It would be so easy to just believe the family stories that say you are related to someone famous, or the hints you are given for your online family tree or even published sources.
I'm going to start a piece of research into a family I know a little about because they are notable. Katherine (Kate) Sheppard is well known in New Zealand for being one of the leaders in the Women's Suffrage movement in the late 19th century.
However, rather than tracing Kate's family history I’m interested in finding out more about her husband, Walter Sheppard.
I can easily find biographies of Kate online because she’s famous. For example, the Ngā Tāngata Taumatu Rau | Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (DNZB) biography.
But Walter’s information in this biography is limited as it should be as the biography isn’t about Walter. We are told he was a grocer and general merchant who married Kate on 21 July 1871 in Christchurch. They had one child, Douglas born 8 October 1880. Later in life the couple spent time in both New Zealand and England and Walter died 24 July 1915 in Bath, England.
Look at all those names and dates! I can easily start building a family tree for Walter and his family, as it must all be true as it’s published information.
Well maybe, but how about we slow down a little and have a little more of a look. What sources are being given for these dates? There needs to be some research to make sure that what we are looking at is factual.
In the case of family stories who in the family knows the story, what family lines did the family story get passed down through (did your cousins get the same version you did?). Is there a big jump in time between what you know and when the family story occurred, for example in my family the story is that a particular branch of the family came over to England with William the Conqueror. I can currently get this line back to c1700... just another 650 years to work out.
In fact this online biography references other books for its sources, so now I need to look to these to find the original sources used or alternatively I can use the clues from this biography and look for the likely sources myself.
So that’s the next step, I’m off to look for the bones of this family tree - birth, marriage and death details to help prove the relationships.
Over the next few days I'm going to be tracing Walter's family tree and sharing some tips and tricks along the way, so watch out for the next blog post.
Memories in Time is excited to be sponsoring Chris Goodyear who is playing Walter Sheppard in the production of That Bloody Woman by Showbiz Christchurch, 5-15 July 2023.