersey Department of State, https://wwwnet-dos.state.nj.us/DOS_ArchivesDBPortal/index.aspx, accessed 21 August 2022. John Denn and Richard Fenn are fictitious names frequently used in the courts of this time either in place of an unknown person or to protect someone’s identity, see: LeMay, Eric C. (1995), “A Biography of the Nameless: John and Jane Doe,” The Georgia Review, 49 (3), 633-646.
13. Hunterdon County, New Jersey, Abraham Cottnam v. John McMasters (1759), Court of Common Pleas Minute Books, Trenton; database with an image (www.familysearch.org), image 266 of 864, film 8218331.
14. Bucks County, Pennsylvania, lease of indenture, John McMasters to William Briggs, (1762), Book 10, p. 418-419, Recorder of Deeds, Doylestown; database with an image (www.familysearch.org), image 324-325 of 398, film 7898966.
15. Bucks County, Pennsylvania, William Pidgeon v. John McMasters (1765), Court of Common Pleas, Doylestown; originals held at the Bucks County Archives, Mercer Museum and Bucks County Historical Society, Doylestown, item no. 7568.
16. Hunterdon County, New Jersey, Jacob Arnwine v. Lydia Search, executrix of Christopher Search, deceased (1760), item no. 5074, Court of Common Pleas, Trenton; database with an image (www.familysearch.org), images 288-296 of 738, film 008351192.
17. Pennsylvania, U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1683-1993, John McMasters (1768), case no. 53, Administration Files, no. 10-72, image 306-315 of 433; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 6 September 2022).