21. The Power of Convergence, Part 2: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

In a previous blog entry, 17. The Power of Convergence, Part 1: Francis Drake, I described the use of the web to find a reference imperfectly cited to me about 45 years previously. Entering three names said to appear in the record, I quickly located the reference using Google Search, and found that it was available in free, downloadable form. That in turn allowed me to dispell the myth that my ancestor Francis Drake, of New Hampshire and New Jersey, was originally of West Meath, Ireland.

Thus the convergent power of the web, something unimagined 45 years ago, provided information that significantly impacted on a genealogical conclusion. Each of the three names entered alone produced thousands of hits — to be specific, about 695,000 for Francis Drake, 63,400 for Thomas Temple, and 231,000 for Richard Saunders — but when entered simultaneously, convergence was found on one unique source that matched information I had been given decades earlier. Using it, I was able to draw a negative conclusion about the origin of my ancestor .

But what about more positive instances? Can convergence be used to support, not just dispel relationships? In my experience the answer is yes — especially if you start with a known “starter” relationship.

“Starter” Relationships

A “starter” relationship is between two people, known to be of the same family, each connected to a number of possibly associated records. Looking for overlap among the possible associations is what allows for convergence. For example if a possible origin (among several) of one person matches a possible origin (among several) of a related person, there is a fair chance that the match indicates their common origin.

Brotherly love

In my experience the starter relationship is usually between brothers. This is probably due to the fact that brothers usually have the same surname, while married sisters, or a married sister and a brother, typically do not. Therefore brothers tend to be known to a greater extent than other sibling pairs.

To illustrate the power of convergence in such situations, I briefly present two case studies involving brothers.

The Slack Brothers

In tracing my Slack ancestors, attention quickly settled on two contemporaries who settled in Mason county, Kentucky, about the same time prior to 1800. One, John Slack, seemed most likely to be our ancestor, but for a time we could not rule out the other, Jacob Slack. I wrote about this problem in my very first blog entry (1. John Slack of Mason County, Kentucky: Poverty and a Glittering Past), and there is no point in rehashing it here. For present purposes it is enough to state that we believed the two men to be brothers. How could this fact be used to determine their origin?

Census records in this case proved to provide the initial point of convergence. By examining the 1790 census nationwide, using the web resource Ancestry.com, it was found that a John Slack and a Jacob Slack both appeared as heads of household in the 1790 census of Harford county, Maryland. With research attention turned to Maryland, I quickly located an 1816 deed by which Jacob Slack of Mason county, Kentucky, sold a share of land in Harford county. There could be no doubt: The intermediate place of origin of the two brothers was Harford county.

But where were they from before that? Web searches turned up the next point of convergence. John and Jacob Sleght, sons of Hendrick Sleght, were baptized respectively in May 1746 and July 1757 in Bucks county, Pennsylvania, dates initially found on the web but later confirmed in printed church records. A number of other circumstances matched as well — among them, evidence from Kentucky and Maryland that John was significantly older than Jacob, and a gravestone in Kentucky giving an age for Jacob that was closely consistent with the baptismal record.

This discovery made it possible not just to identify the father of the brothers, but to add multiple ancestral lines tracing back in some cases many generations. It was a major windfall discovery.

While there were a number of facts possibly associated with John, and a number possibly associated with Jacob, it was the convergence of information across both that allowed the discovery of their origin. To fully appreciate the importance of that, consider what would have happened had I known only of John Slack. I would have found multiple possible places of origin in census and tax records, and would have been at a loss when attempting to identify which pertained. It was the known “starter” relationship of John to Jacob that solved the problem.

The Altrate (Altred) Brothers

My ancestor Christopher Altrate (Altred; Alteriedt) arrived at Philadelphia in 1749, and was in Frederick county, Virginia, by 1760. He resided in Winchester, and there became one of the founders of the town’s Evangelical Lutheran church. In his will, made in 1765, he referred to property that would come to him in Youghstousen, Germany. Christopher had an apparent brother named Michael Altred, who had been fined in 1761 in Frederick county for being absent from a muster, and who stood security for Christopher’s widow when she administered his estate.

The name of the German location proved problematic, because there is no Youghtstousen in Germany. A query directed to a genealogy forum elicited the same response from two native German speakers: In their opinion the location was probably Jagsthausen, in Württemberg.

Convergence in this case came from the ongoing indexing of German birth and christening records by the LDS Church. A record for Christoph Alteried showed a birth date of 16 Apr 1724, as recorded in the Evangelisch church, Ruchsen, Baden. That of his brother Georg Michael Alteriedt occurred on 5 Oct 1725, recorded in the same church. Both were sons of Johann Friederich Alteried by his wife Maria Agnes. Then came the best part, the discovery that Jagsthausen is only 6.5 road miles from Ruchsen [1]. The deal was sealed.

Again, the case illustrates the use of web-based information to provide convergence between brothers in a known starter relationship, this time using the online FamilySearch facility of the LDS Church (familysearch.org). Discovering the parents made it possible to trace a number of further generations in multiple family lines.

Other Brothers

A number of other examples could be described. They include the Barber family of Lancaster county, Pennsylvania, and co. York, England; the Bowers (Bauer) family of Berks county, Pennsylvania, Frederick co, Virginia, and Baden, Germany; and the Mosby family of Charles City county, Virginia, and co. Norfolk, England.   For full descriptions and references, and the ancestries of these families as well as those of the Slack and Altrate families, see The Omnibus Ancestry, available for download at Lulu.com.

In all of these cases, it was knowledge that two men were brothers that allowed the convergent power of the web to identify their common origin.


Keep in mind that merely finding the names of two brothers in earlier records at the same location is often insufficient to establish that the records concern those brothers. To take an extreme example, starting with the names of two brothers named John and James Smith would likely turn up hundreds of possible convergences, only one of which may be the proverbial needle in the haystack.

It’s only in the instance of rare names (first and/or last) that names alone might lead one to assume identity. The Altrates/Altreds are possibly a case in point, as the surname is rare, especially when appearing with the given names Christopher and Michael.

Nevertheless in all the cases cited, additional information was available that supported identity. The Altrates/Altreds were thought to have a property interest in Jagsthausen, only a few miles from the convergent location of Ruchsen. The Slack brothers, while having a moderately uncommon surname, were chiefly identified as the sons of Hendrick through their age spread and a close correspondence in birth and christening dates, along with other considerations that were described in the original blog entry.

Thus when applying a starter relationship to look for convergence on a common location, all known facts should be exploited to either confirm or disconfirm the convergence. In this regard the enterprise is similar to other applications of the genealogist’s craft.


[1] The sharp-eyed reader will have noticed that Ruchsen is in Baden while Jagsthausen is in Württemberg. Until 1846 Ruchsen was an exclave of Baden, being completely surrounded by Württemberg. In that year territories were exchanged that gave it land access to the rest of Baden. However, a border remained between Ruchsen and Jagsthausen (information retrieved from https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruchsen, 2016).

Picture attribution: Owner Jen’s Art & Soul, Brotherly Love, retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/frazzledjen/177002473. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.