Friday's Who Do You Think You Are? episode touched on a number of interesting research dilemmas - including what to do when you encounter conflicting information. In this case, the conflicting information was an obituary for the son of Sarah Jessica Parker's fourth great grandfather, John S. Hodge, which stated that he died en route to the California gold rush in 1849, while his son, John Eber Hodge, was apparently born in late 1850 or in 1851. How could John S. Hodge be the father of John Eber Hodge?
In this situation, the researchers kept digging. Following the "gold rush" trail brought out in the obituary, they discovered a John S. Hodge from Ohio listed in the 1850 census living in El Dorado, California. From there, I'm not sure of the research path they took, but I encountered a clue to John S. Hodge by searching for "John S. Hodge" and "gold" in Google Books. In the book "Days of Gold: the California Gold Rush and the American nation" by Malcolm J. Rohrbough, there is a mention of John S. Hodge in a letter written by G. K. Hill of Logan County, Ohio, to his neighbor, John Gish, in the gold fields of California.
"John S. Hodge your Family is all well at this time...your little Girls has been well since you left and they grow lots."
The source citation given for this letter referenced the Yale University's Beinecke Library in Connecticut. Searching the book for further references to John Gish or John S. Hodge, I found mention of additional letters in the John Gish collection at Yale, including a February 1850 "Articles of Agreement" and a December 1850 letter from John Gish to his wife, Mary, telling her of the death of Joseph Hill and John Hodge.
The next logical step was the Web site of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, where I was pleased to find a link to "Digital Images and Collections." Searches for "John Gish" and "John S. Hodge" turned up the referenced letters!
14 February 1850 - Article of Agreement
"Article of agreement made and entered into of the above date witnesseth that a partnership was formed on the above date for the purpose of migrating to California in search of gold.
The Company consist of the following members Jacob Singer, Abraham Mayes, John Gish, Joseph Hill, and John S. Hodge who mutually agree to stand by and sustain each other in sickness and in health while our partnership continues to exist.
Each man is bound to furnish $200 Dollars as a common fund of the Company and subject to the draft of the Treasurer - and each man of the Company finds himself ready to start from Port Jefferson on the 20th day of March..."
29 December 1850, Letter from John Gish to his wife, Mary
"if thair is any person in our country that talk of comeing to this country tell them to stay at home is my advise unless they ar willing to lay thair bones in California or on the plains. I wrote a letter to your father about the deth of Joseph Hill and John Hodge they both lay sick nearly six weeks and I attended on them all of that time except the last six days that time John knew nothing and the last three days Joseph knew nothing. I never had sutch a job before I was up day an night with them until I was interly dunnout [entirely done out] and was taken sick the next day afte they was berryed [buried] and was sick one week but have got tolerable stout again. I wrote the perticulars to your father and I want to know whether he got the letter..."
Also in the collection is an interesting letter from John Gish to his wife, Mary, dated February 4, 1851, in which he's talking about how to go about collecting from the friends and family of Joseph Hill and John Hodge to cover the expenses of his having taken care of them for "38 days." In it he mentions wanting $2 per day for his time, as well as $24 to cover a doctor's bill for the last six days. The story of the "boys" and their journey from Ohio to California gold country, their split from partners Jacob Singer and Abraham Mayes, and their building of a house near "Mud Springs" [the name first given to El Dorado, California] where the "boys died" is covered in a letter sent by John Gish from Jackson, Calaveras County, California to his wife, Mary, dated April 28, 1851. In a letter dated July 20, 1851, John Gish asks his wife if Mr. Hodge [most likely Eber Hodge, the father of John S. Hodge] intends to settle the doctor's bill for "attending on the boys while they was sick" and whether Mary's father intends to settle the bill for Joseph Hill. Another short missive from H. B. Pomroy to John Gish on January 20, 1852, also mentions the "Hodge affair."
The key here is to consider conflicting information found during the course of family history research to be an opportunity for further discovery, not a stumbling block. In this situation, the letters would have likely been discovered even without the date conflict from the obituary because most genealogists wouldn't pass up the opportunity to search available records for the gold rush "forty-niners." But it does go to show that everything you find in print isn't true (John S. Hodge died in 1850, not 1849, as was stated in his son's obituary) and conflicting evidence just means you need to explore more sources! This case study from Sarah Jessica Parker's family tree is also a great example of the wealth of genealogical and historical records that can be found online if you expand your search beyond traditional vital and census records.