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.



1. John Slack of Mason County, Kentucky: Poverty Hiding a Glittering Past

By any measure, John Slack was a remarkably obscure man.  For many years my Dad and I knew him mostly through a few tax and marriage records from Mason county, Kentucky.  Might he have been the father of our ancestor Jacob Slack (1778-1821), who married in Mason county in 1800 but soon after removed to Clermont county, Ohio?  There didn’t seem sufficient records to judge.

Certainly John was the right age.  He and wife Catherine consented to the marriage of a daughter in Mason county only 5 years before Jacob’s marriage.  Of one thing we were certain: Our Jacob, styled “Jr.” in the 1800 tax list, was not the son of another Jacob Slack shown in that same tax list.  That Jacob left a will in Mason county, proved 1836, naming son Jacob A. Slack.  Jacob A., according to his gravestone, was born in 1793.  Thus Jacob Jr. was not the son of Jacob (Sr.), not unless the elder Jacob had two sons named after him.

From Known to Unknown in Maryland

Slack, Reason & bros.tempThere is a cardinal rule in genealogy to always proceed from the known.  In this case Mason and Clermont counties were dead ends, for they produced no information on the relationship if any between John and our Jacob.  A third “known”, however, was an apparent Old Line State origin of the family.  This was attested by the 1880 census return of our Jacob’s son Reason Slack, which indicated that his father had been born in Maryland.  Tantalizingly, Cassandra Slack Sidwell, John’s known daughter (he served as her marriage bondsman in 1804), was stated in an 1883 county history to have been born “on the eastern shore of Maryland”.

Would Maryland records turn up the origins of this family?  A search of census records revealed a John Slack in Harford county in 1790 (1 male 16+, 2 males 16-, 9 females) there accompanied by a Jacob Slack (1male 16+, 1 male 16-, 4 females).  Marriage records showed that in 1781, Jacob Slack wedded Elizabeth Ramsay in Harford county, consistent with a 1750-1760 range of birth years implied by his 1830 Mason county census record [1].

Conclusive proof finally came in the form of a deed dated 1816, in which Jacob and Elizabeth Slack, explicitly styled of Mason county, Kentucky, sold a land share in Harford county.  Clearly, the 1790 Maryland heads of household must have been the John Slack and Jacob Slack (Sr.) later in Mason county.  Furthermore, given that John’s 1790 record included two males under age 16, it was nearly as clear (and could be presumed) that our Jacob, born in Maryland, was his son.  True, the family wasn’t really from the eastern shore.  But the county history hadn’t been far off, because the beginning of the eastern shore begins with the Harford county border.

Yet the family seemed as obscure in Maryland as it had been in Kentucky.  It seemed reasonable to suppose that John and Jacob (Sr.) were brothers, as it explained both their association across two locations and the use of the “Jr.” designation by John’s son Jacob in 1800 to distinguish him from his uncle.  But there were few relevant records in Harford county.  One notable one, however, was a 1783 listing in Spesutia Upper Hundred in the county, that included John Slack’s household of 9 whites.  It was a listing of paupers.

Poverty, The Tie That Binds

In short order we would discover other indicators of impoverishment in the Slack family.  One was a late-life record of John, who by 1824 moved from Kentucky to Butler county, Ohio.  He located among the squatters along Four-Mile Creek, apparently too poor to buy land.  A second indication was chiseled in stone on the grave marker of Jacob (Sr.) in Mason county, a verse beginning “Parentless when but a boy, The Orphan’s fate his share . . .”  And a third proved to be key: A record of “Henry Slight” among “languishing prisoners” listed in a 1769 relief act in Maryland, incarcerated in Baltimore county due to debt.  Only two years previous to the imprisonment record, “Henry Sleght”, undoubtedly the same man, signed a deed in Baltimore county as a resident, selling a wagon.  Again this was an indication of poverty, in that personal property — especially if a means of work — is always the last to be sold.

The year 1769 was the final one Henry could be found, and a portion of Baltimore county became the new Harford county in 1773.  Every indication was that he died around then, give or take a few years, leaving sons John and Jacob mired in poverty for lack of an inheritance.

The Bucks County Connection

The Henry Slight/Sleght records, to be sure, did not come as a surprise.  The surname “Slack”, my father and I had long known, likely originated in the Dutch “Sleght”.  Thus even before the records were located I had recognized the probable equivalence of John and Jacob Slack of Harford and Mason counties, to John and Jacob Sleght, sons of Hendrick Sleght, baptized respectively in May 1746 and July 1757 in Churchville, Bucks county, Pennsylvania.

That 11-year gap matched another conclusion about the Harford/Mason residents, that John was substantially older than his brother Jacob.  Thus John had one known daughter married in 1795 and another probable one married in 1793, suggesting that he was married around 1771, whereas Jacob wasn’t married until 1781.  Indeed, it was about this time we found record of Jacob’s gravestone in Mason county.  Besides the verse it also recorded his death date as 30 March 1836, and his age as 79 years, 0 months.  In other words, he was born March 1757, agreeing with the Bucks county baptismal record.

In effect the Baltimore records of Henry simply provided confirmation of an already probable equivalence between the Pennsylvania and Maryland families.  Taking all of the evidence together, that equivalence could now be assumed.

A Glittering Past

Henry himself had been baptized in 1706 in New York City, as Hendrick Sleght, the son of Johannes Hendrickse Sleght and his first wife Catryna Jacobse Bergen.  He initially moved to Somerset county, New Jersey, but in 1740 removed to Bucks.  It is not known what life circumstances led to his ending his life in penury.

Yet with this man and his wife opens a gateway to some of the oldest Dutch families in America.  Hendrick married Catalyntje Nevyus, a great-granddaughter of Joannes Nevius (1627-1672).  Joannes was a graduate of the University of Leyden; a 1650/1 immigrant to America; the City Secretary of New Amsterdam; and (once the colony had been taken over by the English) the operator of the Brooklyn ferry.

Hendrick himself was the great-great-grandson of Barent Cornelisz Slecht, a 1662 immigrant to New Netherland, descended in the unbroken male line from Floris Dirkszoon, whose 15th century existence in Woerden, Utrecht, Holland, preceded the use of surnames.  Other prominent New York and New Amsterdam families in direct ancestral lineage from Hendrick and Catalyntje Nevyus Sleght include the Bergen, Bleijck, Cool, Lieveling, Lubbertsen, Rapelje, Schenck, Van Kouwenhoven, and Van Voorhees families.  Parenthetically, one of their ancestors was a native of Djakarta, Indonesia — but that’s a story for another day.

Finding the origins of this family was a matter of persevering through multiple geographic locations, always proceeding from the known, a microcosm of the genealogist’s craft.


[1] 1830 Census of the Western District, Mason co, Ky, p. 234.

All other references for the above statements are given in two volumes.  The first is the all-in-one ancestry, The Omnibus Ancestry.  That work updates and corrects, in brief form, material in the second much more detailed volume, Ellis Ancestors: Some Immigrants, Colonists, and Pioneers (1994).

Both books are available for download through Lulu.

You may also be interested in visiting the Bolesbooks website or my Facebook page.